Tag Archives: book conservation

The Conservation of Dante’s 1477 La Commedia. Lecture Synopsis.

Ndpreservation posted a nice synopsis of my lecture about the conservation of Dante’s 1477 La Commedia.  It was an interesting and time consuming treatment, involving both resewing and rebinding in an alum tawed goat conservation binding.

This treatment provided impetus for further investigation into the history of conservation binding, both the term and the practice.  I will present an updated version of this lecture on November 7, 2018, 10:00 am,  Jones Room, Woodruff Library, Emory University, Atlanta, GA.

I’ll also be teaching “The Conservation of Leather Bindings”  that week at Emory. The application deadline is this Friday, September 14, 2018.

Synopsis of the Dante lecture from ndpreservation.

Upcoming Lecture: The Conservation of Dante’s 1477 La Commedia


The Conservation of Dante’s 1477 La Commedia

Jeffrey S. Peachey, Independent Book Conservator, New York City

3:00 p.m.  Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Rare Books and Special Collections

102 Hesburgh Library

University of Notre Dame

South Bend, Indiana 



The conservation treatment of the Hesburgh Libraries’ important copy of Dante’s La Commedia (Venice: Vindelinus de Spira, 1477) will be detailed in this profusely illustrated lecture. Its deteriorated and damaging 20thcentury binding structure will be described, as will considerations and decisions leading to its resewing and rebinding in a historically sympathetic alum tawed goatskin conservation binding. Evidence uncovered during treatment, which suggests the Inferno and Purgatorio cantiche may have circulated separately at one point, will be explored. Differences between historic 15th century binding practices and modern conservation binding techniques will be highlighted, as will the sometimes problematic differences between historic and modern materials. An overview of aesthetic considerations for conservation rebinding will conclude the lecture. Bibliophiles, conservators, librarians, Italian scholars, and anyone curious about the physical structure of books will find this lecture of interest.

All are welcome to attend.

Jonathan Ashley-Smith on Hand Skill Pedagogy

The most recent Journal of the Institute of Conservation (Vol. 41, No. 1, 2018) is a Festschrift for Dr. Jonathan Ashley-Smith. Ralph Steadman drew the cover, especially for this issue. Ashley-Smith is officially a conservation rock star!

The coolest conservation journal cover EVER. Journal of the Institute of Conservation (Vol. 41, No. 1, 2018)

You need to be a member of ICON to read the whole journal on-line. So join.

Selected articles from other issues are open access, including Ashley-Smith’s important 2016 article,  “Losing the Edge: The Risk of a Decline in Practical Conservation Skills.”  Although the title implies a depressing state of affairs (losing, declining) it is actually filled with empowering techniques to reverse some of the trends he anecdotally observes. There is much worth reading and discussing in this article: he considers a broad swath of issues surrounding conservation, handwork, craft, how we learn hand skills, and even how we loose them. Some of my own thoughts about losing hand skills are here.

At the risk of overusing the comparison between conservators and surgeons, I’ll offer an example of my own then one from Ashley-Smith. When teaching a sharpening workshop, we look at the first two plates from Joseph Pancoast’s Operative Surgery. They are great reminder for the students that hand skills need to be learned, and for me to make the subtleties explicit. Many students pick up a tool, turn it over a few times in their hand, hesitantly try it out, find it doesn’t seem to work, and set it down, convinced that they don’t have good hand skills. But hand skills need to be learned, and there are easier and more difficult ways of manipulating tools.

Learning traditional techniques of tools use are often easier than trying to figure it out on your own, which is why they became traditional in the first place. Just consider the variety of hand positions Pancoast instructs the surgeon to learn in order to control the bistoury, pictured below. There is a following plate of even more advanced moves. I doubt many of us could come up with these on our own. Even though I have not used a bistoury, the hand positions make sense for the tasks I can figure out, like depth control (Fig. 2) and extra power to make an incision (Fig. 3). Perhaps it is better not to interpret all of them.

Pancoast, A Treatise on Operative Surgery, 1844. archive.org/stream/66850890R.nlm.nih.gov/66850890R#page/n21/mode/2up

In “Losing the Edge”, Ashley-Smith describes an even more relevant surgical analogy to conservation, found in  J.W. Peyton’s 1998 “Teaching and Learning in Medical Practice”. Peyton offers a pedagogical model for learning hand skills. I will try it out on the graduate students enrolled in the Historical Book Structures Practicum this summer. Traditionally, hand skills are taught by the monkey see, monkey do  approach: the instructor demonstrates (sometimes with verbal descriptions of what their hands are doing), then the students copy what was done, often with little understanding why.

Ashley-Smith observed that surgeons are not ashamed to use the word “craft” in the context of their work, instead they are proud of it. Peyton presents a refined method of teaching craft skills: not only does the instructor demonstrate three times, but before the students perform the action, they are required to describe each step in advance. Another advantage of this method is that the student is exposed to seeing the action performed at real speed. Old timer conservators sometimes complain about how slowly younger conservators work: could part of it be they were never exposed to work done at real speed, only the slower, linguistic heavy, demonstration speed?

