From the Library: Ancient Books Given Another Chance

“Utopian visions we had about the Internet and all it would be able to do are just that: utopian visions,” says Susie Cobbledick, book conservator at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Peter H. Raven Library.

“Electronic files don’t last very long,” she adds, “These [books] are very rare materials, many being the last or only copies still in existence.”

The field of book conservation is a small one, but is intrinsically important for scientific efforts like those of the Garden, and it requires constant learning. Book conservators must be knowledgeable of not just the many different bookbinding methods, but also the chemical reactions that can occur over time in different papers and how to combat them.

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Book conservation lab at the Peter H. Raven Library. Photo by Andrew Dolinky.

A number of different goals and ethical guidelines govern the work of conservators. Two of the most important are reversibility of repairs and respect for the cultural context in which the object was made. In book conservation practice, this means that the conservator usually uses water soluble adhesives and reuses original binding elements whenever possible.

Respecting Other Cultures

One way that cultural content can be contained is in a book’s cover.

For example, an embossed, colorful cloth cover on a book about flower symbolism from the 1880s tells us about visual trends in graphic design in the late 19th century. It also suggests the context in which the book was used— it was probably displayed flat so that people could see the cover, and it was probably in a middle class home. The use of cloth bindings at the beginning of the nineteenth century allowed for the mass production of affordable books.”

That information about the time period in which the book was made could not be gleaned from a digitally scanned image.

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Bookbinding tools. Photo by Andrew Dolinky.

Reversible Repairs

All repairs must be reversible because the field of book conservation is constantly evolving.

While a particular adhesive may be in widespread use for repairs now, a better adhesive that is more flexible, chemically stable and easily removed. Reversible repairs would allow old repairs to be undone and then redone with better products.

The specific repairs made depend on when the book was originally made and the type of paper used.

To explain some of the processes used, Cobbledick walks through the repair techniques used on a recent donation, a small book detailing the grammar of the Castilian Spanish dialect.

The two processes used are chemical treatments and the repair of mechanical problems.

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Various replacement end papers. Photo by Andrew Dolinky.

Chemical Treatments

Every type of paper contains some percentage of cellulose, with the durability and survivability of the paper depending on how high that percentage is.  Acid hydrolysis naturally occurs in paper over time, but paper that has a higher amount of cellulose takes a longer time to degrade.

The paper used in this book is made of wood pulp. Wood pulp is made through the suspension of wood tissue in water, where it is then placed onto mesh screens, followed by a period of drying and pressing.

Wood pulp paper must first be washed with alkaline water to remove water-soluble impurities. This is due to the fact that paper, particularly wood pulp paper, becomes more acidic over time.

The pieces of paper must then be laid flat, dried, and pressed. Pressing is particularly important for wood pulp papers because it is prone to distortion after it is wet due to continuing chemical reactions.

Mechanical Repairs

Another key aspect of book conservation is the type of adhesive used and the materials used to fix tears.

When dealing with plant-based materials, such as paper and cloth covers, a starch-based adhesive should be used. On the other hand, protein-based materials such as vellum should be glued back together using protein-based adhesives.

Tears in paper can be repaired using strips of Japanese tissue. The variety of tissue used by Cobbledick is made from the kōzo plant, also known as the paper mulberry tree.


These are just some of the various methods conservators use to breathe new life into old books.

Learn more about the Peter H. Raven Library

Morgan Niezing
Digital Media Intern

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