In the same way that catalogers and archivists make collections accessible through improved arrangement and description, conservators work to make those same collections stable for researchers to use them. But the paper and book conservation lab at the New-York Historical Society didn’t open until the late 1980s. Instead, its predecessor was an in-house bindery that operated between the years of 1929 and 1960, preserving a large portion of our collections in the process.
Among the bindery’s work were many rare pamphlets, such as the 1796 printing of Woman: a poem, by William Boyd, a 19-year-old Harvard student. It systematically bound these pamphlets in cloth case bindings (where the cover or “case” and textblock are assembled separately and then attached, such as the pamphlets above), most often with marbled paper sides. Although few records of this operation have been passed down to us, the bindery did date each item it bound at the back with a stamp. In addition to the now easily recognizable pamphlet re-binding style, the stamp also confirms for us that the re-binding treatment did in fact take place at N-YHS.
Such efforts ensured that these fragile pamphlets survive to this day, yet the library conservation field was just beginning to emerge at this time so the binding materials used in this project were not of the best quality. To combat this shortcoming today, we insert archival paper between the original pamphlet pages and the rest of the binding components. Performing full treatment on every pamphlet bound in those early days would take many years while inserting archival paper tip-ins is a relatively quick procedure that has a greater impact on the overall well-being of our collections. This sustainable approach provides a protective barrier from acids found in low-quality paper materials while maintaining the hardy outer binding that protects inner components from physical damage.
Occasionally, the work of the bindery fails or the pamphlet paper is extremely weakened and damaged. Here, performing full treatment is necessary to make the pamphlet accessible to researchers. Boyd’s poem is a good example; the pages at the back of the text are loose while the paper is embrittled and discolored overall.
We begin treatment by separating the rest of the pamphlet from the binding. Individual pages are dry cleaned to reduce loose surface soil and washed in a calcium carbonate conditioned water bath. We rinse out discoloration caused by harmful decomposition products, such as acids, slowing down the natural aging process of paper.
After washing, thin Japanese paper reinforces the folds of the pages. We use Japanese paper for paper repairs due to its translucency, thinness, and strength (the result of long paper fibers through a specific manufacturing process). We then resew the pamphlet to ease handling and to mimic its appearance when it was first distributed in 1796. Finally, the pamphlet is stored in an archival sling-and-envelope enclosure.
N-YHS bindery projects such as these pamphlets are visible throughout our collections, which also means there’s plenty of follow up work to be done. Scientific advancements that have followed the bindery’s work mean the Conservation Department benefits from a greater understanding of material decomposition and access to modern technologies and products. As a result, even though the work of the N-YHS bindery saved numerous items from being damaged or lost, we can now improve on their efforts while simultaneously continuing their original mission.
This post is by Katarzyna Bator, Assistant Conservator.