Broken bindings: a closer look at conservation (part I)

This is part I of a two-part series on the challenges of conserving Nicholas Crouch’s library. Part II may be viewed here.

Binding together ephemeral material of divergent paper types, ages, and conditions, will cause a number of structural problems. The books in Crouch’s collection have typically wide spines for their small size, mainly because of the quantity of items that were included in the volumes. Animal glue was applied liberally to the tightback spines, which heavily resist opening. Given the stiffness of the volumes in a working collection, it is less of a surprise that so many show heavy creases and splits in the spine – probably indicative of a reader repeatedly forcing the book open at a particular point.

The restricted opening and small size of the volume mean that they are prone to breaking along the spine. Detached boards are also common where the leather and the supports break at the joint. (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
The restricted opening and small size of the volume mean that they are prone to breaking along the spine. Detached boards are also common where the leather and the supports break at the joint

Most of the items in Crouch’s collection have been covered with thinly pared tanned sheepskin. This is notorious for easily lifting and breaking down over time. There’s evidence of further damage to the surface of the leather: possibly from decades of being stored in rooms heated with open fires, and being exposed to smoke and fluctuating humidity. Many of the items have signs of a surface treatment to the leather, which has darkened in places and seems to have exacerbated the flaking, delaminating surface.

Detail of a leather surface showing the crazed and flaking condition (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
Detail of a leather surface showing the crazed and flaking condition

Most of the volumes in this collection use laced in sewing supports and the covering leather as the principle forms of board attachment. Degraded leather can start to split along the joint of a book, where it is constantly being flexed as the book is opened. Usually this will happen first on the left joint, as the beginning of the volume is opened more often than the end. This puts more stress on the supports which may also subsequently break leaving a detached board that no longer protects the textblock and is susceptible to loss. The majority of my work in the studio is finding ways to rebuild the book’s board attachment while preserving the fragile original leather as much as possible. There is always a balance that has to be made between the structural integrity of your repair, and the impact on the materials.

Other typical problems encountered in the collection are found in the textblock. Many of the pamphlets and tracts have had previous lives before being bound together, and this is evident from their variable conditions within the same binding. In a few examples the textblock edges have not been trimmed and are very fragile, still bearing signs of heavy wear and tear. This makes it difficult to handle without causing further damage.

Example of abraded page edges with numerous tears (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
Example of abraded page edges with numerous tears

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator