Treasure under a desert sun

Nicola Freegard shares her research in Balliol’s Historic Collections and the remarkable story of the gift that she gave to the College in return:

The annual car enthusiasts’ yard sale was an unexpected stop for me that winter day in 2015.  Set up outside on the pavement around the Shriner Temple, just a few hundred yards from my home in Tucson, Arizona, lay a collection of old army jeeps, 50’s cars, bumpers and unrecognizable pieces of car parts and road signs for avid collectors.  Under the cover of a torn tarp, shadowing a warm winter desert sun, I came across a small, brown leather-bound book laying hidden in a plastic crate of car parts.  Excited by my find, I flipped the book open and saw the brown ink of verse fall across a page, and quickly closed it. Instinctively, I rushed enthusiastically to purchase it when the seller said his asking price was $5.00, and the only information I got from him was, “That one’s old.”  I tucked it in my handbag and hurried home.

Back in my writing studio, I cautiously opened the book and began to read.  The pages were clearly legible and unfaded, lightly yellowed with age and filled with a beautiful, cursive handwriting, permeated with the dusky aroma of another time. At the top of the inner first page was the handwritten year 1797, and a name: ‘Fanny Merivale’.  The first entry was a poem – “The Exile” – and the entry dated March 1797. The notebook contained around 80 pages of poetry and verse.  Some original, some (as I later discovered) by the writer’s brother, John Hermann Merivale, and some by Robert Burns, Lord Byron and other popular poets of the day. The authors of some still remain mysterious.  Over the coming months, I would spend hours researching through ancestry sites to find any information I could that would help me understand who Fanny Merivale was and why this journal was in Tucson.

After an extensive google search, I stumbled upon the digitized materials of Balliol College Library which mentioned her name in a ‘Family Memorial’.   This book, documented by several generations, covered her ancestry through her grandparents, parents, her siblings and then her nephew and niece.  I read it hungrily from cover to cover, learning about the family secrets, hardships and celebrations, and fascinated by the vivid descriptions of a warm and loving young Frances (Fanny).  I was now led deep into a story of a family that intrigued me. I found myself impossibly entwined because, as I dug further, I discovered we held some blurred connections which gave cause to wonder –  had Fanny been reaching out that day to me, to pull her from the box of car parts?

Being British born and having emigrated to the United States in the early 1980’s myself, I was also drawn into the provenance of the book and how it had arrived, in a box of discarded items, in this small Arizona city.  Every friend I told the story to, had asked me, “But how did it get to Tucson?”  I was not able to reach out to the man who had sold it to me at the yard sale, and I felt some guilt because I had not done my due diligence in asking more questions.  I had to dig deeper.

My curiosity only grew when I learned Fanny had lived just a few streets away from my father’s house in Highgate, London; albeit 230 years earlier.  Her nephew had attended the very same small school, in Hertfordshire, that my father and brother had attended, when it had made its transition from the East India Company College to the public school that is now known as Haileybury. Her nephew had walked the same cloisters as they.  Her mother was a German who had moved to England, as was mine.  Frances had spent holidays in Hastings, East Sussex (then the hot new tourist destination for Londoners looking for some fresh sea air) where my mother also had been living for the past 40 years.   There were enough parallels to get my attention and lead me to pursue the idea of unravelling Frances Merivale’s story, with a creative purpose of seeking out a motive for either a book or screenplay treatment. Perhaps, had I found this notebook in a market stall in England, I would have been less surprised by our comparative connections; but it was undeniably remarkable that my fellow countrywoman had appeared in Tucson two centuries later, echoing similarities of my own family story.

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‘Sonnet by Miss Hole — 1793’ – one of several poems attributed to female authors in Frances Merivale’s commonplace book.

In 2016 I wrote to an email address on the Balliol College Library website to discuss this notebook.  The curator responded with interest.  Subsequently, on my next visit to London, I made the journey to Oxford with my then 14-year-old son to take the notebook to the curator for review, and to confirm that it was authentic, and not my imagination playing tricks.  The added experience of sharing the history of Balliol College and Oxford’s libraries with my son was worth the long journey.   This small purchase led us to stand in front of an impressive exhibition, on display at the Bodleian, of the original Magna Carta, as well as first and second edition William Shakespeare publications, making it a memory which is now etched into our own collective family experience.  My son put down his phone.  He took notice of the grand scheme of things, and as a parent, it felt like an event of immense value.   Even he, with his American teenage attitude, was impressed by this experience.  It was the moment when it occurred to me that this was the best $5.00 I’d ever spent!

