The Archivist’s Nook: Conservation in Rare Books, Part III

Cicero, De Officius, 1499

Since our last update on our long-term conservation project, Special Collections staff has continued addressing the conservation and access challenges in the Catholic University’s Rare Books collection. As “Part I” and “Part II” of the conservation blog posts reported, our work with our partner Quarto Conservation has focused on books that varied in date range and geographic representation from medieval Europe to late colonial Mexico. Once again, we have yet another surprising spread of works to report on!

Our goal in Special Collections is to make sure that our patrons – whether they be campus guests or CatholicU community members – have access to the works they need to research and study. Thus, our guiding principle in conserving these books was to render them stable for both eventual digitization and in-person access, while preserving the original content and physical traits of the volumes themselves.

As we continue with our conservation efforts, we will continue to update our patrons on the work being performed. You may see examples of the before and after of each conserved volume below with brief summaries of the conservation work performed:

1. Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis Slavonice (Venice, 1512)

This small prayer book, printed in Venice in 1512, is the earliest known copy of a book printed in Croatian cyrillic. Three extant copies of the work survive in libraries today, and it contains numerous ornate wood cuttings and borders. The cover is contemporary to the textblock, likely full calf leather. 

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Access to this rare work was limited due to the poor condition of the volume. The binding was no longer intact, with zero spine linings remaining, and only one cover board remaining (but fully detached). With the binding gone, the textblock was loose, with the first few pages heavily worn. The pages themselves were also out of order. 

Before it was sent to the conservators, a Special Collections staff member carefully collated the text and documented the correct order of the pages. From there, the conservation team took over. The book was fully disbound, with the pages lightly cleaned. The front pages were repaired with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. The sections were resewn with linen thread on three hemp cords. The spine was reshaped with wheat starch paste and Japanese tissue, followed by airplane linen. (Originally used in early airplanes, this linen is lightweight and undyed with a tight weave.) New boards were created and attached, with a handmade paper cover. The original board was stored and a new clam shell box was created for the book.

2. The “Our Father” Album, Vatican City, 1865 (MS 220)

This work is a commercially-produced blank album, filled in with handwritten text. The text is the “Our Father” prayer written in approximately 30 languages, as spoken in the Vatican in 1865. Photographs are attached to the pages throughout, with hand drawn floral borders.

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Before conservation, the binding on the book had failed. The spine cover was mostly detached, with the binding loose. In fact, the spine linings holding it together were mostly missing!

For this volume, the conservators disbound the book and removed the remaining sewing. The spine was cleaned and then resewn using linen thread. Furthermore, the spine was lined with Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch paste, followed by airplane linen. The original boards were reattached. 

3. Franciscus De Platea, Opus Restitutionum, 1437 (Inc 28)

This incunabulum (or books printed in Europe prior to 1501) by an Italian Franciscan was a popular work at the time, focusing on (as its full title indicates) restitution, usury, and excommunication. The copy held at CatholicU is in overall good condition, with a full leather binding over wooden boards and a relatively stable textblock.

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Unfortunately, before conservation, the front cover board was completely detached. Also, the back cover board was nearly detached, held only by a single thread. The leather binding was degraded and fraying, with early signs of red rot. Worm holes are present throughout the wooden boards and the textblock. (These are the type of holes caused by insects long-ago tunneling through a book, not the type of wormholes that tunnel through spacetime.) On a fascinating note, there is white wax residue on the front cover, likely from a candle dripping on the book. 

The conservation team cleaned the spine and relined it with wheat starch paste and heavy weight Japanese tissue paper and airplane linen. They then proceeded to reattach the front and back boards, backing up the boards and textblock with handmade laid paper and Japanese tissue. For the leather, they re-adhered the loose leather cover to the wooden boards and treated it to minimize the developing red rot. 

4. Cicero, De Officius, 1499

Another incunabulum that was in need of some love! This particular work dates from 1499 and is an ethical and political work by Roman orator and philosopher, Cicero. It is a heavily annotated book, with notes and manicules exhibited throughout the text. While the book itself dates from the tail end of the fifteenth century, its binding is from the nineteenth century.

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Before conservation, the front cover board was detached, making it difficult to access the textblock safely. While there are significant worm holes throughout the textblock, they do not pose a threat to the text if used with care. 

To resolve these issues, the conservators cleaned the spine of the book and relined it with wheat starch paste and Japanese tissue and airplane linen. These linings were left overhanging on the front side of the book to allow for the conservation team to reattach the nineteenth-century front board. Again, this reattachment was facilitated with wheat starch paste. Finally, minor page repair was performed, especially around worm holes that may catch and tear more. Largely, though, the worm holes were left untreated. 

While there are many details that this post did not address regarding the conservation efforts, we hope this sheds a little light on the process of conservation in the stacks.

To find out more about these books or the general Catholic University Rare Books collection, please contact us at:

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