Consolidate and Repair: The Conservation of Books

Since the beginning of January, I have started to work on the main collections at LHSA. Although the Wellcome Trust project to conserve the HIV/AIDS collections is almost complete, my contract has been extended until June, so you will be hearing more of tales from the conservation studio over the next few months! During this time, I will be carrying out a range of conservation treatments such as consolidation and repair of bound volumes, surface cleaning and tear repair of flat sheet material, cold storage of x-rays, as well as supervising volunteers and interns working on architectural plans. I am really looking forward to the challenges that working with such a wide range of materials will bring.

For this blog post, I thought I would focus on what I have been working on for the past few weeks; the conservation of bound volumes. A common problem for books in the LHSA collections is the occurrence of red rot. For those of you who don’t work in a library, red rot is a degradation process found on leather bound books. It is characterised by a powdery layer on the surface of the book which, as archivists know, gets absolutely everywhere.  It is also associated with the weakening of the material, so along with red rot, you often find torn leather and abraded edges.
Example of red rot found on books
Damage caused by red rot is irreversible. However, the spread of red rot can be retarded by treating the leather with a consolidant such as Klucel G in Industrial Methylated Spirit (IMS). First a museum vac with a low suction is used to remove the loose powdery material from the book. Then, a 2% solution is brushed on to areas affected by red rot and left to dry. Although this consolidates the powdery material, it doesn’t cure the leather of red rot, it will just prolong its life for longer. A slight darkening of the leather is sometimes caused by application of Klucel G, so often test areas are carried out prior to full application. Although discolouration of the leather is not ideal, it is sometimes better than doing nothing at all and allowing further damage to be caused to the book due to red rot.

Using a Museum Vac to remove powdery material
Using a brush to apply a 2% solution of Klucel G in IMS

In some full leather bound books, red rot can cover the whole surface. In these cases, I decided not to consolidate the volume as it is difficult to get an even coverage over the whole book without causing streaking. Instead, with the help of volunteers Collette and Alice, I made book covers to protect these books. We made these from 650gsm boxboard tied with cotton tape. This allows for covers to be made without the use of adhesives, which speeds up the construction of the covers and ensures that the book is not affected by any potential off-gassing from the adhesive. These covers not only contain all the red rot and stop it spreading, but also protect the books whilst they are on the shelf. Often damage is caused on the shelf as adjacent books can be scraped by the corners of the volumes being removed and replaced, resulting in tearing of the leather.
A full leather book rehoused in a book cover

Example of book with torn and delaminated leather

Another common problem in the LHSA collection is the detachment of boards and spines from bound volumes. This is usually found in books that are consulted frequently as the opening and closing actions causes these areas to weaken. To fix this, I used a couple of repair techniques taught to me by private book conservator, Caroline Scharfenberg, who also works at Edinburgh University. To secure loose and detached boards, I used a strip of fairly thick Japanese paper adhered to the inner spine joint with wheat starch paste. Although further work can be done, this provides a surprisingly strong repair and is suitable for the needs of the collection. If a spine has become detached, a new hollow can be made from archival paper to reattach it. A hollow is essentially a piece of paper that has been folded twice and glued together to create a tube. This is then affixed to the spine and the original cover material is glued to the hollow. When the book is opened, the hollow also opens allowing the spine to move naturally. These basic repair techniques will extend the life of the bound volumes significantly and prevent further damage occurring.
Book, before treatment with a detached spine

Book, after treatment with spine reattached using a hollow

The conservation of books is very different to the conservation of flat archival material that I am used to working with.  Although techniques are similar, the composite and 3D nature of the book provides new challenges to me as a paper conservator. I hope to learn more book repair techniques in the future.