Over the following two years, my research continued whenever possible.  The curator at Balliol confirmed the common notebook’s authenticity, inspiring further reading through a multitude of digitized documents. I was led through the tranquil life of Frances Merivale’s childhood in Devon, when she had started the notebook, to its final entry of verse in July 1816, entitled “Lines on the Splendid Funeral of R. B. Sheridan”. This was penned shortly after her sister’s own death, which was, by accounts, a tragic and life changing loss to Frances, throwing her into deep depression.  It was this that sparked the family’s need to help her move on, and after introductions, she was proposed to by a young man who was recently widowed, John Lewis Mallet.    There was record of an etching completed by Frances (a competent art student) held in archive at the Tate Gallery.  Reading further of her brother’s close friendship with Lord Byron at Cambridge, her family life, and her eventual marriage to John Lewis, son of the renowned French political journalist of the time, Jacques Mallet du Pan, I was compelled to continue.

Through those digitized files held in Balliol’s Historic Collections, I was able to research her childhood home, discovering portraits of her father, husband and family members (although sadly, I have not yet found a portrait of Frances).  I read in detail about her tranquil life before marriage, then about the move to her first married home in Russell Square, where she wrote descriptively of the fields that surrounded them when they first moved in – now hard to imagine; I learned of the subsequent and final home she shared with her husband for the last half of her life, not far from Windmill Hill.

She was raised into a society filled with art and poetry, like many young women of her day, yet she was surrounded with some of the most eminent creatives of her era, and the influence of that was deeply evident.   As a writer in research, I was driven to find something more than her quiet life in Exeter, and her painting excursions along the muddy banks of the River Exe.  Her young adult life was tranquil and full of love for her family.  However, I did not want to recreate Little Women.  Frances’ life was a period piece captured with both charm and comfort.

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Frances Merivale’s commonplace book includes poems by famous writers such as Robert Burns.

This past summer, I took a leap of faith and funded a trip specifically with the purpose of going deeper.  Research required I go to Balliol’s Historic Collections in St Cross Church in person.  With the help of the library staff, I spent a focused week pouring over the sections of the Mallet family archives that related to Frances and John Lewis Mallet in person.  Not really knowing what to expect or find, I was treasure hunting again, reading many letters (mostly scribed in French in very tiny spidery penmanship).  A few days in, among the boxes of letters and transcripts, lay the autobiography of the story that captured me.

Frances had led me here to her husband, John Lewis Mallet, who in later life served as a rising star of the Whig party and a respectable civil servant of colonial Britain.  Mallet had published an autobiographical book specifically for his family’s own reading and sense of their place in history, outlining a compelling story of his life as a young man, at the beginning of violent change in his then home town of Paris, in 1792. Here he stood alongside his father, Jacques Mallet du Pan, who, under strict instruction from Napoleon, was to be executed or exiled from France in response to the publication of du Pan’s liberal published journal criticizing the Revolution. The Revolutionary Tribunal at the Bastion in 1794 was the turning point for John Lewis (then John Louis) and his father, whose friends included Voltaire, among other influential philosophers. In du Pan’s own words: “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”  Father and son fled Paris on foot in the dark of night, leaving family and friends, in the hopes that they could seek refuge within Switzerland, the birthplace of Jacques Mallet du Pan, with a loose plan to reunite with loved ones later.  Without a firm destination, John Louis recounts his story as a young man finding his place in an upturned world, with a tough journey of self-discovery, but also of his passage towards a new life in a vastly changing Europe.

Because of Balliol’s Library resources, an intimate world opened wide, and travels to locations I was compelled to experience through his eyes:  Geneva, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Paris, France as well as my home town of London.  The depth of my subjects’ own words, the descriptions of the times and textures of the characters surrounding them, breathed life into this valuable history lesson, and insight into the suffering that occurred through the rise of nationalism. He eloquently revealed how the Revolution unfurled a particular cruelty among the nobles and working class of Europe. These documents have provided me with a complex foundation for the story that I became inspired to tell by this research. My work is still in process as I write this, and I anticipate its first draft completion in the coming year.

