Category Archives: book conservation

The Right to Repair


Fire hydrant on the corner of Broadway and Nagle Avenue, New York CIty.

As a conservator, broadly speaking, I “repair” old books. I’ve always been interested in old things and being a conservator is a great way to spend a lot of time with them. It is an essential need, I think, for humans to have a tangible, material link to the past. History is sometimes defined as anything that happened before you were born.

The fire hydrant in the above photo has a patent date of “2-05-02”. Some might read this as another sign of New York City’s aging infrastructure, but I’m impressed it is still functioning after around 100 years. At least I hope it is still functioning.

I’ll never forget tearing apart a 1973 VW bug engine in high school, rebuilding it, reassembling it — and amazingly! —  it worked. Many objects can’t be fixed now, however.  Our throw-away culture, the cheapness of manufacturing of new parts, and patent law are all reasons.

The newish looking nut on top of the fire hydrant fits a special wrench that firemen have, to keep kids from opening them up and playing in the spray during hot summer days.  This special wrench is analogous to security screws many companies now use to keep the average consumer from doing any repair on their phones. Or to lock down the software that controls mechanisms.

General Motors and John Deere are arguing that you don’t own the software in your car. And without access to the software, there is no way you can fix anything automotive. In the coming internet of things this issue will only grow larger. Do you want to own something you are not “allowed” to fix, hack, repair, alter, improve, or conserve?

Thats why groups such as Right to Repair  and The Electronic Frontier Foundation are important.  They advocate on a wide range of issues concerning security, surveillance, tinkering and repair. More info.

There is pending legislation concerning the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and anyone can comment online until October 27, or in writing until November 16.  1201 Study: Request for Additional Comments. Check it out, it is a complex, important issue that I need to do more research on it.


Suave Mechanicals 3 and Yours Respectfully, William Bewick

Since “retiring”, it appears Cathy Baker, publisher of The Legacy Press, has doubled down on her publishing ventures.  No lounging in the Florida sun for her! Two books will be available very soon and there are five more in the works.   The essays in Suave Mechanicals 3 look spectacular. Congrats to all the authors for contributing to the permanent literature of our field:  It’s a lot of work with few rewards. The distribution website mentions the books are available to ship on October 16,  I’ve pre-ordered mine.



Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding, Volume 3. ed. Julia Miller. Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press, 2016.

This is the third volume in the series Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding, edited by Julia Miller. Nine essays – many coauthored – are featured and not only are American scholars represented, but also ones from Spain, Ireland, and Italy. One significant connection between a number of the essays is the flap binding, spanning nearly fifteen hundred years of codex history from fourth-century Coptic bindings to nineteenth-century diaries. The eclectic nature of this volume mirrors that of the previous two, in that the authors have taken a look at historical exemplars and archival materials that have always been, if you will, “hidden in plain sight.” Many assumptions and stereotypical descriptions surround some of the structures described in these essays; the authors both add to the scholarly record and refine what is already known or thought about these bindings. 517 pages, 584 illustrations in full color, Cloth, sewn. DVD. ISBN 9781940965024.  $85.00

The essays:

Erin Albritton and Christina Amato, “A Study of Two Semi-Limp Parchment Binding Styles in the Rare Book Collection at The New York Academy of Medicine Library”

Ruth Bardenstein, “Historical Bindings of the Chamberlain-Warren Samaritan Collection”

Ana Beny and Kristine Rose Beers, “An Inspiration for Conservation: An Historic Andalusi Binding Structure”

Ashley Cataldo, “‘A Swarm of Binders’: Isaiah Thomas’s Bookbinding Network, 1782–1818”

Marco di Bella, “From Box Binding to Envelope-Flap Binding: The Missing Link in Transitional Islamic Bookbinding”

Louise L. Foster, “The Nineteenth-Century American Pocket Diary”

Bill Hanscom, “Towards a Morphology of the Ethiopian Book Satchel”

Hedi Kyle, “The Fold: Evolution, Function, and Inspiration”

Arielle Middleman and Todd Pattison, “Benjamin Bradley and the ‘Profitable Stroke’: Binding Six Months in a Convent and the Need for Copy-Specific Cataloging of Nineteenth-Century Publishers’ Bindings”




Christine A. Smith.  Yours Respectfully, William Berwick: Paper Conservation in the United States and Western Europe, 1800 to 1935. Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press, 2016.

This book is the first to provide both a broad and detailed exploration of all aspects of paper-conservation activities during the period and is a major reference for those interested in Western paper-based artifacts. The development and character of the profession unfolds in descriptions of materials and processes used in libraries, archives, and fine-arts museums; related scientific advances; differing approaches to treatment; the impact of broad cultural shifts; and sketches of people active in the field. The associated issues of architecture, dirt and pollution, vermin, lighting, temperature and humidity, heating and ventilation, and fire also are explored. In order to contextualize the main focus of the book, practices extending back to the late-18th century and forward to the mid-20th are outlined. Laid into this account is the biography of acclaimed manuscript restorer William Berwick (1848–1920), who was a proponent of silking to preserve severely damaged documents. A glossary, bibliography, appendices, and endnotes accompany the text. Numerous period illustrations – before- and after-treatment photographs, portraits, cartoons, conservation diagrams, advertisements, postcards, and other images – are included. 696 pages, 112 color/black & white images, Hardcover, ISBN: 9781940965017.  $90.00


Order from The Legacy Press

Walker’s The Art of Bookbinding


Letter from Douglas Leighton to John Carter dated 17 March 1939. Tipped onto the front flyleaf of The Art of Bookbinding (New York: E. Walker & Sons, 1850) Middleton Z 270 .U5 N7 1850, c. 1. Cary Graphic Arts Collection, Rochester Institute of Technology.