These are Peyton’s four steps:

1. Demonstration of the skill at full speed with little or no explanation.
2.  Repetition of that skill with full explanation, encouraging the learner to ask questions.
3.  The demonstrator performs the skill for a third time, with the learner providing the explanation at each step and being questioned on key issues … the demonstrator provides necessary corrections. This step may need to be repeated several times until the demonstrator is satisfied that the learner fully understands the skill.
4.  The learner carries out the skill under close supervision describing each step before it is taken.

— J. W. Rodney Peyton, Teaching and Learning in Medical Practice (Rickmans- Worth: Manticore Europe, 1998), 174–7.

Excessive? Maybe for most bookbinding operations, but certainly not for medical operations. His model really forces the student to observe what they are doing and why they are doing it, and to think ahead to the next step. Ironically, it is all to easy for students to gloss over important aspects of hand movements during a demonstration. This is understandable, since most of the motions are not all that interesting, or even important. Invariably, they miss the most important part.

Sometimes in step 3, it is more relevant for the student to draw or diagram the process, if it is cumbersome to verbally describe. I doubt Peyton’s pedagogy can be adapted for every stage in bookbinding, but some steps — like sewing, forming headcaps, cutting corners — lend themselves easily to his procedure. Since many specific operations in bookbinding are similar, this method could be spread across a longer format workshop.

A Book Conservation Treatment Gets Personal

Most books I work, especially the ones that have been around for a while, have a name, bookplate, or other inscriptions in them.  Sometimes I can read these, sometimes I can’t. They are preserved as evidence of how the book circulated, how readers responded to it, which institutions collected it, dispersed it, and so on.  This evidence of use makes many printed books unique objects.

Even among private collectors and dealers, there is much more awareness of the importance of these marks, and a corresponding willingness to leave them in place. A couple of decades ago, many owners would want them to be removed, and I would have to persuade them to keep them.

I’m especially thankful that no previous binder or owner cleaned up the inscriptions in the book below.

Concordantz, ca. 1550. Inscription and title page. Courtesy Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen, Indiana.

When initially examining this book, the Concordantz, the curator of the Mennonite Historical Library dropped a bombshell on me. He informed me that the inscription on the left in the above image, is from my sixth great-grandmother, written in 1751.  “Wow, this is pretty cool!” was the most coherent professional thought I could express at the time. I wouldn’t have been able to decipher this inscription.

The inscription reads, “This little book belongs to me Lisi Joder, written in the year Anno 1751.”  It is also signed by my fifth great-grandmother in 1787. In 1811, the book went to an older sister of my fourth great-grandmother, thus breaking the direct connection to me. It entered into the Mennonite Historical Library in the 1940’s. I promised the curator not to repatriate it to my family!

I intend to write a longer account of my treatment, the importance of books, and my relationship to this treatment, after some more reflection.


Board Slotting at John Hopkins Department of Conservation

Jennifer Jarvis, Conservator in the John Hopkins Department of Conservation and Preservation, demonstrates how fun book conservation is using the Peachey Board Slotting Machine.

John Hopkins Department of Conservation and Preservation recently acquired a Peachey Board Slotting Machine as another technique in their book conservation arsenal to reattach detached boards. Detached boards are likely the most common place books fail. This machine accurately cuts a very small slot, as thin as .015″, to allow a hinge to be inserted without disturbing the covering material or obscuring evidence of lacing, board attachment, etc…. The machine is manually operated, and can accommodate boards up to a 18″ high. The start and stop of the slot is controlled by setting adjustable stops.

No matter which side of the fence you are on regarding the use of leather in book conservation, board slotting with a cotton or linen hinge is a strong and durable base. The fabric can be left alone or colored with acrylics for fast repairs. Or board slotting can be combined with other treatments — such as tissue repairs, cast acrylic repairs, and leather onlays — to achieve a high degree of aesthetic integration. Board slotting is especially suited to nineteenth century leather bindings with a made hollow. More information on different structures for board slotting.

Contact me for a price quote.

Jennifer Jarvis aligning the height of the blade where it will begin making the slot. This is much easier on the new machine, since you can sight the length of the board from the end of the machine.


The Origin of Mohawk Superfine

Quite likely, every bookbinder and book conservator located in North America has used Mohawk Superfine paper.  It’s a wonderful paper for many applications: textblocks for models, endpapers for circulating collections, lining boards and spines, labels, and so on.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the name does not come from 1970s urban slang, or the 1960s Garage Rock band The Superfine Dandelion, but was coined in 1946.

Mohawk originally developed Superfine as the result of a challenge from Yale University Press to produce an attractive, archival text paper for their reprint of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. A Mohawk representative showed a sample of the new paper to a customer in Boston, who reportedly said, “this is a superfine sheet of paper.


Drop Spine Cradle Boxes

Nine years ago I designed a new style of cradle box, and it is rewarding to see the idea picked up by others. Below is recent one I made is for this stunning early 20th century French fine binding.  The cradle also supports the slip-case chemise which is quite fragile. The slipcase itself is missing, or maybe it never had one.

French fine binding in a cradle box. Private Collection.

Some other examples from around the web:

A variant from Trinity College, Dublin.

Rehousing a fragile book of engravings at Princeton University.

Display and storage for an artist book from Karen Apps.

Three different types of cradle boxes on the AIC book conservation wiki.

A simpler version made out of folding board.

A group conservation project from Duke University, with some construction details.