Balliol’s Historic Collections have provided me the luxury to delve into a deeply personal creative experience and uncover a moving historical personal story of courage and strength in a time of far reaching social and political upheaval.   Without such archives, I have no doubt I would have held onto Frances Merivale’s common place book, and it would have remained in my own library, another remnant of an unknown and disconnected past collecting dust. Because it sparked curiosity, it has given so much in return.   I am still working on the ‘How did it get to Tucson?’ part, and that may end up revealing itself soon.  I’ve learned that several of the Mallet family future generations also emigrated to the United States in the late nineteenth century.  Another parallel I could not brush off.  I will continue to follow this lead as I work on the next chapters.

I had no plan to become a savant of the Mallet family when I started this journey.  It’s the fourth year into the project, and now the Mallets have become a part of my everyday life –  a reminder that their history is entwined in our present; that the common experience of social upheaval set 200 years earlier is not much different than the current political climate.   They are now familiar friends from another time; discovered through a notebook found in a box of car parts under the desert sun.  This commonplace book now resides in the care of Balliol’s Historic Collections, digitized to share, where it will remain in safe keeping with the remnants of Frances’ letters and the volumes of work of the Mallets family archives. Now I am telling their story.

We are grateful to Nicola Freegard for her discovery and subsequent gift. Frances Merivale’s commonplace book is now Manuscript 477 in Balliol’s Historic Collections. It has been fully conserved and digitised by the Oxford Conservation Consortium, with a view to making the images available online in future.



The binders behind the books

We all too often read books without noticing their bindings. Particularly when the books are old, brown volumes like those from Nicholas Crouch’s library. However, the binding as a physical object can tell so many stories: they are the products of seventeenth-century craftsmanship, and through the leather or the sewing structure, the decorated edges and the coloured endbands, we can read so much more beyond the pages.

Book conservators are well trained in how to read a book’s binding for clues as to its history. We trace materials and techniques to particular places and times, reading repairs and damage as indicators of how the object has been used. In conservation work, we document each object that comes into the studio: taking note of how it is sewn, its size, materials used. For the Nicholas Crouch project, the documentation took the form of digital spreadsheets, allowing us to build up a body of data on the collection. By the end of the project, we had documented 132 volumes.  This data is now available to researchers by contacting Balliol Library.

One of Crouch’s legacies to us, are his detailed contents pages that list not only the items and their costs, but also the cost of the binding, and in some cases who the binder was and the date of the binding. By including these notes in the object documentation, we were able to link specific named binders with the decorative tools on the cover, sewing style, and edge decoration. These markers can be read like binders’ signatures, and by building up a body of data, patterns and comparisons could be drawn up throughout the collection. Here are some of the binders that can be traced in Crouch’s books


Alum tawed sewing supports, sometimes cord; edge colouring on all edges.

binder 2


Alum tawed or tanned sewing supports; head and tail edges sprinkled, fore edge coloured (red, plain).

binder 2


Alum tawed sewing supports; edge colouring on all edges (blue, red, yellow)

binder 3


Mostly cord sewing supports; head and tail edges sprinkled, for edge coloured (red, yellow)

binder 4

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator

Many minds and hands

Reconstructing Nicholas Crouch project year 2

Our Wellcome Trust funded project to catalogue and conserve Nicholas Crouch’s Library has just entered its second year. Let’s look at what has been achieved so far.


All planned conservation has been completed. Nikki Tomkins, from the Oxford Conservation Consortium, cleaned and, where appropriate, made protective boxes for just over 400 books. A further 159 received more in-depth treatments, from minor binding repair to complete re-backing. All treatments were sensitive to the integrity of the original binding. So although Nikki’s work has stabilized the bindings to the point where we can use them without fear that they will crumble apart in our hands they will never be as good as new. Nikki reflected on how best to make future readers aware of the limitations of the bindings and encourage good handling practice in order to ensure their preservation. She came up with this augmented shelf mark label with clear information about where the binding is weak and how to handle it sensitively:

One of Crouch's Sammelband (Balliol Shelf 915 g 9) with conservation slip

Nikki also gathered together detailed information about the construction and decoration of the bindings she worked on. This, together with Crouch’s notes of the binder and the cost of binding, will be a rich resource for discovering more about how the collection was used and about seventeenth-century binding in Oxford more generally. Nikki presented her work at talks for a Book History Research Network Study Day on 21 April 2017 and Balliol’s Unlocking Archives series on 24 May 2017. Nikki will also be talking at the Copenhagen Care and Conservation of Manuscripts conference next April.


