Library News (Fall 2013)

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Bindings and Rare Book Preservation

Elizabeth Hahn

As I reported in the 2012 issue 4 of the ANS Magazine, the Harry W. Bass, Jr., library received modest funding for a project that would re-house unbound auction catalogs
in the rare book room as well as compile a survey of the rare book room items with detailed notes about bindings and conditions. The re-housing phase and a
portion of the survey database have both been completed. At the end of 2012, we were delighted to receive news of additional grant funding to continue work on the survey database. At the completion of the project later this year, we will have a detailed database listing items based on level of priority with detailed information about the costs needed to fund the necessary levels of conservation that have been proposed by our preservation
consultants. Anyone interested in helping to fund the care of a specific item will be able to “adopt-abook” into their care and see it through the process. We are lucky enough to have intern Emily Dunlay continue to work on the project since she started in September
2012. This second phase of the project was started in January 2013 and has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The rare book collections of the ANS Library number over 10,000 items and include books dating as far back as the 16th century, manuscripts, auction catalogs, photographic prints, negatives, 16mm and 35mm acetate film, and scrapbooks. There is a great variety of bindings, including many vellum bindings, leather bindings, some East Asian bindings, library bindings, and publisher’s bindings (fig. 1). There are also some East Asian
boxed books—some of the boxes containing the books are silk-covered and present their own unique challenges for care. There are a number of unbound serials, many of which would be too brittle for binding now. The assessment of these bindings by professional conservators will present us with specific recommendations on how to adequately address those needs, both immediate and over the long term. Although we are only part-way
through the project, we have already made some interesting findings. The vast majority of the materials surveyed consist of books, many of which are from the 19th and 20th centuries. This is fairly consistent with what was expected. It is interesting that 27% of this sample predate the 19th century and it will be interesting to see if this trend continues as the survey gathers more data. It was surprising how many of the materials were from
the 20th century as well, reminding us that rarity is not necessarily determined by the age of the materials. As we make our way through the survey, we are also made aware of the wide variety of binding types that exist among the library collections. With a function
to protect the contents of the book, bindings are often where we see the most obvious levels of damage. The ANS Library collections date back to the early 16th century, a period shortly after the introduction of the printing press and when an increasing variety of styles
and types of bindings started to develop in Europe and elsewhere, and these changes are reflected in our survey data. Although the earliest book in the library collections dates to 1516, it has been rebound in modern times. In general, the information contained
in the text of a book is not enough to date the binding because most books were not sold as a bound item and could be bound in a country different from where the text block originated. As such, the decoration of a binding does not necessarily correspond directly to
the content of the book, as this was at trend that only really developed during the 18th century. At the same time, artistic preferences changed and varied from region to region so that it can be difficult to outline specific chronological trends.

Many bindings from the 16th–18th centuries were made of leather or vellum and decorated with a wide variety of methods and designs. “Blind tooling” is a process
where heated tools are pressed into leather, which creates a darkened design on the surface of the skin (fig. 2). Another process that reached Europe in the mid-15th
century was “gold-tooling”, whereby tools were pressed through gold leaf and helped to adhere to the leather by a mixture of egg white and vinegar called “glair.” Many different types of leather were used in early bindings and each country usually used whatever was
most conveniently available. In the fifteenth century, for example, Germany frequently used pigskin, England used calfskin, and Italy used goatskin. Leather is any of these animal skins that have been soaked in tannin after the hair is removed. Vellum or parchment was made from skins that were not tanned but soaked in lime and dried under tension. It was used as a binding material from the 14th century and can often be confused for different types of leather bindings as they can look and feel similar. Numerous examples of both leather and vellum bindings can be found among the ANS Library
collections. Interestingly, many of these earlier vellum bindings are in quite good condition and the text pages inside are stable, although vellum tends to tighten and
warp over time which curls up the edges of the binding. The binding joint and back lining are frequently where we see the most damage, as those areas are under stress each time the book is handled (fig. 3). Moreover, it is when we get into the second half of the 19th century when more acidic paper was used in printing that the books have more rapidly deteriorated. The pages of these books can become quite brittle to the point where
they crumble under even the lightest touch. Cloth bindings have become more common in modern times and buckram, which became widely available after 1880, is one of the most commonly used today for rebinding library books. Buckram is a stiff cloth usually made
of cotton and coated. It is designed to be a durable, moisture-resistant cover that is able to endure the heavy use in libraries. Other types of cloth, like silk and satin, were usually reserved for luxury bindings and are also more prone to damage as the material can fray if the adhesive wears off.

Fig. 1: Some of the many different binding types in the
ANS Library collections.

Fig. 2: An example of “blind tooling” used on the leather binding of
J.M. Heineccius, De veteribus Germanorum aliarumque nationum
sigillis… (Frankfurt and Leipzig : Nicolae Foersteri, 1719).

The point of the present survey is to identify items that are in greatest need of care. So even though the numbers, once extrapolated, can look rather alarming at first glance, in general the collection is well cared for and in relatively good condition. The formal compilation of use statistics can be a very useful tool for gaining a better understanding of how a collection is used and, as importantly, to better understand which materials are at risk. The usefulness of materials can also change over time, so that assumptions made about the research value of materials may change significantly from year to year. Gathering some basic statistics will help us to stay on top of these changes, and the barcoding process, that continues to gain momentum with the help of library interns, has been an excellent way for us to keep track of general use of materials to see what items might be in the greatest risk of overuse. Overall, with the data we have already gathered, we can see a wide variety of conditions and levels of priority and we look forward to
having a detailed report with recommendations for the best ways to care for these items and ensure their longevity while keeping them available to our users. I look forward to sharing more about this exciting project as we continue to gather data and prioritize our actions.

Fig. 3: An example of binding damage: old sheet music has been
used as a lining and is visible where a portion of the spine leather
is missing.