Preservation book repairs – carrying out in-situ treatments in the Long Room

By Sarah Timmins, Preservation Assistant

Tool roll at the ready


As Preservation Assistants, we help address some of the challenges and problems affecting the books of the Long Room in the Old Library. The collection of some 220,000 Early Printed Books range from the dawn of the printing press in the 1450s and incunabula, to the end of the Victorian era.  A systematic preservation project, beginning in 2004 as ‘Save the Treasures’, is ongoing today.  The focus of the project is on the cleaning of the books, and the recording of data for use by the Preservation & Conservation Department. We note key information about each book: where and when it was printed, the materials from which it is made, features of the bindings, and so on.  We also carry out a condition report, and note any stabilising treatments we carry out in situ.

Many factors affect the condition of the collection and influence the ageing process, causing treatments to be necessary. The deterioration and damage commonly seen stem from the fact that it is a heritage collection in situ within a heritage building, which means books have been sitting out on the shelves since their acquisition from the 1730s onwards.  And, at the same time, the Long Room is a busy tourism thoroughfare, which means humidity, dust and pollution are introduced into the environment, contributing to and accelerating deterioration.  As well as these factors, it is of course a working library in which material may be called for use by readers and handled on a daily basis.

Quite often, a book will need a stabilising repair so that it can continue to be handled safely by readers, or so that it can remain on its shelf with less risk of active damage.  Although full conservation is not carried out in these situations, we incorporate the materials and methods used by conservators.  The repairs help to slow the deterioration of a book and stabilise its important features.  However, every repair we carry out is minimal, non-invasive, and completely reversible.

As an example of a treatment we carry out, two books with damaged head endbands are shown.

A look at the title pages of the two books.  The endbands at the tail of the books are still intact and we can observe some of the features from this.

Repairs shown in pictures:

It is the endbands at the head of these two books which are damaged.  To begin, the book undergoes specialised preservation cleaning.  Loose endbands & spine pieces are then secured in place with a little wheat starch paste.

Toned Japanese paper is selected & an outline is marked on mylar to be used as a template.

Paper is pricked with the awl, maybe dampened to be torn & then the wheat starch paste is applied.

The fibres extend and adhere to become a strengthening connection between the spine & endband in lieu of the headcap.

After drying, the end result is a stable endband and spine.

Sarah Timmins is currently a Preservation Assistant attached to the Preservation and Conservation Department and has several years of preservation experience in different institutions.