Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Practice of Book Conservation at the Libraries

I am currently nearing the completion of an MSLS at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Part of my coursework involves gaining some practical experience through an internship experience at a local institution. Since my focus is on Cultural Heritage and my specific interest is to work with older rare materials in some capacity, I sought the opportunity to learn what it takes to keep aging physical books alive and available for all current and future users. Over the course of five weeks, I worked with the Preservation Services Department, where I had the opportunity to learn and practice a variety of preservation and conservation techniques under the direction of Vanessa Smith, Head of the Smithsonian Libraries’ Preservation Services Department.


My initial task was to understand how to construct a bound book. The process of learning how to select materials; fold and trim gatherings of paper; sew the gatherings to tapes; cut, build, and cover a case; and then glue in the textblock, provided me with a greater appreciation for the components that make up a book and the precise craftwork that must take place in order to end up with a functional final product.

I was then introduced to what would become my overarching project: continuing to work on the conservation of a collection of New York City Directories (dating from the 18th—20th century) from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library so that the entire collection might be successfully digitized for potential scholars.

In order to determine the types of treatments that were needed for these Directories, I was first shown how to examine and describe each book through the use of condition reports. The instruction I had received on how to construct a bound book provided me with a better sense of what types of damage needed attention and how long it might take to enact the required treatments. Once I had reported on the individual needs of several books, it was determined that I would tackle a selection of books that were minimally damaged.

I was taught how to repair the paper on torn and detached leaves; how to tip-in the leaves after they had been repaired; and how to reattach and replace boards which had detached from the spine or were simply missing. Throughout all of the treatments I applied to the Directories, I had to ensure that the specific repairs would maintain the original components of each book as much as possible and that they would not obscure any information. This way, the scheduled digitization procedures could capture everything the books had to offer. (Photo #1, above)

Additionally, I was taught how to build custom made enclosures such as the phase wrapper box and the drop spine box. After some practice and some trial and error, I successfully created some phase wrappers for a few of the Directories and, by the end of my final week, I had constructed a cloth-covered drop spine box to hold the bound book I had crafted during my first week. (Photo # 2, below)


As I applied the skills I was learning, the overriding principles I gained and strove to follow are that every book is important; and in order to maintain the integrity, authenticity and evidential value of the information that only interaction with a physical book can provide, conservation and preservation techniques must be driven by minimal intervention.

Don Stankavage


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *