Tag Archives: staples

Stapled Instead of Sewn

When you look at how books are generally made, you’ll find that a majority of them are either sewn with thread, glued together as individual sheets, or occasionally bound with a combination of sewing and commercial glue.

On rarer occasions, a book will be stapled together. As luck would have it, one of these books recently came across my bench in need of a new cover. At first glance, you can’t immediately tell the difference between a stapled book and a sewn book.

It’s not until you open the book up and look at the gutter of one of the signatures that you might be able to see whether the book is stapled or not.

An opened book revealing the gutter of the pages where a staple can be seen.

It’s even easier once you’ve taken the cover off and can look directly at the spine of the textblock. As you can see in the images below, there are staples running through a significant portion of the signatures of this book.

Now, in a perfect world where I have all the time and patience I could want, I might remove the staples, mend any damage to the signatures in the process, sew the book back together, and then make a new cover. In this case, such an approach would be too labor intensive and time consuming. As the only senior conservation technician charged with maintaining the general collections, I cannot devote that much time to one book when I might have as many as 25 other books also waiting to be treated.


With binding structures like this, the treatment decisions tend to boil down to preserving the provenance of the object vs choosing to rebind the book for greater longevity. In this blog post by Peter D. Verheyen in 2011, it’s evident that these wire bindings are a curious part of the history of bookbinding. Since they’re unusual, and since our goal is to conserve as much of the original item as possible, one might think that saving the original binding would be the obvious choice.

But how do technicians in general collections conservation (such as myself) reconcile keeping as much of the original object intact when we also have to prioritize making sure that the book can withstand regular use from patrons? If the staples in the binding had been so rusted that they were breaking whenever I opened the book, I would most likely take a more involved approach to the treatment of this book. An example of such a treatment would be adhering a cotton cambric to the spine and sewing through it along with the textblock, which you can see an example of in this paper by our very own Beth Doyle.

Luckily, in this case, both the paper and the staples were in good enough condition that a secondary treatment wasn’t necessary. However, it could be argued that perhaps I should have gone ahead with the more complex treatment just in case the staples failed in the future. In the end, these are the dilemmas we face in general collections conservation.


I decided that the best course of action would be to clean the spine of its original lining and glue and replace it with a strong Japanese tissue adhered with wheat starch paste. By doing so, the spine is stabilized and strengthened while the staples are also given additional support. This reduces the potential damage that could occur from future use and repeated opening and closing of the book.

A picture of the stapled textblock post spine cleaning being held in a hand. The spine and staples are protected with a thin Japanese tissue, so you can still see the staples.

With the textblock now in a stable state, I could prepare a new case for the book. The original case had already failed and since the original materials were too fragile to keep using, it didn’t make sense to try and reuse the case. Instead, I made an inset on the front board in order to preserve the original cover material. If you’d like to learn more about the book, you can find the catalog record here.

Why I Hate Mr. Clippy

Rusted paperclips after removal.

Maybe “hate” is too strong of a word. A better title might be “Mr. Clippy provides conservators with job security.” Paperclips, staples, and rubber bands all damage archival materials either mechanically (i.e. creasing, wrinkling) or chemically (i.e. rusting, leaching acidic compounds) resulting in brittle paper, tears, accretions, staining and losses.

While there is an art to removing rusty fasteners, the results are often disappointing and require additional treatment to reattach pieces, fill losses and stabilize weakened paper. Of course, all of this can be avoided by using better processing protocols. But in this age of “More Product, Less Process,” I fear we are creating a monster that future conservators will have to slay.

Manuscript Processing Best Practices (from a conservator’s point of view)

As a library conservator I understand the complicated nature of processing collections and the resources needed to do so. I can’t say “never use paperclips” because, let’s face it, we process hundreds of collections every year containing thousands of pieces of paper and sometimes those pieces of paper need to stay together. We also have to do this processing on a tight budget, and often with student or volunteer labor who may not be well versed in handling fragile materials. So, we need a continuum of options and best practice guidelines to help minimize damage while maintaining efficient workflows.

Remove original fasteners
NEDCC has a great tutorial on how to carefully remove all kinds of fasteners. Yes, it takes time and practice but it saves more time and effort in the future.

Use non-invasive methods to keep papers together
Instead of clipping multi-page manuscripts together, put the loose sheets into a separate file folder. If the papers must be with other items within a file folder, use a buffered-bond paper folder or a polyester sleeve (trade names Melinex and Mylar) to keep them separate from other papers.

Use better paperclips and avoid text
Paperclips should only be used on modern, flexible, non-brittle paper. If the materials are at all damaged or brittle, put them into a paper or polyester sleeve.

If your organization can afford stainless steel paperclips, use them since they have a smooth surface and will not rust. Plastic paperclips are an alternative to metal. These plastic clips are made of polystyrene, which will become brittle and break over time but they won’t rust. White ones are best if you can find them.

When clipping papers together, try to avoid clipping over any informational content. If in the future you try to remove the clip and it takes a chunk of manuscript with it, at least you will have avoided a loss of information.

paperclip rulesProtect paper with paper (or polyester)
Whatever paperclip you use, create a barrier between the clip and the manuscript. An easy and affordable way to do this is with a strip of buffered-bond paper or a piece of polyester. Simply cut a strip about 1-2 inches wide by about 4 inches long. Fold it in half lengthwise and place it over the manuscript pages so that one “leg” is on each side of the stack of paper. Then put the paper clip over the strip. This creates a barrier between the clip and the object.

These are my suggestions. If you have any tips or paperclip policies to share, please add them in the comments section. I always like to hear what other institutions do to solve problems like Mr. Clippy.