52 Weeks of Fantastic Bindings, Week 29: Conservators at work

Conservation work being carried out on the 1413 Papal Bull confirming the charter of Bishop Henry Wardlaw (UYUY100) in 2009 by the Dundee Book and Paper Conservation Studio.

What better way to bring in the New Year than dedicating our last binding post of 2011 to those who take our old stuff and make it new(ish) again: conservators!

At least nine of these books on this shelf have been conserved in the past 100 years.

Like many historic collections, one can spend almost as much time identifying eras in binding trends as you can eras in book conservation trends in the Special Collections at St Andrews. Many of our early books suffer from hundreds of years of use from students, scholars, researchers and educators, which we are very happy with because that is what the collections are here for: use. However, in order to keep these books and manuscripts from falling apart, they occasionally need to be tidied up and made more sturdy for future use.

A 16th century book that was originally bound in vellum, which has been treated and resewn, with new headbands added.

It’s quite easy to identify an 18th or 19th century rebind or repair when working closely with the collections, often these books were rebound in a manner that imitates the original binding, or if the book is simply rebacked or repaired the material used is often stained a similar colour so that the repair is “seamless”. At first glance this is a nice gesture, but in reality it is anachronistic and can often cause confusion to readers who aren’t familiar with binding or conservation trends.

A modern book conservation will always include a full report of all things done to a book and will aim to keep all the bits that fall out of old spines or paste-downs.

Thankfully, 20th century practices have developed both in techniques and materials used, and there are some wonderful examples of 20th and 21st century conservation in our collections. I am of the opinion that the best book conservation work should mimic the ethos of historic buildings restoration: if you have to introduce new material (binding, sewing, fly-leaves, &c.), use sturdy and durable stuff that contrasts nicely with the original item, i.e. when someone glances at the book being restored they can quickly identify what is original and what is not. In cataloguing, we here at St Andrews aim to describe the binding of a book in full and concise detail, part of this being the recording of any conservation work along with who did the work and when.

The aim of any book conservation is to make the material safe and accessible again. This item, a portfolio of 17th century drawings by Mutio Oddi of Urbino (ms38654) was falling apart before it was restored in 2011 by the Dundee Book and Paper Conservation Studio.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the precise and time-consuming work and the materials needed, book conservation is quite pricey and often inaccessible in some geographic areas. Many institutions have conservation labs on-site, although this number is dwindling annually due to budget cuts and reallocation of funds. So, if you know someone who works in conservation of any type, give them a hug this New Year and thank them for keeping our cultural heritage accessible and beautiful!

Happy New Year!


2 responses to “52 Weeks of Fantastic Bindings, Week 29: Conservators at work

  1. I am especially interested in the work you are doing here on the Papal Bull of the charter of Bishop Henry Wardlaw. I have written three books on the history of the Wardlaws history back in Scotland and he features primarily in all three. They are “Ancestral Earth”, in 3 volumes. See more on that at: http://www.ladath.com
    the link of ‘Wardlaw Books’. Do you have an image of the finished original charter that you could send to me? I would really appreciate that. My books are in the Library at St Andrews and also in the new museum by the castle.
    Thank you for doing this!
    Diane Wardlaw

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