Unusual Damage

1091MapOne of the most rewarding aspects of working in an academic library is the potential for being exposed to all sorts of new and interesting materials which we might not have sought out deliberately on our own.  However, this can also be one of the drawbacks.  For this month’s 1091 Project, Preservation Assistant Mindy McCoy discusses one aspect of her job that she had never anticipated when she started working in the Preservation Department.

Hunched close to my computer, I click, click, click, making sure images are straight, and that the images will print out just right.  I peek out over the top of my computer, which faces a window looking out into our lab – oh shoot, somebody’s coming!  Quick, click to a different screen!  Phew, that was close!  Sometimes I don’t see a co-worker coming into the office, and I am caught red-handed.  I usually confess before the person has a chance to ask what in the world I am looking at.


Yes, it’s true.  Unfortunately we see plenty of damaged books that have missing pages or images cut out of them.  Many of these missing images are of naked body parts, or scantily clad people in provocative poses – you get the idea, no need for more detail. There is always a big groan in the office when these books with missing images arrive, and also teasing comments between me and my officemate: “I have another good one for you!” One of my duties as Preservation Assistant is to track down replacements for these missing images. I request another copy of the damaged book (we have the option to request scanned pages – but there’s no need for everyone to know what I am working on!) through our interlibrary loan system, so I can scan the images and print out new pages to be tipped back into our copy of the book.

Image from: /Visual thinking: methods for making images memorable/ by Henry Wolf (New York: American Showcase, 1988).  Note: "Censored" banner added by preservation staff for posting on this blog.

Image from: /Visual thinking: methods for making images memorable/ by Henry Wolf (New York: American Showcase, 1988). Note: “Censored” banner added by preservation staff for posting on this blog.

At first, I was kind of embarrassed to be working on these materials, but as time went on, I just realized these books (and the people that take from them) aren’t going away.  These materials are a part of our collection, and need to be preserved just like everything else.  It’s not as embarrassing as it was at first, although I have learned that it’s always nice to have other items (such as the budget, supply orders, or a news website) just a click away in case I do happen to get interrupted.

Don’t forget to visit Preservation Underground to find out what “plain brown paper wrapper” materials Beth Doyle is working on in the Conservation Lab of Duke University Libraries.

Written by Hope Mitchell, Student Technician in the Conservation Lab


As a student technician, one of the things I enjoy the most about my job is the variety; every day has the potential to be completely different from the last and teach me something new and unexpected about conservation. Recently, I was given a book of paint chips titled Color and Color Names, by Gladys and Gustave Plochere, from our General Collection. Published in 1946, Color and Color Names contains 1,536 different color samples. My mission seemed simple: flip through the book and glue down any loose paint chips. What began as a simple task soon turned into nearly a week of poking and prodding over 1,500 paint chips with a microspatula.

Everything was going according to plan until I reached the purple section, where I noticed that the color had begun flaking off the chips. Initially, I tried swiping some PVA over the chip; while that held the flaking paint in place and didn’t compromise the color, it gave the chip a glossy look that didn’t match with the other matte chips.  Realizing that I was in over my head, I asked our conservator, Melissa, what I should do. She suggested that I test a small corner of the paint chip with the consolidant Klucel-G. Ideally, this would help to seal the paint, but there was also a chance that the Klucel-G would shift the color. Sure enough, it did, so we moved on to plan B…


After testing with Klucel-G (lower right corner) and methylcellulose (upper left corner).

Plan B consisted of using water-based methylcellulose instead of solvent-based Klucel-G. Once again, I brushed a small amount of methylcellulose on the corner of the paint chip to determine whether or not it would shift the color. We decided that it would be best to test the methylcellulose on a different corner of the same chip that we had used to test the Klucel-G, our logic being that it was probably best not to risk distorting another chip.  Also, testing on the same color gave us a truer comparison between the effects of the Klucel-G and methylcellulose.   In the end, the methylcellulose was a success! It stabilized the flaking paint without compromising the color, and without making the matte paint chip glossy.


During and After: wet methylcellulose just applied to the paint chip (left); the paint chip after the methylcellulose had dried (right).

What do the four titles Marketing Research; Drinking Water; Herbs, Health and Cookery; and Tigers in the Emerald Forest all have in common?  These are four newly-purchased books coming to the Preservation Department this week for repair.  Two need minor mending repairs and the other two books will need to be recased entirely, as they have major damage.  The worst is Marketing Research — apparently there was no quality control at the publisher’s!  The last four pages had significant damage.  The picture below speaks for itself.

Marketing Research

Marketing Research

It is often too costly for the Library to send books back to the publisher for replacement, so instead they are sent to the Preservation Department for repair.   This used to be a rare occurrence but is now a much more common happening each month.   It is disheartening to see a new book damaged before a student has a chance to crack it open for the first time.  Many bindings such as Herbs, Health, and Cookery fail because of cheap glue and poor construction, which does not hold up to the processing of the book when received at the Library.  All I can say is that when I repair Herbs, Health, and Cookery, it won’t be falling apart later!

