By Anna Friedman, Conservator, Field Book Project
My latest treatment was on Louis Forniquet Henderson’s journal from 1895. Over the decades, the original binding on Henderson’s journal began to deteriorate and was sent to be library bound, which provided the notes a very sturdy structure for sitting on a library shelf.
I have no way of knowing when in their 117 year history these volumes were rebound, but when these volumes came to the SIA conservation lab this month, their 117 year old paper had become brittle, and the stiff and sturdy library bindings enclosing them were not flexible, causing the brittle pages to crack when trying to open the book.
Book bindings are a balance between support and flexibility. Bindings need to be strong enough to keep the pages protected, and flexible enough to allow the pages to open. On one side of the spectrum are Asian style bindings, where extremely flexible long-fiber papers are tightly bound with sewing that stabs through the spine edge of the volume, immobilizing the spine of the book entirely. Asian style bindings have zero flexibility in the spine, which is balanced by the flexibility of the paper. That combination allows the Asian style bindings to open. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Asian style bindings are children’s board books where the only thing that flexes is the binding, as the board “pages” do not bend at all.
Here in the United States, we are more familiar with Western-style “codex” bindings. These books have folded groups of pages that are sewn through the fold, the spines coated with adhesive and layers of cloth or paper, and are protected by hard covers. Often, modern bindings are now adhesive bound instead of sewn, but the stresses on the spines of codex bindings are similar. In western bindings, the stress and flexibility are more equally shared between the binding and the pages, as western papers are less flexible than Asian papers, but the spines of western bindings are considerably more flexible than their Asian counterparts.
In this case, the paper in the journal had become incredibly brittle since it had been rebound. The pages would crack in the middle when even gentle pressure was applied to them. The library binding was too strong and too inflexible to open without causing too much stress on the brittle pages. In addition, there was no way to digitize the bound journal without destroying the brittle pages.
In general, I prefer to retain bound material in a binding, and unbound archival material unbound, so that when a researcher approaches the object, he or she will get the same feeling using the book or file as the original owner did when creating it. In this case, the intellectual content of the manuscript was so much more important than the unremarkable library binding, that it was an easy decision to disbind the journal. I retained the spine label and covers from the library binding as an indication to future users that it had at one point been library bound.
Now that the Journal has been disbound, the pages do not have to bend, and despite being brittle, the paper can be laid flat for digitization. Eventually, having a digital copy of the original will allow many more people to access Henderson’s Journal than would have been able to read the crumbling pages of the original.
Photo of Henderson 1895 Journal in box with spine label.