5 October 2018

Beneath the covers: disbinding a Miscellaneous Report

As the Miscellaneous Reports project gets underway, Book Conservator Aimee Crickmore reveals remedial aspects of their repair and describes treatment of the Natal Miscellaneous volume.

An entry from the Natal manuscript papers

What is this ‘Conservation’ business, anyway?

When you hear the term conservation, you might think of endangered species and their protection, but this term is also applied to the preservation of our shared cultural heritage, from historic buildings, aircraft, paintings – this also applies to archival material!

In this case, ‘archival material’ is a catchall term for common materials found in an archive, predominantly paper, books and their associated components. Professional conservators of this type combine knowledge of science and history to inform treatment of these materials. They are committed to codes of ethics and professional standards to preserve collections for the future in a manner sensitive to their history and context either by ‘preventive’ or ‘remedial’ action.

Preventive methods can involve ‘passive’ treatments such as rehousing and condition monitoring which help maintain the condition of an item, whereas ‘remedial’ action typically involves the repair of damage which can extend to structural alterations of items using reversible materials if the ongoing cause of damage is considered significant.

As a book conservator for the Miscellaneous Reports Project, my role is to examine the collection, identify materials at risk of damage and determine what needs treatment. Having developed and agreed priorities, the needs of the material mean many of the volumes will either be repaired or disbound. The aim of this approach is to enable the possibility of digitisation in the future, and to repair any damage in a way which stabilises the material at risk to ensure continued accessibility for researchers.

Miscellaneous Reports, miscellaneous considerations

Disbinding is often considered a treatment option in conjunction with items which cannot easily be repaired in situ, or to repair damage from a structural source. Volumes such as many of the Miscellaneous Reports may have what is termed a ‘tight’ opening with little to no ‘throw-up’ of the page - this essentially means it is very hard to see any text or writing which is written in the margins, and consequently, to use or photograph them.

Tight binding causes further stress on the sewing during mechanical handling which places fragile or acidic material at risk of damage. The bindings feature evidence of typical 20th century book production techniques, which enabled binders to produce a high turn around of material to meet the demands of a fast-paced industry. These elements include ‘over-sewing’, a style used to sew through single sheets rather than folded sections, stuck-on endbands, and recessed cord sewing supports; the use of over-sewing, in conjunction other pre-existing factors, was key to the decision to disbind the volumes.

One of the common types of damage found with these bindings is boards which are either completely or partially detached; the joint between the text block and the boards is an area of common weakness for most bindings, which can be supported by foam wedges to reduce the stress across the structure. 

The quality of the paper which is found within the average text block varies from good quality wove correspondence paper, to copy paper and newsprint. The materials which were considered more disposable, such as newsprint, are typically acidic; this acidity results in discolouration and embrittling of paper over time, which results in very fragile paper that cannot withstand frequent handling.

This level of damage was further compounded by the ‘miscellaneous’ nature of the reports - in addition to newsprint clippings and correspondence, there are photographs, herbarium specimens, iron gall ink and a variety of printed (and in several cases, painted) media all bound adjacent to each other. This great variety of content is extremely interesting but has led to a variety of complex deterioration processes that need addressing, which I hope to discuss in upcoming blogs.

Treatment and storage

When treating the Natal Miscellaneous volume (MR 594), photography and documentation of the binding style was conducted as a matter of course. This volume was ‘half-bound’ with spine and corner pieces of green leather, with traditional marbled paper covers, and had been attached to the text block as a case binding, but elements such as sewing style and style of support were also recorded.

This then allowed the process of disbinding to begin. As the case was already detached, this allowed for access to the spine directly so I could remove the primary and secondary lining materials used to reinforce the structure. Once achieved, I then moved on to reactivating the hardened animal glue through the introduction of a wheat-starch poultice, which could then be carefully removed with a dental tool. Once the glue was removed, this then enabled me to gradually extract the sewing from the book.

One of the features I found most interesting about this volume was that some of the correspondence within contains a positive filter paper test indicating an aloe specimen which dates to 1890; this sort of scientific ephemera is not commonly preserved, but is a tangible product of the impact Kew has had as a scientific research institution and continues to have until this day.

After removing sewing from the text block, the material was then rehoused in bespoke folders made from a neutral pH buffered paper and placed in an archival box. It is now returned to the store where it is available for access, awaiting the next stage of the project.

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