Herbs, Health, and Cookery

Herbs, Health, and Cookery

A couple of weeks ago, we were informed by the Stacks Department that we would be receiving a couple of shelves of books that had a mystery substance splattered on them. “Oh, great,” we thought, “what could it be this time?” Working in an academic library, you just never know what you are going to come across. When the books arrived we quickly realized that there were quite a bit more than originally thought – 276 volumes, to be exact, and most had the strange substance splattered on them. It was reddish orange in color – what could it be? We had been told that there was also a spot of the mystery substance on the carpet in the aisle where these books were located. Was it a cup of tomato soup a patron had dropped? Too light to be blood – thank goodness! What could it be?

mystery substance

Since our student workers were gone for the day, I was the lucky one who got to clean these lovelies. I donned my latex gloves, grabbed some damp paper towels, and went to work cleaning what I could off of the books. The books with slick covers were very easy to clean, but those with cloth covers were not. There is still evidence of the splatters on those with cloth covers, as well as on items whose text blocks were spattered.

Twice as I was cleaning, I swore I got a whiff of BBQ sauce. That’s it! That’s what it was! Some student thought it would be fun to stomp on a BBQ sauce packet (easily found at The Hub next door) and spray BBQ sauce all over the books, leaving a nice spot on the floor. I was very proud that I had figured out the mystery. My coworkers agreed that was likely what happened. Oh, but wait, a couple of days later it was revealed that my theory was in fact wrong! What was it, you ask? Well, it was actually an older sprinkler head that was leaking rusty water! It was leaking onto the carpet and when the carpet was saturated enough, it started splattering up onto the surrounding books.

I haven’t heard an update ,but I am assuming the leaky sprinkler head has been taken care of, since we haven’t received any more books with rusty water splattered on them. It just goes to show you never know what is going to enter the lab on any given day. Even though we may cringe at some of the items, it really does make our job quite interesting.

On a recent trip to Kansas City, MO, I dined at a trendy, downtown gastropub where the server brought the check to the table not in one of those ubiquitous pleather folders or on a tray, but rather, tucked between the pages of a cloth publisher’s binding ca. 1910.  I was simultaneously charmed and aghast.  The experience recalled the mix of emotions I feel every time I see books repurposed, whether as objets d’art or as alternatively functional items.

A cloth publisher’s binding from the turn of the 20th century holds the check at Gram & Dun, Kansas City, MO.

As a book conservator, my mind is ever bent toward protecting the book not only as a container for intellectual content, but as a physical artifact which holds evidence of material culture.  I feel strangely torn to see books cleverly repurposed as purses, coasters, and furniture, valued neither for their textual content, nor for their binding structure, but merely as raw material.

Photo credit: Design Every Day Blog. Click image to visit original post.

My inner dilemma arises from the fact that such projects destroy the primary function of a book, and as a conservator, my role is always to preserve and protect that function.  I feel torn because I often genuinely appreciate the result of such projects, and somehow, a project constructed of books still speaks to the constructor’s love of books, albeit for aesthetic rather than informational purposes.  And let’s face it — if a book is no longer valued as a work of textual transmission, if its binding is not unique or rare, then why not give it a second life as some other type of artifact?

Photo Credit: Rookie Magazine. Click image to visit original post.

My devotion to the history of the nineteenth century publisher’s binding (a category of book I consider “medium rare” — not quite Special Collections material yet, but heading in that direction with the passage of time) motivates my strongest caveat in the repurposing of books.  Many of these significant bindings have been lost over time, particularly as a result of commercial binding practices at academic libraries.  While not every publisher’s binding from ca. 1830 to ca. 1920 may be significant as an historical exemplar, the popularity of this type of binding for repurposing chafes my conservation ethos.  And yet… I am still tempted to make myself one of those nifty book purses — with a modern, mass-printed discard, of course!

The BookBook Shelf from design firm Not Tom. Click to view article at Design Buzz.

Preservation professionals, what’s your take on the repurposing of “old” books for new DIY projects?  Librarians? Artists/makers?

Click image to visit the website of artist Brian Dettmer, who transforms books into narrative sculptures.

Mindy Moe thought this might be a cigarette burn caused by some hot ash or a cigarette itself falling into the book.  However it happened, the burn caused a loss of text and image, so we got ahold of another copy of this book via Interlibrary Loan and made a replacement page by scanning the unmarred page in the borrowed book.  We then cut out the damaged page in our copy of the book, leaving a stub, and tipped in the replacement page — a lot of work for one moment of carelessness.  Please don’t burn books!

Click for a sharper, slightly enlarged image.

Martha wrote last Fall about Frankenplan, and now we have Frankenbook in the lab.

Click for a sharper, slightly enlarged image.

It appears that the torn bookcloth was mended by machine before it was used to bind this book.  Have you worked in a bindery?  Do you know what’s going on here…?

Click for a sharper, slightly enlarged image.

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