Our project cataloguer, Lucy Kelsall left Balliol in March 2017 to take up the post of Florence Fearrington Rare Materials Cataloger at the Rare Book School based at the University of Virginia. This was not before she had made catalogue records for a staggering 3,076 items bound in the 413 sammelbands in the collection. As she worked, Lucy brought together information about the collection in a variety of formats, taking images of interesting annotations and recording statistics about the volumes in a comprehensive spreadsheet. Some of her discoveries were presented in an Unlocking Archives talk on 9 March 2017 and others in posts for the Library’s Historic Collections blog. Lucy and Nikki discussed their work on a University of Oxford Podcast in conversation with Balliol Fellow, Adam Smyth.

Lucy’s cataloguing revealed that Nicholas Crouch wrote shelf marks in his books. So staff turned detective and identified around 106 more volumes on our shelves that bear Crouch’s probable provenance.  Finding a cataloguer to finish off the project at short notice could have been difficult but Sophie Floate, who is cataloguing collections at Brasenose, Corpus Christi and Harris Manchester, kindly made some time for to help us out. She has currently made around 300 records.  This leaves around 70 bibliographic items left to catalogue before the end of the year.

One of the most interesting finds of the project has been the identification of several lists of books in Crouch’s handwriting.  These include a list of books he lent and who borrowed them, running from 1653-1689.


James Howarth, Assistant Librarian, made a transcription of this list and a comprehensive attempt to identify the individuals and the books that Crouch noted. Nicholas Crouch’s entry in the Donation Register has also been transcribed and many of the titles matched with books in Balliol’s collections.

Thanks to our Archivist, Anna Sander, images of all of the manuscripts in Crouch’s collection are on the Balliol Archives Flickr page and descriptions of many of them are now available through the Archives Hub.

The Future

Though the project funding has allowed us to go a long way towards making this fascinating collection accessible, there is still more to do. In terms of conservation, Nikki has identified a further 92 of the sammelbands that ideally would have some form of treatment to allow us to handle them without causing damage. The conservation of Crouch’s books will continue, feeding into our ongoing program of conservation. This has already begun with a condition survey of the 106 newly identified volumes.

With conservation and cataloguing nearing completion, we can move to the next stage in making Crouch’s Library accessible. We will actively promote it through an exhibition and related talks planned for Autumn 2018. We also hope to hold an academic conference around the project and to find ways to fund future academic research into the collection.

Coming towards the end of the project, it seems as if we have uncovered lots of fragments of a historical artefact – Crouch’s library (or libraries). Now we need to hold them out to be viewed from different angles, pieced together and made sense of. It is also likely that there are still more pieces of the puzzle to discover: books belonging to Nicholas Crouch offered in his bequest but not put into the College Library; documents relating to Crouch and his family in other archives; traces in the landscapes Crouch inhabited such as his family house at Higham Gobion.

As you can see from the number of contributors mentioned in this report, this has been a truly collaborative project. In Nicholas Crouch’s reconstructed library, there is still further work to be done by many more minds and hands.

By Naomi Tiley,
Librarian, Balliol College


Materials: Part 2

All of the pamphlets and tracts that Crouch collected were printed on paper. The boards of the bindings are constructed out of paper that is layered together, and twisted rolls of paper are used as the cores of the endbands. Paper plays an important role in the repair of the volumes too: from fixing tears, to reinforcing board attachments.

Paper is constructed from plant fibres that are beaten to a pulp and suspended in water before being pressed and dried. The source of fibres and technique of production are major factors in the quality and character of the final material. There was no paper making machine in the 17th century, so all of the paper in the Crouch volumes would have been made by hand, using a mould and deckle. The quality of paper between the items varies, depending on its age and source.

