by Heather Hamilton, Conservator for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission
TSLAC is home to many historic leather bindings. Modern books are not often manufactured at the large sizes that were used in the past. Ledgers, for example, were once ubiquitous for record keeping, and the TSLAC collections contain many of these, often very large, record-keeping books. TSLAC staff provides access to the volumes every day, either in our reading rooms, through reproduction services, or online, through the Texas Digital Archive. Most of our 19th century books have their original leather bindings, and book leather is not a stable material over the long-term. It degrades with age and breaks down into the powdery “red rot” you have seen on old leather bindings. Old books can have a number of other condition problems as well, like detached covers, broken sewing, and torn and loose pages.
TSLAC staff are trained in handling fragile books. Below is the advice I share with staff members to help them handle historic books safely.
Pulling fragile leather bindings from the stacks can be a bit scary. The books may have leather fragments flaking from the spine and the leather might look powdery and deteriorated. With some care, you can still pull these items safely for use by staff and patrons.
Grasping a book on the shelf
In order to get a secure hold on a book, you need to make space on either side of it. This video demonstrates how you can remove a sturdy, nearby book, making room to grasp your fragile item.
Do not try to pull the book from the top of its spine. That area, called the headcap, will most likely be weak and can break off. Better to wrap your hand around the middle of the spine, so that you are holding the spine as well as the front and back covers. Once you have pulled a book from the shelf, the volumes nearby will lean into the gap you have created. Try to guide them gently into the space, so they don’t fall awkwardly.
Alternatively, if the books are not tight on the shelf, you can push the items to the left and right of your book backward slightly to make room to grasp your book. Here’s a demonstration.
Turning the pages of fragile books
When a book is brittle, turning pages is difficult. The way we turn brittle pages is different from leafing through a new book with strong paper. Work slowly. Look carefully at the edges of the pages you are turning. Avoid areas that are torn or dog-eared. Find a portion of the page that looks stable and lift it there. A micro-spatula is helpful for lifting brittle pages. If you don’t have this tool, a small slip of printer paper works as well.
Notice that, in the video, I also have a couple of wooden boards next to the book. These allow me to support the loose cover as I open it. We also have book cradles available in the reading rooms, and these work in a similar way. The spine and the covers all need to be supported in a natural position as we turn to different parts of a fragile book.
The structure of books
A book is more than stack of papers. It’s really a mechanical object with a number of components operating together. Folded sheets are sewn together to form a spine that hinges at every opening. This is the textblock. It is connected to the covers by cords, and the covers, too, hinge at the spine. The boards and spine are covered with leather, which lends further strength to the structure. At least…it provided strength when the leather was new. Opening the book and turning the pages relies on the sewing and the hinges being intact, or at a minimum, being strong enough to withstand these movements.
When we handle fragile leather bindings, we aren’t always sure of all the condition issues. Some problems may be obvious as soon as we locate the book on a shelf, but other issues and weaknesses are not clear until we have it in our hands and try to use it. Handling the book slowly and supporting it as we open the covers and turn the leaves are the best ways to limit further damage to a book that may be more fragile than we first knew.