Conservation work on the Peter H. Raven Library’s copy of The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala has begun! Follow along as we document this painstaking restoration of one of the largest and grandest volumes in the Garden’s rare book collection.
The Pages of Books Get Dirty
Liquid spills, soiled hands, coal-burning furnaces, oil-burning lamps, drops to the ground—all can leave residues on paper.
Like many books in the Peter H. Raven Library, Bateman’s Orchidaceae has sooty deposits on its pages. This comes as no surprise. Any book that spent appreciable time in an American urban setting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries should have soot on its pages, whether from furnaces, lights or air pollution. We acquired our copy of Bateman in 1895, so it was in Saint Louis during its more polluted decades.
We want to remove as much of this soot and soiling as possible, both to protect the paper and to allow users of the book a clearer view of its text and images.
Disbinding or Pulling the Book
Cleaning The Orchidaceae is being made easier by the fact that we are going to “pull” the book or take it apart. The original binding has to be replaced as it is not very functional and has caused damage to the paper. The book is made up of a bunch of single sheets, kind of like a giant paperback, and is held together with overcast stitching. In this image of a newer book, you can see how Bateman was put together.
The process of pulling Bateman begins with removing the linings on the back of the book.
After that is done, each leaf is eased gently off of the textblock. Eventually, after we finish dealing with dirty, damaged paper, we will devise a new binding structure for the book.
As we consider the best way to clean The Orchidaceae, we have to bear several things in mind:
- First, what is the paper like? Is it thin, thick, strong, weak, flexible and/or brittle? There are 3 kinds of paper in this book: A medium weight paper for pages with text, a heavy paper for the images and a thin, protective paper over each image. Despite the fact that all these papers are damaged in some areas (rips and losses) they are still flexible and relatively strong.
- Second, the images in this book are lithographs, which need to be handled with care. Their ink sits on the surface of the paper and can easily be damaged with rough handling. Shadows and other dark areas on the prints have also been augmented by the application of varnish, whose shine makes these areas seem darker and richer. This subtle effect can also be easily compromised, especially by the application of moisture, as in water washing. This image of one of the book’s lithographs shows an area where varnish has been applied. The picture has been taken at an angle so the shine of the varnish can be seen.
We decided to use only dry cleaning methods on The Orchidaceae. Conservators will sometimes wash papers in water after dry cleaning to deacidify and remove additional sources of discoloration, but wet processes would alter the lithographs’ subtle surfaces and deacidification could even alter their colors.
The gentlest tool for dry cleaning paper today is the cosmetic sponge. We use sponges that have no additives, of course, such as moisturizers.
The medium weight text paper and the thinner protective papers covering the lithographs are being cleaned with sponges. We cut a small window out of a piece of card stock so we can methodically clean the entire surface of the page, window by window. We avoid areas of text. These images show the title page being worked on. In the third image, the title page is half-done. You can see the contrast between the clean half and the dirty half.
The lithographs are on heavier paper. We are cleaning them with a white vinyl eraser. This is less gentle but more thorough. We erase around the image, leaving it untouched. For small tight areas, we use a thin eraser pen. In the second image you see an area on the right that has been cleaned, and an area on the left that is still dirty.
Paper cleaning is time-consuming and cleaning Bateman will take several months.
NEXT UP: paper repair