Handling records in poor condition causes further damage. In such cases extensive conservation treatment is necessary to make records suitable to be produced and therefore available to scholars and researchers.
I recently worked on an interesting court book dating between 1686 and 1714, a limp vellum binding containing a whole block of papers in seriously bad condition. So bad that throughout the treatment the volume was referred to as “the monster book” and phrases like “better you than me” could be heard in the Conservation studio at NRS. As it had been affected by mould, the paper was extremely soft and had lost its strength completely. The edges were frail and brittle, and fragments would be lost at any page turned.
Handling the volume to analyse its original structure prior to the treatment had been impossible and the treatment was carried out with minimal handling. A critical aspect of conserving archives, by definition unique and irreplaceable, is retaining every possible information.
As the work progressed, though, I realised that the volume had some peculiar characteristics.
The first 10 sections were larger than the last 15. The limp vellum binding was attached to the last 15 sections only.
After paper conservation was completed I discovered that the 2 blocks have different watermarks as well.
Colour does too
The first 10 sections had red-coloured edges. The last did not.
The 2 blocks were sewn in a different way and I could say that by looking at the remains of the respective sewing structures. The inner folds showed a different number of sewing stations (i.e. where the sewing supports are positioned) and holes (i.e. where the needle pierces the folded quire).
A single tanned leather strip (brown) was found in the gutter of the volume, clearly a sewing support as it showed the typical indentures from a thread wound around it. It did not belong to the limp vellum binding, which has alum tawed supports (white), all present.
All these clues pointed quite inescapably to one conclusion: the volume was not what we thought it was, but it was actually composed by two separate codicological units, (in other words, two separate books) probably put together after the older papers’ binding became damaged.
A detective’s job nevertheless.
All these finds impacted onto the conservation treatment. I was treating 2 volumes, not 1, which were then re-bound separately.
The second one as it was originally, with the original binding retained as historical evidence.
The twisted tanned leather support could be a clue about the original binding of the first volume. I already knew, as the history of bookbinding teaches, that tanned leather supports are rare to find. In fact leather does not age well, it tends to stiffen and crack, with obvious impact on the long term preservation of a book. Binders knew this well and leather as a sewing support is infrequently found. For this reason, and because the few that were used rarely survived, it is unlikely to find examples of books sewn onto tanned leather sewing supports.
But what if my book was one of the few ones?
Following research on our collections, no convincing evidence was found to support this theory and whether that tanned leather support was actually part of the original binding of the first volume remains a mystery.
Gloria Conti Accredited Conservator-Restorer