A catalogue of problems: conserving the Bodleian booklists

Despite being dirty, damaged, and 350 years out of date, the 1674 Bodleian Library catalogue at Jesus College is still a vital source of information on the history of the collection. Comprised of four large volumes, each one contains a copy of a printed Bodleian catalogue interleaved with blank pages for manuscript additions, comparing and contrasting the Jesus collection with that of the Bodleian.

1674 Bodleian Catalogue, volume 1 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

These books were working objects, treated as temporary, functional and expendable. The bindings bore the brunt of poor handling and storage, pushed to the limits of what their sewn structures could withstand. The results are striking to see: spines so severely concave that the edges almost meet. A missing board exposes the fragile paper textblock, resulting in extensive tears and losses to the pages, and poor storage has resulted in significant deterioration of the leather cover: embrittled, fragmented, with large areas of loss.

Volume 2 before treatment (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Poor handling is all too often the cause of this kind of damage. The spine was probably bent into place with the book opened at 180° on a table top, perhaps weighted down while new entries were recorded, adding to the stress on the spine. Extensive ingrained dirt and damage to some of the openings suggest the book was left open at that page for a period of time with little regard for protecting the contents. The volumes are full of manuscript additions, handwritten using a quill and iron gall ink. Liberal use of blotting sand on the ink lessened the drying time, allowing for faster work. This sand then fell into the gutters of the volume, along with quill trimmings, dust and dirt, and in one section a surprising quantity of hair (of unidentified origin). All of this additional material sank into the gutters of the book, increasing stress on the spine, and forcing its shape to shift from convex to concave. It is probable that most of this damage was caused in the seventeenth century while the book was still in regular use, and it has then subsequently sat, buried deep on a shelf, for a few hundred years.

It is in this state that volume 2 arrived at the Oxford Conservation Consortium studio. Almost unrecognisable as a book, but with unique contents that needed to be accessed and preserved.  The primary aim: to reshape the spine and enable the book to be read, while preserving as much of the original material as possible.

The first stage required cleaning the volume of dust and surface dirt, using a latex sponge and soft brush. Larger components of blotting sand were removed from the gutters of the volume to reduce the stress on the spine, however much of the smaller sand was left in situ – now a part of the book’s history. The fragments of spine covering were removed and put to one side. The exposed spine revealed parchment linings that had helped to keep the sewing structure intact, and strong cord supports that held together the sewing without breaking.

Underneath the spine covering: brittle animal glue and parchment spine linings (© Jesus College, Oxford)

1. Reshaping the spine

The first structural problem to address was the severe distortion in the spine. A wheat starch paste poultice was applied, and left for two hours to soften the cords and reduce the hard, brittle animal glue. Introducing controlled moisture into the spine and sewing supports provided mobility, making it possible to ease the spine back from concave to convex. With cycles of softening and pressing into place, the book began to look more like a book.

2. Rebuilding the board

The second major challenge was the extensive damage where the cords were laced into the board. Boards are key to holding a structure together and protecting the textblock. Replacing the damaged board in its entirety, however, would mean a significant and unacceptable loss of original material. Rebuilding the sections of missing board was the only other option. The laminates in the board were separated, and strong kozo fibre papers were inserted as anchors to bridge the split. Next, a solution of linen fibres suspended in paste was applied to the areas of loss, and built up in layers.

The split in the board and areas of loss along the board edge (© Jesus College, Oxford)
Midway through rebuilding the board (© Jesus College, Oxford)

3. Covering

The third challenge was addressing the missing left board of the volume. Besides providing protection for the textblock, the boards are a critical means of holding the shape together. Without this board, the spine would likely revert to its previous shape. A new board was constructed to match the thickness and shape of the original, extant board. Endpapers were constructed and sewn to the edge of the textblock as further protection. Finally, the volume was rebacked using calf leather, and a cotton rag paper cover on the new board. With the sturdy covering now intact, the binding once more functions to protect the volume and enable access to its contents.

Applying new leather to the spine of the volume (© Jesus College, Oxford)
Applying the paper cover to the new board (© Jesus College, Oxford)

In many ways, the treatment transformation is striking: with the reversal of the spine shape, rebuilding of the boards and the new, durable spine covering. However, it is still very much the book that it was: the original board looks much the same as it did before, and the textblock has been largely left alone with some tear repairs. Ingrained surface dirt and areas of loss are left, signifiers of the damage that the book has been subjected to.

Not all tears in the textblock have been repaired either. The tail edge of the textblock bears evidence of intentional damage: cuts in the page, in the centre of the volume. This practice appears on a number of library catalogues from this period, which appear to have intentional, clearly visible knife cuts. We do not know exactly how, when, or why this damage has been made. I would hypothetically suggest that it is a signifier of the catalogue being out of date, superseded by a more current volume. Presumably at that point the catalogue, already subjected to significant wear and tear, was tucked away on a shelf and largely forgotten – until now, when it can once more be consulted as a significant source for the Library’s history.

Detail showing the tail edge of the book and the visible cuts in the paper textblock (© Jesus College, Oxford)
Volume 2 before treatment (© Jesus College, Oxford)
Volume 2 after treatment (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Nikki Tomkins (Conservator, Oxford Conservation Consortium)

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2 Responses to A catalogue of problems: conserving the Bodleian booklists

  1. carys davies says:

    How fascinating! I’m amazed how resilient paper is. A great insight, thanks you for sharing this.

  2. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 50) | www.weyerman.nl

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