Due to the government shutdown, all Smithsonian museums are closed. For further updates on our operating status follow us on social media. Learn More
A few months ago I wrote a detailed blog post on the treatment of the tissue paper overlays in Principles of Beauty Relative to the Human Head. The following blog post will detail the remaining treatment for this book.
Principles came to the Book Conservation Lab in relatively the same poor shape as the overlays. The board, or cover, attachment had failed and both boards were separated from the textblock. The spine leather had suffered abrasion damage and was split in many places. The sewing had failed in numerous places and the only thing keeping the sewing supports on the book was old glue. There are a number of options for treating books that have sustained this level of damage. These range from the simple—rehousing the object i.e. putting it in a new box, to the complex—disbinding, repairing, and rebinding. Rehousing the object may be done when the object is not in demand by researchers or up for an exhibit. It is an expedient option that helps prevent the object from degrading further until such a time that a more thorough treatment can be completed. The reasons to do a more thorough treatment include: a request from a researcher, use in an exhibit, and/or stabilization for digitization. In this instance, given the impressive subject matter of this book and that it came to us through our Adopt-a-Book program, the decision was easy to seek the most complete treatment.
Once the textblock was split into individual gatherings I could examine their condition. This is a large book printed on single sheets. The original gatherings were created by taking four sheets and folding the left edge over approximately 1/8th of an inch and whip stitching the pages together. This whip stitching thread was also failing. The effect of the whip-stich sewing holes created a perforated edge where the paper could easily tear away from the sewing through standard use of the book. The whip stitching was removed, returning the book to individual sheets in order to facilitate a better and stronger repair. I kept the four leaf gatherings and used Japanese paper to guard the leaves together creating two-folio gatherings with a spine fold that could be sewn through. This modification improves the underlying structure and provides a stronger base for the rest of the book.
The book was re-sewn on six linen tapes. This mirrored the original six sewing supports and provided durable attachment points to reconnect the boards with the textblock, adhering the tapes under the pastedowns on the inside of the boards. Having strong attachment points such as these is important so that the new leather used for the spine covering does not act as a structural support for the book. When leather is thinned for use in bookbinding it loses much of the strength, unlike a leather belt or a leather pair of shoes. Therefore, it is important not to rely on pared leather as a structural component.
New decorative stuck on endbands were sewn and attached to the head and tail of the textblock. These serve both an aesthetic function as well as a practical function. In bindings from the last 500 years, the boards are typically larger than the textblock, which helps protect the pages. Endbands added in this space helps to support the caps and make the spine of the book the same size as the boards.
The final stage was rebacking the spine with leather. Rebacking is a repair technique used to create a new spine covering for a book. Leather along the edges of the boards is lifted and new leather is adhered to the spine as well as under the original leather on the boards. This type of repair is extremely useful and common in book conservation. It can also be done with cloth or Japanese paper.
A clamshell box was created to hold both the book and the portfolio case of the overlays. I built the lower tray based on of the height of the portfolio and the width of the book—with handholds—to facilitate removing the items and spacers around the edges while holding everything in place. These spacers required careful planning while covering the tray with cloth because there were many angles and surfaces that are not present when covering a standard clamshell box. I ended up using ten pieces of cloth to cover everything in this complex structure. Now that the treatment is complete, the book can return to the American Art and Portrait Gallery Library for future research.