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

Conserving Crouch: an introduction

A large part of the project is the conservation of the collection, to enable researchers access to the books while preserving the original materials and format of the volumes. The binding structures are an integral part of how the collection has been used historically, giving us an insight into the workings of a seventeenth century academic. A large proportion of the collection’s bindings were commissioned directly by Nicholas Crouch. They collate together the pamphlets and tracts in tightback volumes covered  with thinly pared calf or sheepskin leather, blind tooled fillets and corner fleurons on the cover, and primary endbands in blue and plain colours. Usually although not always the edges are heavily trimmed to make the miscellaneous tracts a uniform size, and Crouch would frequently stain the textblock edges to demarcate the individual pamphlets. Often he would add a handwritten contents page, including notes on the cost of both the binding and its contents.

The structural damage to the volumes is typical of bindings that have to cope with a variety of tightly packed variable material. Splitting spines, broken joints and abraded paper edges are all indicative of the kind of use the volumes received; often illustrating how the collection was a functioning resource rather than a mere depository. The damage is itself a mirror of its use. For a conservator, it is therefore important to bear in mind how to preserve this aspect of the object’s history while simultaneously restoring functionality to the book.

As part of the funding application, a condition survey and work schedule was carried out assessing the scale of damage across the collection and the quantity of work required to treat the books. This survey highlighted priority items and demarcated items for particular levels of treatment. Over the course of the year I will work through the collection, applying a range of treatments from small tear repairs to major board reattachment and rebacking spines.

The project began by lightly surface cleaning every item in the 406 strong collection. This was primarily done using a conservac: equipped with a HEPA filter and a range of specialist nozzles this machine allows you a fine degree of control over dust removal. It ensures that every book in the collection is at least superficially cleaned, a factor that greatly improves handling of the collection. The numerous coloured paper slips that had been inserted by previous researchers were removed: they were cumbersome to handle, would imprint their colour if they got wet and were made of poor quality paper. They were replaced by archival paper flags denoting their shelfmark.  Working through the collection over 5 days gave me a chance to handle every book, assess its criteria for treatment, and carry out some minimal repairs such as stabilising detached endbands and readhering lifting labels.

With every book checked off and cleaned the next stage of the project is underway: bringing batches back to the studio here at the Oxford Conservation Consortium and starting to reattach boards, repair textblocks and fix broken sewing!

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator

The collection in situ prior to treatment (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
The collection in situ prior to treatment
Example of typical damage: detached left board (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
Example of typical damage: detached left board
Nikki Tomkins (project conservator) surface cleaning along the head edge using a conservac (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
Nikki Tomkins (project conservator) surface cleaning along the head edge using a conservac
The in situ conservation work station set up (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
The in situ conservation work station set up
Example of the coloured fore edge (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
Example of the coloured fore edge