2. Paper made using a mould and deckle (image: Wikimedia commons)
2. Paper made using a mould and deckle (image: Wikimedia commons)

Paper is also used extensively in conservation treatments. In particular, Japanese papers and tissues are prized for their long fibres, strength, and durability. Japan has a long history of traditional paper making, a process called ‘Washi’ that is protected by UNESCO intangible world heritage status.

3. Traditional Japanese paper making (image: Wikimedia commons)
3. Traditional Japanese paper making (image: Wikimedia commons)

The Japanese papers used in the conservation of the Crouch collection are machine made using kozo fibres. These come from the inner bark for the Paper Mulberry tree, native to Asia.

4. Leaves of the Paper Mulberry tree broussonetia papyrifera and strips of the inner Kozo bark (image: Wikimedia commons)
4. Leaves of the Paper Mulberry tree broussonetia papyrifera and strips of the inner Kozo bark (image: Wikimedia commons)

The Kozo fibres are long, thin and contain a very high molecular weight of cellulose: the primary component of paper. This makes the material strong, durable, and flexible.

6. A selection of different Kozo fibre paper weights
5. A selection of different Kozo fibre paper weights

The RK15 tissue used is 10gsm (grams per square  metre) in weight, and is used primarily to repair tears in the textblock given its light weight and semi translucency.

The RK17 tissue is heavier at 19gsm, and is usually used in the Crouch collection for strengthening splits in the textblock or as a preliminary spine lining.

RK 32 and 36 are around 34 gsm in weight, and opaque in appearance. They take tone well, and are usually used as a thicker, stronger paper for joint repair.

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator


Materials: Part 1

Most historical books will use some kind of glue somewhere in the binding to hold it all together, whether that is to adhere the covering materials down or attach the supports to the boards. Often books will break because the adhesive has failed – becoming brittle, cracking, or losing tack. Other times it is the binding materials that deteriorate, and removing them intact requires removing the old adhesive.

Traditionally, animal glue is the most common adhesive used in bookbinding. This is usually derived from the skin of animals, such as rabbits. It turns liquid upon heating, and makes a strong, flexible glue. Over time this adhesive can deteriorate: exposed to heat and fluctuating environmental conditions the molecules can crosslink and turn the glue hard and brittle.

2. Cooking wheat starch paste (Photo: Nikki Tomkins)
2. Cooking wheat starch paste (Photo: Nikki Tomkins)

When new material is used to help reattach the boards during conservation, that too needs to be adhered into place. Introducing new adhesive into a binding is a considered choice: it’s important to choose a substance that is in keeping historically, can be removed if needed, and suits the materials present both old and new. Japanese Jin-Shofu Wheat Starch Paste is used almost exclusively in the conservation of Crouch’s collection. This is a refined version of flour paste, where the starch is separated from the rest of the wheat. Here in the studio, it is made to a 25% w/v in deionized water concentration, and cooked for 40 minutes until sufficiently tacky.  For binding conservation, the paste is kept dry and viscous. This makes it stronger and reduces the risk of introducing too much moisture into old materials. Moisture can darken old deteriorated leather, or weaken parts of the structure.

In the case of the Crouch volumes, this adhesive has been used liberally on the spine and boards to adhere the covering leather. When the board attachment breaks down, it is necessary to separate the original leather from the spine or the boards. This can usually be done mechanically: using a sharp blade or very thin spatula. Sometimes the spine will need to be cleaned of old glue before applying new linings. Animal glue will soften with moisture, and so a poultice is applied that gradually works on the glue without making the paper spine folds underneath too wet. The glue can then be carefully scraped away.

Sometimes flour pastes are also used in traditional bookbinding. This is derived from wheat flour, where heating the flour in water causes the grains to swell and secrete proteins that create the tackiness. You might find it used to adhere a pastedown, or a tipped in paper page. It is generally less thick and strong as animal glue, and can be more useful for the more fragile paper components in a binding – however, both can be found interchangeably on historic bindings.

When new material is used to help reattach the boards during conservation, that too needs to be adhered into place. Introducing new adhesive into a binding is a considered choice: it’s important to choose a substance that is in keeping historically, can be removed if needed, and suits the materials present both old and new. Japanese Jin-Shofu Wheat Starch Paste is used almost exclusively in the conservation of Crouch’s collection. This is a refined version of flour paste, where the starch is separated from the rest of the wheat. Here in the studio, it is made to a 25% w/v in deionized water concentration, and cooked for 40 minutes until sufficiently tacky.  For binding conservation, the paste is kept dry and viscous. This makes it stronger and reduces the risk of introducing too much moisture into old materials. Moisture can darken old deteriorated leather, or weaken parts of the structure.

