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Hidden Treatments or “what lies beneath”

Behind the scenes of a book conservation treatment in the Fagel Collection

by Angelica Anchisi

Conservation is an essential part of the project Unlocking the Fagel Collection. The twenty thousand volumes from the collection have been safely stored at the library since arriving at Trinity College in 1802 and many are still in good condition. However, now that all books are being catalogued and taken from the shelves, some older damages do come to light. Action is needed to keep these books available for consultation and perhaps in some years’ time also for digitisation. Conservator Angelica Anchisi treats a handful of books from the Fagel Collection every week and shows us what happens at the conservation department.

Purpose of conservation

An important treatment aim in the conservation of historical bookbindings is to bring it back to a state where the book can ideally be opened, browsed, and read again without causing damage to it or worsening its pre-existing condition. In addition, the intention is that the intervention will be reversible and recognizable. Even though it is usually possible to see that something has been done to a book, often critical stages of the treatment are hidden from view and are not visible once it has been completed. In this blog we will consider the progressive stages of a conservation treatment visible in the picture above.

Assessing the condition

The condition, which is similar for all five books shown in the image, includes: damage to the spine and joints, actively detaching boards, embrittled or broken sewing and sewing supports and embrittlement and/or loss of the endbands. This type of damage is common in heritage collections and is caused by a combination of physical and chemical ageing, usage and the environment in which the books have been stored over the years.

Illustration 1: First stage of the treatment: Lifting the leather on the spine, leaving the text block and sewing visible of a binding on Richard Burthogge’s An essay upon reason, and the nature of spirits (Fag.N.10.32)
Illustration 2: One of the 276 volumes of pamphlets from the Fagel Collection (Fag.II.1.36)

Illustrations 1 and 2 show the first stage of the treatment. The leather on the spine has been carefully lifted and the old paper lining has been removed leaving the text block and the sewing clean and visible (in both these cases the sewing supports are recessed into the text block leaving the spine flat). Taking the old lining away has enabled the removal of degraded and acidic elements (animal adhesive which has oxidised and become discoloured and embrittled). Furthermore, the spine backfolds and the sewing are more accessible and easier to repair.

New lining and spine consolidation

The books in illustration 3 (Fag.N.10.6 and Fag.N.10.9) are two volumes from the works of David Hume, bound in contemporary sprinkled calf; spine with gold fillets and red and black labels. Both volumes have detached boards and damage to sewing and in the case of Fag.N.10.6, both the endbands are missing. The books are small enough to allow a partial lifting of the spine making the treatment less intrusive.

Illustration 3: Second stage of treatment on two volumes of the works of David Hume (Fag.N.10.6 and Fag.N.10.9)

In Fag.N.10.9 it is possible to see the first layer of the new lining. A  high quality Japanese paper,  which has long fibres and is thin and strong, is adhered using wheat starch paste (to act as a release layer); the second stage (Fag.N.10.6) involves the attachment of transverse linings of Aero Linen (an unbleached linen textile) which are adhered in the panels between the sewing supports and are used to consolidate the break in the book block and reinforce the board attachment. As said before, both Fag.N.10.6’s endbands were missing so it is necessary to make new ones. Nowadays, endbands tend to be purely decorative. However, historically they provided a structural role, particularly in medieval bookbindings, where they were used to give additional support to the sewing and physically attach the boards to the textblock at the head and tail.

Commonly, endbands comprise of coloured threads. However, when making new ones during a conservation treatment, it may be preferable to leave them uncoloured so that they are easily recognisable as new additions. When endbands are still present but broken and/or loose it is possible to reinforce them using a dyed thread so that they blend better with the original thread colour (see below).

In 18th century bookbinding practice, it is typical for endbands to have only infrequent tiedowns, often only at the start, the middle and end of the endband construction. Because this is unseen on the finished binding, during treatment, one can introduce additional tiedowns, in order to consolidate the text block and create a more structural attachment.

Illustration 4: Consolidation of the sewing supports

Sewing consolidation

The sewing of this last book has broken resulting in a section being detached, the sewing supports are weak, and the front board is detached. The back board is still attached but very loose. Both the endbands are broken and need to be consolidated. 

After applying a new lining on the spine, the damaged sewing supports are reinforced and extended by applying new additional supports. These new supports are attached to the pre-existing ones using wheat starch paste. In addition, they are also mechanically attached to the old supports using unbleached linen sewing thread; this will help to consolidate the sewing and facilitates the reattachment of the loose section. Since the front board is completely detached, all the new supports are used to attach the board. For the back board, only the head, tail and central supports are needed; this, together with the new leather of the rebacking and the new paper joints on the inside, is going to be enough to keep the boards well attached to the text block.

Illustration 5: Spine before the treatment (Fag.N.10.9)
Illustration 6: Spine after the treatment (Fag.N.10.9)

Final stage

Once the sewing, spine and joints are consolidated, repaired, and reinforced. Everything is covered using a new dyed archival leather or, in case of light and small books, Japanese paper before re-attaching the old leather spine to the new one. In some cases, see illustrations 5 and 6 (before and after), the old leather, which has been lifted at the beginning of the treatment, results too fragile to be re-pasted on the new spine, to avoid the inevitable losses that would occur it is preferable to keep the fragments of the old spine in a conservative envelope that will be stored in the same phase box as the book. In fact, even after completing the conservation treatment the book will need to be carefully handled and stored. A made-to-measure archival phase box helps to reduce physical damage, through transport and handling and protect the treated book from the ingress dirt and dust.

As you can see, from the preceding description, there are many discrete stages that occur during the treatment of these books that will become completely hidden to the eye when the conservation treatment has been finished. All these actions will help to preserve the life of the historical bookbinding for future readers.

Angelica Anchisi | Blog post written as part of the project Unlocking the Fagel Collection