Caring for your precious items – book conservation

Are you a lover of books? I am. I love the feel and smell of a new book, and I love the history which is part of an old book – what can it tell me about the past? about the person who owned it?

17th century Bible

Books, manuscripts, letters, newspapers, and other kinds of documents can be a very important source for historians. Not only do they give us information about what happened during a certain period of history, but the way they have been used can also tell us a great deal too, from the family history written in the front of a BIble to letters and photographs preserved between the pages. An old family Bible dating from the 17th century plays a role in my novel The Cavalier Historian, and Robert Hardwick, the main character, is keen to have it properly conserved. So why do books deteriorate and what can be done to limit this?

The condition of paper items can deteriorate for any number of reasons including:

Inherent vice – this refers to the general degradation of the book as it ages. Paper made from plant materials like hemp or linen are more durable than paper made from wood-pulp which becomes discoloured and unstable because of the lignin it contains. As a single book is made from a number of materials (the cover, pages etc will be made from different materials) these can degrade at different rates.

Pests –  Insects and vermin will feed on the cellulose, starch and protein in paper.

Environmental conditions – extremes of temperature and humidity, the quality of the air, and light (e.g. direct sunlight) can all damage books. The modern environment with central heating or air conditioning in many buildings has increased the amount and speed of damage to many books.

Handling A book which has been handled frequently can show many different kinds of wear and tear, from damage to the spine to wearing of the cover where it has been frequently taken down from a shelf.

So books and paper documents will suffer damage over time. Sometimes that is not a problem to the owner, if it is a cheap paperback novel, for example, it may just be recycled when it begins to lose its cover or pages. But what happens to something more valuable? There are two main ways in which a book may be conserved. On the one hand, preventative conservation aims to maintain and, if possible, enhance the condition that the book is in, and also to make sure that the risks of further deterioration are reduced by making sure that it is handled correctly and kept in the correct environmental conditions in the future. On the other hand, remedial conservation aims to repair the book with the minimum amount of changes so that the history of the book itself can be preserved as much as possible. The amount of work put into conserving a book can range from basic minimal stabilization to very complex work on both the pages and binding including structural, chemical, and cosmetic work.

Tools used in book conservation

Basic stabilization involves the minimum amount of work to slow the deterioration of the book. Strange as it may seem, this kind of work can be used for books at opposite ends of the spectrum – for items that have little value and so are not worth the cost, but also for those which are valuable historical objects or artifacts and so the history in the book itself needs to be preserved.

In The Cavalier Historian the aim of the work on the Bible was to have ‘minimal intervention’, in other words Robert wanted to maintain the integrity of the Bible and the story it had to tell about the Hardwicke family so the work was to be restricted to protecting against further damage rather than restoring it to its original condition. During my research of this topic whilst writing the novel I developed an interest in  book conservation and now, whenever I visit a museum or historical property, I find myself looking at the books on display with a a deeper interest, wondering how they have been  conserved and what stories they have to tell.

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