Binding the old and the new: Clapp workers preserve historical books in the digital age

A feature article written for The Wellesley News on Clapp conservation collections and the importance of physical books in an increasingly digitally-focused world. Original can be found here.

With the advent of the Kindle and other e-readers, have the bound spines and printed ink of physical books faded into the past? The conservationists and archivists at Wellesley say no, and they go the extra length to rebind books that are falling apart.

On the fourth floor of Clapp library, tucked away behind swipe-access-only doors, are the conservation collections. The conservation collection develops and maintains the library’s circulating and reference collections, both for academic use and for historical preservation.

Emily Bell, the collections conservator, oversees the processes of preservation and restoration. Usually, the books that the library chooses to preserve are from the collection that is already in circulation.

“If a book is returned damaged, for example…curators will choose materials high in usage and demand,” Bell said.

Book preservation includes preventative work, damage evaluation and saving damaged documents. According to Bell, a lot of the damage occurs to the spines, and the pages may also start to yellow. Exposure to light will also cause some colors on the books to fade away. One type of deterioration that can occur is called red rot. This occurs when vegetable-tanned leather, particularly sheepskin, is continuously exposed to humid or warm temperatures.

“You pick up the book, and there’s powdery red all over your hands,” Bell said.

Bell assigns her colleagues, many of whom are student workers, with a variety of tasks. They use professional equipment to save books and documents. Sophie Olson ’18, an anthropology and history double major, has been working in conservation for almost two and a half years.

“Some of the projects I’ve worked on have been tissue spine repairs, rebacks, rebinds and custom folder construction,” she said. Olson also works on dehumidification, a process used to fix paper that has been rolled up for a long time and can no longer be spread out flat on a table.

“[We use a] plastic bin with a rack [for the rolled paper] and a smaller bin inside with a sponge. The humidity relaxes the fibers and allows it to re-flatten,” she explained.

Olson described working on custom folder construction for old documents in the libraries during her first year in conservation.

“There were a large number of pamphlets and sheet music from the music library and other libraries that had to be protected by building plastic folders for them,” she said.

Emma Jackman ’19, a geosciences major who has worked in conservation for three years, has also worked on a variety of projects.

“Last semester, I worked on a music score which had original[ly] been three separate score books; at some point, someone stitched the three together but didn’t do a very careful job and over the years the book needed to be rebound properly,” she said. “I called it the ‘Frankenstein book,’ because it was like taking apart three distinct text blocks, each with their own damages, and piecing them together again. The end result was much more stable for the book as a whole, and it was ready to go into general use again.”

Conservation can be hard work, from keeping everything organized in your head to working with your hands.

“Trying to remember all the right materials and steps and measurements is probably the toughest,” said Lindsey Gordon ’21, who also works in conservation.

For example, picking out the correct materials to line spines of books can be a challenge.

“It’s particularly difficult to know what treatment will look like in the end, since unexpected challenges do occasionally arise, and you have to improvise or do your best to cover the damage,” Olson added.

Nevertheless, the students find this kind of work extremely rewarding.

“Rather than throwing a book away or leaving it to disintegrate on the shelf, I like giving new life to the books so that they can be used by me and future students,” Olson said.

Students apply to work in the conservation collections through Handshake. However, most students are not necessarily in majors related to conservation, studio art or literature. Rather, they all have a love of crafts and curiosity. Chloé Kolbet ’18 added that she feels this job is perfect for history buffs.

“I’m artistic and love working with my hands so transferring these interests to conservation work is a good fit. As a classics and French major, I am committed to preserving books’ condition for the study of history,” she said.

Kolbet, who has been working in conservation since 2015 and did a summer internship with the conservation, archives and special collections, enjoys how multifaceted book conservation is.

“I love how book conservation requires strong attention to detail and creativity at the same time,” she said.

Bell also demonstrated the interdisciplinary nature of book conservation. A graduate of Bryn Mawr with a major in physics, Bell never anticipated becoming involved in preservation until she studied materials science as a graduate student. Initially, she aspired to study materials sciences for airplane design but became enamored with the science behind conserving old documents.

When asked about conservation collections’ future goals, Bell responded that she wished to “focus more on unique, rare materials in special collections and archives.” While modern society’s shift to e-books is “not as dramatic” as most people have anticipated, she believes it is important to emphasize the materials that are “unique in their physicality,” such as photographs and architectural plans and items that cannot necessarily be scanned digitally.

The students agreed with Bell that solid books should be conserved.

“I think conservation is important not because of the books themselves, but because of the ideas inside of them,” said Gordon. “A lot of our collection was published before the internet, and there probably isn’t an e-book counterpart. If the book falls apart and just gets thrown out, all of the content within the book would be lost.”

Echoing this sentiment, Jackman said, “I also think there’s an artistic aspect of old books that should be conserved, especially because things like the fabric and way books were bound can’t be conveyed in digital restoration.”

While the world might be drifting slowly towards e-books, the leather of a spine, the stitches in a binding and even the yellowed frayed edges of the pages themselves all tell a story, one that is worth preserving.

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