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Bandaged books: conservation work in the Old Library

Friday, 7 July 2017

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Bandaged books undergoing repair in the Old Library
Bandaged books undergoing repair in the Old Library

The Old Library has been a hive of activity this week, with almost 250 books undergoing repairs. Since 2011, we have been welcoming experienced library conservator Caroline Bendix to the College’s Old Library each year for one or two weeks.

This year Caroline has been focussing on things that might drop out and get lost when the books are packed away, and also vital repairs to enable them to withstand packing and removal, to allow renovation work to take place in the seventeenth-century Old Library. She has been focussing her efforts on the gallery, picking out the books in most urgent need of stabilisation.

Many of the repairs involve bandaging the books, after sticking labels and covers back in place. Caroline makes her own wheat starch glue (a traditional adhesive, known to stick for 500 years), using wheat flour without gluten, because gluten stains as it ages. She then uses bandages to hold the repair tight while the glue dries. Damage to the spines of books is particularly common, and Caroline fits hand-made paper hinges so that the covering material will lift away when the book is open, as it is designed to do, before sticking the spine back into place.

Work to repair the spine of a book
Caroline repairing the spine of a book, with the finished repair on the right

Books were not designed to stand up, and it was not until the end of the sixteenth century that they were routinely stored standing. Gravity unfortunately twists the pages over time, and eventually results in the cover being torn off. Bookshoes are a discrete conservation tool designed to redistribute the pressure, and Caroline has used them extensively to protect our books.

A bookshoe in the Old Library
A bookshoe

Also visiting the Old Library since 2011 is volunteer Gill Ward, who has been busy cleaning some of our collection this week. It is time-consuming work involving a lot of dusting and brushing. Although the library is typical in many ways for its age, it does have more pollution damage than Caroline would expect to see considering that it is not in a heavily urbanised location. Some of this may be put down to the library being previously used as the College’s Senior Common Room, at a time when many people smoked and used candles.

Table music, found inside one of the Old Library's books
Table music, found inside one of the Old Library's books

Whenever conservation work is carried out, there are always some fascinating incidental discoveries along the way, from historic dead spiders to Victorian embroidered bookmarks!

One of the books this time was found to contain some recycled sheets of table music – music set out with the four parts facing in different directions so that singers could sit around a table and still each read their part.