Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup Blog Video Facebook Twitter Instagram
Spring 2008 Newsletter

Journey of an Archive: The Book Lab

Illustration of a bandaged book

When a distressed artifact is discovered during inspection, archiving, or by a browsing scholar, it's whisked to the fourth floor of the Harry Ransom Center, to one of the specialized conservation departments, where damaged books, unbound paper, and photos meet the gentle art of conservation. The book lab is one such place.

The tools of the dedicated book conservator smack of the medical profession. Surgical scalpels are used to gently separate boards and backings or to tuck surreptitious reinforcements between spine and cover. Microscopes reveal details critical to an accurate diagnosis. Dental floss pullers make excellent flexible needles for sewing around corners. Ace bandages compress adhesive repairs without damaging the fragile patients.

And the books tended in the book conservation lab at the Ransom Center are patients. After all, their spines break, their skins crack with age, they catch bugs, and they need cosmetic surgery. But unlike plastic surgeons, whose clients often demand drastic transformations, book conservators always opt for the least invasive treatments possible to get the job done. Preservation and stabilization, not extreme makeovers, are the goals here.

"We want our work to go unnoticed, but not to be invisible," says book conservator Olivia Primanis as she mends a tear in the jacket of an eighty-year-old book with a delicacy most people reserve for handling butterfly wings. "We don't want the treatment to jump out, but we want a scholar who's interested in the structure of the book to be able to see what's original and what's been done."

Book cover. Click to enlarge.
Book cover. Click to enlarge.

Schnitzelbank (The Press of Woolly Whale)
songbook cover, before (top) and after its
cellulose acetate cover unexpectedly reacted
with the adhesive used in its protective
archival box.

To this end, every step of the process is documented using photographs and detailed reports, which only adds to the sometimes hundreds of hours required to repair a single item. Considering the chunk of time invested, it's no wonder that conservators never want to see any of their former patients again and try to protect them from the slings and arrows (not to mention dust, bugs, and sunlight) of outrageous fortune. Enter the art of the individually tailored preservation housing. Some books, like the ornate 1470 German bible the size of a couch cushion, rate a customized, quilted cozy to accommodate its sheer size, but most leave the lab in archival boxes, made by preservation housing staff from acid-free materials, pressed together with what look like giant thumbscrews.

There are curious times, however, when the protective box backfires. Take the 1938 songbook, Schnitzelbank (Press of Woolly Whale), which sported a jaunty cellulose acetate cover. It was nicely boxed in 1984 to spare this glossy cover material from relentless scratching. But, lo and behold, if the polyvinyl acetate adhesive in the box didn't go and react with that cellulose acetate, creating sufficient deformation of the plastic covers to force the box open. A librarian noticed this silent cry for help in time to save the book. The decomposing cover, however, now removed from the book and tightly sealed in clear plastic, continues to ooze plasticizer and warp like some restrained horror from a fifties sci-fi movie.

Sometimes the conservators—and future patrons—must be protected from the books, such as the time a graduate student complained of problems with her hands after studying a collection of instructional books from India printed in the 1950s that were shedding a suspicious powder. The student's own research revealed that this foreign publisher, Mission Press, had commonly mixed arsenic and lead in their paper pulp to thwart insect damage. Needless to say, special procedures for the safe use of these publications had to be developed.

Fortunately, most conservation projects are far less dangerous—unless systematic precision, coupled with steep and varied learning curves, can be considered hazardous. And sharing, not isolating, collection materials is always the goal. No project reflects these cornerstones of conservation more fully than the Ransom Center's survey of 500 of its historical photo albums, most from nineteenth-century Western Europe.

When the survey—really a repair project—began in 1994, so little had been published about photo album conservation—unlike book conservation—that no uniform terminology even existed. With the help of interns and graduate students, a working language emerged, along with a slew of proven repair techniques for a wide variety of bindings and photo mounts. Through close collaboration with the Center's photo conservation department, the various photographic processes—and there are dozens, from albumen prints to platinotypes—were identified, and photographs were stabilized and treated as needed. The upshot? The lives of hundreds of albums have been vastly extended. No doctor could wish more for his patients.  

Welcome to the Land of Arcana

Never pass on the chance to team up with a book, photo, or paper conservator for Trivial Pursuit. The endless variety of materials and problems they deal with exposes them to a boundless world of specific knowledge, like:

Table of Contents