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A Better Understanding of Atlas Bookbinding Techniques

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Preservation Team recently had the opportunity to participate in a three-day workshop exploring various binding techniques for atlas structures at our Book Conservation Lab in Landover, MD. The workshop was taught by Katherine Kelly, Senior Book Conservator at the Library of Congress where she has taught this course several times.  Guided by Katherine, our preservation staff constructed atlas models with a variety of map folding patterns, attachment techniques, guarded structures, and compensation methods. The models are intended to be a reference source of binding options when addressing items within our collections in the future.

A book conservator demonstrates a map folding technique
Katherine Kelly instructing Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Preservation staff on creating a complex fold cloth-lined map

Atlases are a collection of printed maps that are bound into a book. These often need to be unfolded to be viewed but could just be a page of thicker or stiffer material requiring a compensation stub at the gutter.  In order for the structure to be balanced and for the book to open comfortably, the fold-out illustrations are attached to guards that are fanned out and raised above the neighboring pages.  The length of the guard is crucial: irregular and short guards cause tension that can result in breaks along the stiff edge of the guard or stub.  Compensation for the various thickness of folded maps is also a factor when binding an atlas. Irregularities can allow for preferential openings, creating damage elsewhere.

A book opened to show broken spine.
Example of damage owing to irregular or short guard attachment causing maps to break away

From Katherine Kelly’s thorough overview in the AIC Conservation Wiki:

“Each book is different, and some may need to open more than others because of their paper qualities or how the plates unfold. The sewing method and spine linings of course have an effect on the opening. In general, avoid oversewing or excessive spine linings, because the guards should fan out at the spine and assist with the opening of the plates.”

A normal order of assembly would be:

  • Make oversize guards
  • Fold them along the spine edge
  • Trim the excess width
  • Form gatherings, press
  • Adhere the plates so that everything is aligned to the head
  • Trim excess guard length at the tail
  • Sew, then round and back
A close up of a book spine with several maps inserted.
Profile of assorted map attachments in a workshop model

The workshop participants’ book models incorporated several folding and guarding techniques: centerfold, squashed scroll, staggered edge fold, complex fold, stiff insert, bifolium cloth lined map, Mylar encapsulated map, and full apron map – to name a few.

While this structure is common for atlases, foldouts, and attachments appear in various genres of books. Putting our experience to the test, I treated a small 19th-century sample book of watercolor paints in the week following the workshop. The color samples were adhered to pages of inflexible cardstock that had broken away from the rest of the textblock.

A book with broken spine and water color samples.
A Descriptive Handbook of Modern Watercolors, 1887, shows the cardstock leaves broken from the textblock

I repaired this by using the stiff insert attachment method where the board is attached at the very edge to a flax paper guard, separated ¼” from a compensated stub the thickness of the board.  The paper gap between the cardstock and stub allows the flexibility to turn the page, previously met with resistance by only the stiff board.

A black and white illustration of how paper maps are inserted into books.
Diagram of the stiff-insert method used to repair these pages
Diagram showing profile view with the stiff cardstock attached to a flax paper guard
Diagram showing profile view with the stiff cardstock attached to a flax paper guard
Detailed view of book spine showing new guard attachment
Detailed view showing new guard attachment

Many thanks to the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress for allowing Katherine to join us for this valuable training opportunity. And, thanks to Smithsonian Libraries and Archives for their support in hosting, preparation, and participation.

Four colorful books with map covers, shown open
Completed workshop models

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