Connecting the Old and the New: Clapp Workers Preserve Historical Books in the Digital Age

With the advent of the Kindle and other e-readers, have bound spines and printed ink for physical books a thing of the past? Wellesley environmentalists and archivists say no, and they go further to bind the books that are falling apart.

On the fourth floor of the Clapp Library, hidden behind direct-access doors, are the curatorial collections. The Curatorial Collection develops and maintains the library’s circulation and reference collections, both for academic use and for historical preservation.

Emily Bell, the collections curator, oversees the preservation and restoration processes. Usually, the books that the library chooses to keep come from the collection already in circulation.

“If a book is returned damaged, for example… curators will choose materials that are in high use and demand,” Bell said.

Preservation of books includes preventive work, damage assessment and safeguarding damaged documents. Much of the damage occurs to the thorns, Bell says, and the pages can start to turn yellow as well. Exposure to light will also cause some colors to fade from books. One type of deterioration that can occur is called red rot. This happens when vegetable tanned leather, especially sheepskin, is continually exposed to humid or hot temperatures.

“You take the book, and there’s powder red on your hands,” Bell said.

Bell gives his colleagues, many of them hard-working students, various tasks. They use professional equipment to save books and documents. Sophie Olson ’18, double major in anthropology and history, has been working in the field of conservation for almost two and a half years.

“Some of the projects I’ve worked on have been fabric spine repairs, returns, bindings, and custom folder construction,” she said. Olson is also working on dehumidification, a process used to fix paper that has been rolled up for a long time and can no longer be laid flat on a table.

“[We use a] plastic bin with holder [for the rolled paper] and a small tray inside with a sponge. Moisture relaxes the fibers and allows them to flatten again, ”she explained.

Olson described working on building custom folders for old documents in libraries during his first year in restoration.

“There were a large number of brochures and sheet music from the music library and other libraries that needed to be protected by building plastic files for them,” she said.

Emma Jackman ’19, a geoscience major who worked in conservation for three years, also worked on various projects.

“Last semester I worked on a musical score that had[ly] were three separate score books; at one point someone sewed the three together but didn’t do a very neat job and over the years the book must have been put together properly, ”she said. “I called it the ‘Book of Frankenstein’, because it was like taking three separate blocks of text, each with its own damage, apart and putting them back together. The end result was much more stable for the book as a whole, and it was ready for general use again. “

Conservation can be hard work, whether it’s getting everything organized in your head or working with your hands.

“Trying to remember all the right materials, steps and measurements is probably the hardest part,” said Lindsey Gordon ’21, who also works in conservation.

For example, choosing the right materials to align the spines of books can be a challenge.

“It’s especially difficult to know what the treatment will look like at the end, because sometimes unexpected challenges arise and you have to improvise or do your best to cover the damage,” Olson added.

However, students find this kind of work extremely rewarding.

“Rather than throwing a book away or letting it fall apart on a shelf, I like to breathe new life into books so that they can be used by me and future students,” Olson said.

Students apply to work in curatorial collections via Handshake. However, most students are not necessarily in majors related to conservation, studio art, or literature. On the contrary, they all have a love of craftsmanship and curiosity. Chloé Kolbet ’18 added that she thinks this job is perfect for history buffs.

“I’m an artist and love to work with my hands, so transferring those interests to curatorial work is a good solution. As a classic and a major in French, I am committed to preserving the condition of books for the study of history, ”she said.

Kolbet, who has worked in conservation since 2015 and did a summer internship with conservation, archives and special collections, appreciates the many facets of book conservation.

“I love how book curation requires great attention to detail and creativity at the same time,” she said.

Bell also demonstrated the interdisciplinary nature of book conservation. Graduating from Bryn Mawr with a major in physics, Bell never planned to get involved in preservation until she studied materials science as a graduate student. Initially, she aspired to study materials science for aircraft design, but fell in love with the science behind the preservation of ancient documents.

Asked about the future goals of curatorial collections, Bell replied that she wanted to “focus more on unique and rare materials in special collections and archives.” While modern society’s shift to eBooks is “not as dramatic” as most people had anticipated, she believes it is important to focus on materials that are “unique in their physicality. ”, Such as photographs and architectural plans and items that cannot necessarily be digitally scanned.

The students agreed with Bell that the solid books should be kept.

“I think curation is important not because of the books themselves, but because of the ideas they contain,” Gordon said. “Much of our collection was published before the Internet, and there is probably no e-book equivalent. If the book collapses and is simply thrown away, all of the contents of the book would be lost.

Echoing this sentiment, Jackman said: “I also think there is an artistic aspect to old books that should be preserved, especially because things like the fabric and the way the books have been bound cannot. not be passed on in digital restoration. “

As the world slowly drifts into eBooks, the leather of a spine, the stitches of a binding, and even the frayed yellow edges of the pages themselves tell a story, one worth preserving.


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