3. Wheat starch paste, sieved and ready for application (Photo: Nikki Tomkins)
3. Wheat starch paste, sieved and ready for application (Photo: Nikki Tomkins)

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator

Endbands and the conservation of the Coningesby catalogues

In which a 21st century conservator uses a medieval technique to repair an 18th century book

The conservation of a four-volume set of 18th century folio library catalogues was recently completed for Balliol College Library.

The catalogues are large, heavy books bound in brown, reverse sheep leather and contain a printed Bodleian catalogue of 1738 with Balliol’s holdings underlined or noted  on interleaved manuscript pages. They form the main record of the large donation left to the College by George Coningesby in 1768. Books belonging to him are marked ‘Cy’ in the catalogue.

These working books showed signs of handling commensurate with their 300-year life in a busy library. Because of their poor condition the books could not be safely consulted without fear of causing further damage.

One of the main problems to be addressed during the project was the weak board attachments; the sewing was still intact but the leather had split along the joints and the cord supports were weak or had completely split. A key element of the treatment proposal was to reinstate the missing endbands. New endbands would not only restore the former aesthetic of the books, they would also form an important structural part of the in-situ repair. The endbands would provide extra strength to the board attachment, and support to the heavy text-blocks, without having to completely re-sew the leaves.  None of the original endbands had survived; however, fragments of thread (tie-downs) still present between the leaves were evidence that they did exist, and that they were alternating blue and natural linen colour –  typical of those commonly found on 18th century Oxford bindings.[1] 

By the 1700’s endbands had lost much of their structural function as bookbinders tried to keep up with increased demand: what was once part of the mechanics, had by this point become simply a decorative part of the binding. [2] Therefore, new endbands were devised for the Coningesby catalogues which took inspiration from earlier medieval bindings; the new endbands would match those now lost but would offer the much needed support which hadn’t been provided before.

Working the endbands: decorative secondary sewing
Working the endbands: decorative secondary sewing

New structural endbands were created using a traditional medieval two-part process: strong primary thread wound around a thick linen core to form the base of the structure, and then thinner coloured thread worked over the top to for decoration.[3] Rather than lacing the cores through new holes pierced into the boards, a less invasive approach was to splay out the ends and paste them between the layers of board which had been laminated together. This provided a strong connection between the loose boards and the text-block. It was important that the new endbands should sit harmoniously with the original binding so new threads were hand-dyed with natural indigo to match the thread that survived. Hand dyeing threads rather than using pre-dyed thread offered a better range to choose from and produced a good match to the distinctive natural indigo colour used in the early 18th century.

The new indigo endband with the cores sandwiched into the boards
The new indigo endband with the cores sandwiched into the boards

The conserved catalogues can now be safely consulted in the Library once more.  The new medieval inspired endbands have contributed to a sympathetic but robust repair which should help to extend the life of these unique books for many years.

18th century Balliol Library catalogue after conservation
After conservation

By Arthur Green 

Book Conservator


[1] David Pearson, Oxford Bookbinding 1500-1640, (Oxford Bibliographical Society, 2000), 50.

[2] Nicholas Pickwoad, Onwards and Downwards: how binders coped with the printing press before 1800, (Oak Knoll Press, 1994), 80.

[3] For more information on medieval endbands see: Arthur Green, A compensation endband: a structural endband for a book with uneven edges. (Journal of the Institution of Conservation Vol. 39(2), 2016) 158-169. 


Split spines and broken joints

Conservation is continually informed by principles of minimal intervention in considering a treatment’s approach: finding solutions to problems that avoid loss of material and preserve as much of the original structure as possible. In the case of Crouch’s collection, many of the volumes have splits in the spine and detached boards.

The conventional solution would be to reback the volume: removing the original spine, and providing new linings and leather over the spine and onto the boards. This forms part of the board attachment and allows access to reinforce the sewing. Often the original spine is then re-adhered, however this is not always possible when the leather is in a very degraded condition.  Additionally, the introduction of layers of new material on the spine can affect the opening characteristics of small, narrow volumes. Loss of the original spine and the impact on the opening structure are strong arguments for finding an alternative solution.