One of the coolest things about the Middleton Collection in the Cary Graphic Arts Collection of the University of Rochester are the extra items housed in the books. Walker’s The Art of Bookbinding, Its rise and Progress is a very rare book on its own. But Copy 1 from the Cary tops the charts, with this fascinating tipped-in letter from Douglas Leighton, bookbinder, binding historian, and author of Modern Bookbinding, to John Carter, author of ABC for Book Collectors, who owned the book. It’s not rational, but I’m thrilled to be reading the same book that Leighton read and Carter owned.


A Topper


Detail from: “Siding and Pasting Down” in The British Bookmaker, Vol. VI, No. 61., July 1892, 31. Cary Graphic Arts Collection, Bernard C. Middleton Collection, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Not only a clear illustration of traditional late 19th century pastedown trimming for half leather bindings, but an informative use of binders slang of the day:  “cobbs” (for cobb paper, common at this time) and wonderfully descriptive “topper”. I’ll have to use it in class the next time I see this problem! It is still a common impulse for students to want to cover a mistake in a pastedown. This article is part of a series, dealing with pasting down difficult materials, including moire (or watered silks) and leather doublures.

Tying the Future to a Thread


J. Howard Atkins, Tying the Future to a Thread. Medford, Mass: Oversewing Machine Co. of America, Inc., 1968. Front Cover. Middleton Z 269.5 .A8 1968.

What appears to be a 1970’s post-apocalyptic novel concerning the dangers nuclear stockpiling is actually about a far more dangerous situation. OVERSEWING!

A gem from the Cary Graphic Arts Collection, Bernard C. Middleton Collection, Rochester Institute of Technology.


Could pass for an artist book installation. J. Howard Atkins, Tying the Future to a Thread. Medford, Mass: Oversewing Machine Co. of America, Inc., 1968. p. 18. Middleton Z 269.5 .A8 1968.

But seriously, friends don’t let friends oversew.

A Box for Oversize Books


A drop-spine box for heavy and oversize books. The cut out areas on each side of the inner tray allow both hands to lift the book out.

For large, heavy books there are a couple of ways to beef up a regular drop-spine box.

Like most people, I usually make them with double walls.

I also make a modified inner tray, so that both hands can lift the book when removing it. The book this is for is around 19 x 15 inches, and quite heavy.

For even larger books, a lift off lid is a good idea, so the box doesn’t take up so much table space when open.

Since this book will be stored flat, on a metal shelf, and the client intends to read it once a week, there is a a slide off bottom piece to wear out.  Even a durable cloth, like this canapetta, can wear quite quickly when slid on and off the shelf, there is an example here. It is adhered by friction, and when it wears through the client can mail it back for a new one, much cheaper than a new box.


The partially removed bottom piece. It slides off, but stays in place by hooking over the edge of the head and tail squares.

Shop Kinks: Rust Removal with Ink Erasers

Daniel Mellis send in this useful info concerning surface cleaning rusty tools; which, ahem, some of us may have a small number of.  Originally this idea was published in the column “Shop Kinks” from Machinery in 1907. It’s a wonderfully provocative title — I may have to steal it — a refreshing take on usual “Tips and Trick”. A kink, in this sense, is a new aspect, twist, or take on something.

Daniel makes artist’s books and is currently working on a English translation of Tango with Cows, a Russian Futurist book printed on wallpaper with important early experimental typography.

He writes:
Recently when trying to clean up a ruler and straight edge, I hit upon the use of ink erasers to remove rust. This is not a new idea, Wm. H. Kellogg from Chicago noted in January of 1907 in Machinery Magazine that:

A very convenient way of removing rust and brightening surfaces of tools, such as steel scales or brass and German silver protractors, is to rub the surface with a common ink eraser. It does not scratch the surface as emery cloth does; it is always at hand for a draftsman and would also be appreciated by a machinist.

Compared with other methods of rust removal, the ink eraser is convenient, especially for small areas, and it does not require any noxious chemicals like naval jelly or even any liquid. As noted by Kellogg it also does brighten surfaces. Caution should be exercised as ink erasers will scratch softer metals like cast iron.

The biggest difficulty is actually locating them. Common enough in the 90s and probably early 00s, they are no longer a standard item in office supply stores. The site carries the Tombow Mono Sand Eraser, as well as the Seed Sun Dolphin 3 Electric Eraser for which you can get 60 count ink eraser refills. These are relatively small, the larger size strips for heavy duty electric erasers, #72, were discontinued about 5 years ago. Boxes are still available on ebay, starting at $59, which works out to about $5 per strip. Some of the descriptions state they are for abrasion testing; a specialized industrial use may justify the price. Perhaps small drafting supply houses might have some in a corner somewhere.

When cleaning a straight edge, I used one of the larger strips; the in process shot shows its effectiveness. The electric erasers can leave a pattern on the surface due to variable reflectiveness, but that is easily removed with a quick polish with something like Mother’s Mag and Aluminum Polish.

Straight Edge cleaning in process

In progress shot of cleaning a rusty steel straight-edge with an electric eraser. Photo: Daniel Mellis