Conservation of reused bindings (part two)

Jun 12, 2021 12:37 · 2563 words · 13 minute read

The speaker is paper and book conservator. Rita Udina, from Barcelona, Spain, is working at her own private conservation lab where she works for archives, museums, libraries and private collectors since 1999. She occasionally collaborates with other private conservation  studios in other countries such as India, France, USA, Italy and others. The title of her lecture is “Conservation of reused bindings”. Rita, the floor is yours! Good afternoon! Can you hear me? Thanks for inviting me to this conference.

Honouring the title of the lecture “Conservation of reused bindings” I’m recycling a former lecture of two months ago, but I will share diverse study cases which are more complex than the previous time. “Fragmentology” and “disjecta membra” are two terms related to the recycling of materials in bookbinding. I want to group them in two. From one side all the most common cases of waste material, mainly documents, that are reused as part of the binding. For instance we have here a hinge  of a book which is in fact a fragment of a manuscript about laws, and it holds the sewing of a printed book about medicine.

So, the contents are usually not connected to each other. And in the second group we will have all those bindings which have been fully recycled. So, the binding of a book is recycled to become the binding of another book. Mainly referring to “disjecta membra”, the scattered fragments (the first group)  I have two diverse approaches on the conservation treatment of this type of bindings. That’s the first one, it is an incunabula from Girona, and there are  reuse of materials both in the binding -as you can see here- and paper repairs.

Taking a closer look at the recycled manuscript used as a limp vellum binding we can tell that the calligraphy looks much older than the printed book.

02:58 - However waste material is necessarily older than the current use, so it’s not a relevant data regarding the dating of the binding.

03:09 - It might be of importance to locate it, but never to date it -when it’s older-.

03:20 - But we were luckier for the endpapers, which are in fact a much more recent printed paper than the book itself. So, if the fragment is more recent than the text, we know how old can the binding be, a few centuries away from the book, for instance.

03:46 - If conservation requires disassembling, we can take advantage of this fact  and digitize the image of the fragments that were formerly hidden in the binding. However we need to be aware that a digital image is never the same as an original, and  many other analyses will be restricted once the fragments are taken back to their use. That’s the book before conservation, and after conservation. I didn’t want to hide these evidences of recycling, and you can still see them.

We see the second use, and we have limited access to the first use: the fragments, the documents, with the digitized image. As a summary for this conservation treatment: a lot of work to hardly see any differences. The second example is a another limp vellum binding from Lleida. It’s a manuscript, and the binding is -again- a recycled manuscript.

05:11 - You might not see but it’s a reverse parchment, and there is already text in this side, but it’s so damaged that it’s scarcely visible.

05:24 - The inner side was written as well, but the turn-in prevents to have full access to the text, as well as the sewing. The poor condition of this binding, or what’s left of it, made it better to reproduce the binding, because it’s not really possible to restore these pieces and have at the same degree  readability of the hidden parts, and a proper binding that holds the textblock. There was a label in the spine that maybe it’s not visible, because it’s so dirty.

So, after removing the binding we can access it. This is the outer side after cleaning and making a UV photograph. And now we can see the hidden text under the label. So the binding was reproduced, and the label placed in the reproduction. I needed to guess the tackets, that were missing on the original binding. And all the extracted fragments were kept aside and we can check on them whenever we want.

06:55 - So, we see a lot: we see much better the text on the fragments, the components of the sewing, we have a new binding… so we should be very satisfied. But, honestly, I’m not that satisfied because this is a reproduction. It shall never  be the same as an original. But we cannot have functionality and the same, at the same time. The treatment is easier, less time consuming, and we see everything, separately. Let’s compare these two diverse approaches: This is before conservation, and this is after.

07:51 - In the first case we barely see any difference and we have restricted access to the hidden fragments through a digital image, and in the second case we have full access to everything, we can do as many analyses as we want -now and in the future- but we see a very different thing from what we had. We don’t see the recycling that easier, so our brain needs to do a bigger effort to rebind the book and see the fact that it’s a fragmentology case. That’s the thing! To conclude for the case of scattered fragments, of disjecta membra: It should be as easy as valuing the importance of the fragment and compare it to the importance of the object as a whole, but of course it’s not as easy as that, because the conservation condition of each of the parts modifies this balance.

And the available resources also modify our decision making. OK, so enough scattering! Let’s get all together to the conservation of recycled bindings: A binding that is fully recycled for another book. I have this example, which is a manuscript from Tàrrega, and I want you to take a few seconds to take a look and make your own opinion both about the binding and about the conservation treatment. I am starting from the end, showing you the result.

So we see that the fore-edge is somehow coming off the binding, and we also see a very clumsy sewing in the spine. Taking a closer look we see that there are evidences of tackets in the front cover. Only the holes in the bottom, but the top one is in good condition, both inside and outside of the turnin. But we see no evidence of the tackets in the back cover, not even the holes. And, in fact, the back cover seems that it has been cut because there is not even the turnin of the binding.

10:55 - This is the back cover, and you know that accidental tears have irregular shapes, but even if the fold of the turnin was here, or here, this is a much too straight shape to be accidental. It clearly seems like it had been cut. Anyway, looking for symmetries to find the tackets, it was clear that the back cover is in fact a bit wider than the front one, so: What type of binding has this structure? - No tackets and no turnin in the back, - and narrower in the front… ? A flap! A flap provides this structure. Good! so if there is a flap, we don’t need any tacket in the back cover because it’s laced in the flap, but then, there should be a fastening to close this flap, and the fastening should be held in the front cover somehow. So where are the evidences of this fastening? Here they are! We didn’t find the fastening, but the holes that held it on the front cover. Good! If we open the binding they are even more evident.