Example of a detached left board, and split in the spine (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
Example of a detached left board, and split in the spine

It is often easier to lift just the label when the spine covering leather is highly deteriorated. This allows access to the spine where linings of Japanese paper and linen are applied. This not only consolidates weaknesses and break points in the spine, but also forms part of the board attachment.

Replacing the label (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
Replacing the label

Once the label is replaced, the treatment is less visually obtrusive than a reback. Textile and Japanese paper is also used at head and tail of the spine, where the leather is easier to lift. This technique is not as strong for the textblock as rebacking, but it does preserve most of the spine while still imparting considerably more structural strength. The final object is still fragile and should be handled with care, but the boards are reattached and the breaks in the spine are held together.

  1. Removal of the label in one piece, exposing the leather below
  2. Using a poultice of wheat starch paste, the leather and animal glue are scraped away exposing the backs of the sections.
  3. A first layer of Japanese paper is applied using wheat starch paste. This provides a protective barrier between the textblock and subsequent layers, and a primary layer to hold together the sections.
  4. Layer of textile adhered to bridge splits and consolidate the textblock, with extensions either side for the board attachment.
  5. Toned paper adhered, providing an extra layer while also matching the repair to the original covering leather. Textile and toned paper are also inserted at the head and tail of the spine to support the board attachment.
  6. The original label is adhered back in place, and the lining extensions adhered underneath the covering leather on the boards.

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator

Anatomy of a binding

Each aspect of a book’s binding holds information about its history:  from the materials used, to the mechanical structure. A key part of this project is documenting specific aspects of Crouch’s bindings, both to understand their damage and to trace the history of the collection.

The following diagram illustrates some of the key components of a binding:

Key components of a binding (Sketch and photograph by Nikki Tomkins)

Book bindings can vary hugely, and often certain styles and techniques will be specific to one bindery. Crouch’s collection was probably commissioned by Crouch himself, from an Oxford binder. There are clear stylistic similarities throughout the collection. The following diagrams illustrate some of the typical features of a Crouch binding:

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However, among these common stylistic features there is still a great deal of variation: from the tool of the corner fleuron used, to the material of the sewing support and the colours of the endbands.

Examples of different tools used (Sketch and photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
Examples of different tools used
A selection of Crouch bindings displayed fore edge out, as they were probably intended to be (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
A selection of Crouch bindings displayed fore edge out, as they were probably intended to be

Each of these details are documented when an item comes into the studio in order to build up a body of data on the bindings and begin to trace a timeline of when, where and how they were bound together. It will teach us a little more about the mind of Nicholas Crouch, a man who evidently took pride in the organisation of his collection.

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator

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

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

Most of the treatments will use a combination of Aerocotton, sewing threads and Japanese papers. These materials are chosen for their strength, quality, and flexibility; are toned using acrylic dyes with a good light fastness, and adhered in place using a 25% wheat starch paste. The size of the book, scale of the problem and condition of the leather are all important factors to weigh up when choosing a suitable treatment. Where the outer leather is beginning to split at the head and tail, often it is enough to lift the leather and insert bridges of toned material between the spine and the board. This pulls the boards back into place, and gives support to the unbroken board attachment.

Before (left) and after (right) treatment, showing how toned Japanese paper can be used to bridge splitting joints

Where the board is completely detached, more is required to make sure that the repair is durable. Given the condition of the leather, it is better to find solutions that interfere as little as possible with the original leather. If possible, sewing threads can be an excellent mechanical board attachment. Inserted into the middle of a section close to the joint, the sewing threads are twisted round the support, frayed out and adhered to the upper edge of the board. Toning in situ or covering with toned paper can further disguise the treatment, and consolidate the attachment.

The principal aim of conserving the collection is to make the objects accessible to readers  while preserving their original materials and structure, key components of Crouch’s collection. After treatment the books will still be fragile and should be handled with care: aspects such as restricted opening and degraded leather are inherent to the object. However, boards will be reattached and torn pages repaired making the objects far more accessible to researchers of both the content and the bindings.

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator

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