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Conservation Conversations // The Continuum

October 28, 2015 by Henry Hebert

Typically very few of the items that come through a research library conservation lab are in their original or unaltered state. While library and archives conservation, as a field, is relatively young, many universities have had some form of bindery or mending division in operation for decades. We often find ourselves as the current custodian in conservation continuum, with our professional forebears in possession of very different materials and training backgrounds than our own. The common result is a book with poorly applied repairs or very degraded repair materials, which can compromise the object’s look and functionality. I am often unsure of the absolute best method for resolving the condition issues of the item without obscuring some evidence of the way it was maintained and used.

As an example of this situation, I was recently confronted with this first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Opticks; A valuable book, which gets a significant amount of use.

Newton's Opticks

It is obvious that this item has gone through several “campaigns” of repair. Some are more successful than others – but, ultimately none of them have maintained their intended function.

I cannot say for certain if the boards and leather with the Cambridge panel design are the original binding, but they appear to be roughly contemporary to the text. The book has been rebacked with a very dark brown calfskin, and the new spine leather features a red leather lettering piece and some simple tooling. This leather is now splitting at the joints and along the center of the spine, but was admittedly a well executed repair at the time it was done. The front board also features a rather distracting patch in much lighter, plastic textured calfskin. I assume this was added after the reback, since the person doing the reback would have either matched their repair to this color or just removed this patch altogether.

The boards show evidence of spine repairs prior to the current one. Impressions of a woven pattern in the original leather and vertical cuts suggest to me that a piece of textile was once glued over the spine and a portion of the boards and trimmed directly on the book.

Opticks textblock before treatment

More repairs are visible inside the volume as well. The inner hinges have been repaired with white cloth. A new flyleaf of laid paper has been tipped on and a strip of that same paper has been applied to the pastedowns at front and back.The extant thread and visible sewing supports do not appear to be original. Several types of sewing thread are visible inside the gutter, but much of it has broken. The textblock is essentially split in half and sections are falling out of the book.

It is immediately clear to me that the functionality of the book must be regained. It is requested often for classes and we don’t want pieces to be lost or damaged in the process of use. The question of which material to retain and which to remove, however, is not so clear.

Some of these repairs – namely that leather patch on the front board – are so distracting. Yet the fact that this book has been repaired so many times, in so many ways, says something about its value and history. The new materials are in such poor condition, however, that I must take the book apart completely, documenting everything as I go.

Starting from individual sections, I resew the book onto single raised supports using (as far as I can determine) the original sewing stations. The newer flyleaves from the repair are left out and I add new endsheets of sympathetically colored handmade laid paper. I line the spine with unbleached linen and handmade paper to create an appropriate opening.

Opticks opening after treatment

In the course of pulling the textblock, I find evidence of blue and white sewn endbands. I sew endbands in matching colors off the book and adhere them to the spine.

So many past interventions have left the original boards in very poor shape. The exposed corners have delaminated and become incredibly soft. The original leather has become very brittle from repeated lifting and application of various adhesives. I am not confident that I can safely lift it one more time to insert new material underneath.

Opticks after treatment

In concert with the curators, the decision is made to create a new leather binding, but retain the original boards, with all the evidence of their previous repairs. I consolidate the original leather and boards, re-adhere any lifting leather, and create a paper wrapper for them. This sits underneath the volume in the custom enclosure.

Opticks and box after treatment

The new binding is constructed and decorated in the same style as a rather plain book from the period, but it is obvious from the materials that it is new. It protects the text and opens well. The high quality materials and optimal storage conditions will hopefully maintain the functionality of the book for a long time. Should some future scholar be interested in the more artifactual evidence of this particular book and its rocky repair history, she will hopefully find the original boards in the box and hopefully be able to access my born-digital treatment documentation. This is all assuming the library can continue performing its duties, that digital preservation initiatives succeed, etc.

I believe that this treatment is successful in that it is reversible, satisfies the treatment goals for the object, and could be completed in a relatively short amount of time. There will likely be other conservators in the continuum of care for this object. I hope that they agree with the decisions we have made – but only time will tell.

  1. vdbolyard says:

    i found reading this a very straightforward and respectful treatment of a fine old text. i really like that the book’s history has been respectfully collected, and the new practical and lovely cover and housing can keep it usable and protected. really lovely job.

  2. Respectful, practical, collaborative and reversible. These are the very best of our time that we can offer a treasured old tome. Congratulations, and thank you for taking the time to post it. :)

  3. Wonderful work. thank you for sharing

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  • My name is Erin Fletcher, owner and bookbinder of Herringbone Bindery in Boston. Flash of the Hand is a space where I share my process and inspirations.
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