And this explains why the front cover is narrower: the existence of a flap. So I assume that there had been a flap, but none of these evidences show or prove that this is the case of a recycled binding.

13:01 - We shall look for them in the spine. At least the binding seems not only narrower, but also shorter, and this could point at recycling. Though not definitive. We also see that the spine is much narrower than the actual text block, but this is not definitive either because you all know that other gatherings were commonly added after binding. But what is really weird is that the sewing starts in the middle of the spine. This shifting of the textblock has two possible explanations: 1) Either there are missing gatherings in the beginning, which is possible.

2) or they recycled the binding and started a bit beyond to match the width of the second use of the binding. But still it’s a possibility, it’s not a conclusive evidence.

14:21 - Where is that? Here it is! Here we have two pairs of aligned holes of a former sewing matching exactly the width of the spine, and corresponding to the two tackets of a regular sewing. So, bookbinder: we got you! Here’s to you! OK so we know that the binding had a flap, and we know that it’s a recycled binding. But we don’t know whether the recycling had the flap, or not. In my opinion it’s most likely that the flap was foregone with the recycling.

They might have cut the flap to adjust the binding to a wider textblock. But we really cannot know with these evidences. I have spent 12 slides only to examine the binding and I have not even started the conservation treatment! My first dilemma was: do I have to reconstruct the flap, or not?  I would prevail the second use of the binding, because that’s the ultimate. However in this case the second use was much too weak. It was a very weak structure: the pages in the front and in the fore-edge are very much unprotected, and the missing tackets on the back cover make it very weak both for the binding and for the folios, so I added a flap which was in the first use and solves all these issues.

Because now, even if the front cover is narrower, the folios are protected. And in the back cover the binding is perfectly secured. This is the loose turnin, and this is after conservation. The turnin is attached through a tacket in the flap, and it’s not damaging the folios anymore. Apart from adding a flap, I also made other structural modifications.

17:18 - In green you see the location of the second sewing in this binding, which is shifted away from the front cover. But I moved it towards the front cover because I wanted to avoid this gap, because the fold of the first use was very strong So I brought the book towards the front cover. This is the gap before conservation, and no such gap after conservation. I guess many of you see another modification, which is the addition of an inner parchment reinforcement.

That’s because after the consolidation of the binding there were still many holes in the spine, and tears that did not guarantee that the sewing would resist not breaking the spine again. So I added a piece of parchment to prevent further damage. On the overall the modifications after conservation were: 1) the reconstruction of the flap 2) The shifting of the sewing position, and 3) the addition of a parchment reinforcement. Now, again, you see the images I showed you in the beginning, but now you know everything! You can better judge.

And I am fully aware of how controversial the addition of a flap is, when I myself think that it might not have been for the second use. But it really solves all the preservation issues that arise from such a weak structure. And, in truth when we are dealing with two diverse timeline bindings it’s really difficult to deal with them. There are also many other structural changes that are meant not to be visible at all. You don’t really see that much the shifting of the sewing, or the parchment reinforcement.

19:59 - It’s really difficult to virtually have two bindings at the same time.

20:09 - We cannot really have it physically. To conclude, for the case of recycling of bindings, it’s more complex because we want to keep all the evidences: the first binding and the second. All the uses of the binding. But the conservation is already more complex because if the binding is reused, it is probably because the first use has “damaged” the binding. It requires a lot of creativity because the crafting process is in itself very creative: A binding that is probably a bit broken is adjusted.

I mean: a binding with particular features and a bit damaged is adjusted for another book with other features. They don’t do a regular crafting process so the conservation treatment cannot consist just in reproducing this because it’s usually weak. As a summary for everything: both disjecta membra, and also recycling of full bindings: 1) Data to be preserved is beyond textual. It’s not that we want to keep only the texts. No: we want to keep and preserve the recycling itself, because it’s also telling us an information about the crafting process of the object and we want to, we need to try to avoid scattering all the fragments  the more we can.

It’s not possible, but we need to seek to keep it as much as possible as it was. And in case we are not reusing them, preserve all the evidences.

22:29 - 2) It needs to be reported even deeper than ever, particularly the previous stage,  because if we are going to do any modification during the conservation treatment we might erase these evidences, that maybe were unnoticed to us. So even if not understanding what we have in hands, we need to do a very thorough report of every detail that we see in the binding. To conclude: 1) We want to see the effects of the conservation, but we don’t want to be blinded by seeing many things at the same time for the sake of visibility of unnoticed features.

The important is that we give visibility to the book and make the conservation the least visible possible. That’s it! I want to acknowledge the owners of such beautiful books, and also all the conservators and the photographer who worked on them. And I’m happy to reply to any questions you might have. Thank you! A question for Rita Udina: “Thank you for a wonderful presentation. What material was used for the addition of flap in the third book, and how was it adhered to the original backing?” Rita, can you answer?  Can you see me? Yes OK.

So, I lined the whole binding with japanese tissue from the inner side, and the flap is made of japanese tissue as well, so the japanese tissue for the flap was thicker, it was previously dyed, and then, after lining, I adjusted the colour.

24:59 - Yes, that was it. Uh! the adhesion was with starch paste. That’s it. .