December 1988 – January 1989

Because of their structures and materials, books have always been threatened. The earliest bookbinders quickly developed methods of protecting the text of their books from the wear and tear of usage by covering them with wood and leather that could be secured with thongs or metal clasps. Up until roughly the 19th century, books were made of durable rag paper, and bound in ways that were strong enough to hold up to the use they received. Many of the books we have today that were published before this date are as beautiful and strong as they were when they were produced.

But as time has gone by, the threats to the survival of books have become more serious. The materials that they have been made of have gotten progressively less durable. Paper began to be made in ways that were less time consuming and that used weaker materials, resulting in papers that were much more acidic. Covering materials went from wood and tanned leather to pulpboard and laminated binder’s board covered with a variety of materials such as paper, cloth, and tanned leathers that were dyed and treated. The vast increase in the numbers of books being published resulted in quicker methods of production that used less durable materials.

Accompanying the decline in materials was a similar decline in structure. Books went from being composed of folded sections of paper sewn together over strong supports of leather or cord to being sections sewn and glued together in ways that caused them to break down sooner. Today one of the most common bindings is the ironically named ”perfect” binding-an economical and quickly produced binding where the pages are single sheets simply glued at the spine and put into a cover. This type of structure does not stand up to heavy use or allow for repeated rebinding to strengthen it.

Of all these problems, the one which has gotten the most attention is the problem of acidic paper. Popular magazines and newspapers as well as specialized journals have featured articles about the ”brittle books” problem. This is almost universally considered the most critical problem facing library collections today-especially for books published after the 1850’s, which were made on paper that contain more acidic materials. If a book’s covers are coming off, it can be boxed or wrapped in paper until a conservator can repair it: but if the paper is self-destructing there is a limited amount of time for finding a solution before the book turns to dust.
Solutions to the problems of maintaining books can be divided under the general categories of preservation and conservation. Simply, preservation is the attempt to save the intellectual content of the book no matter what form it may finally take. Conservation is the attempt to save the intellectual content as well as its vehicle-the artifact of the book itself. Ideally librarians would like to save everything they have exactly as it is. But when a book gets to a certain stage of brittleness-or more realistically, when tens of thousands reach this stage at the same time-little more can be done than microfilming their pages (or photocopying, republishing, or entering the material on a computer disk) and tossing the old pages away.

In conservation, however, it is implicit that the medium is part of the message-that a book which looks and feels and operates exactly like the original conveys something to the reader which the same text in another format does not. It is safe to say that a person holding a copy of Walt Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass-an edition for which Whitman personally helped set the type-experiences the poems differently than he would reading a microfilmed copy of it. Or that a person reading the first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species would have a different feeling for the context it came from than he would if he were reading a modern paperback edition.

This exhibit demonstrates the step-by-step procedures conservators take to extend the life of books so that people can continue to experience them in their original form. The procedures include washing and deacidifying pages, as well as the more difficult steps that go into disbinding and rebinding books in cloth and leather. The exhibit also gives examples of conservation bindings and protective enclosures. What the exhibit cannot do is show the years of benchwork which are necessary for conservators to perfect their craft so that they can address all of the issues and handle all of the materials necessary to preserve books in their original bindings or restore them in bindings that are sympathetic to the original.

This exhibition was prepared by William Anthony and the staff of the Conservation Department.