Paper, Parchment, Leather and Glue

Bancroft Library's Conservators Go About Preserving Rare Books With Care, Knowledge and Sensitivity

by Fernando Quintero

When it comes to the masterful conservation work of Gillian Boal, you truly can't judge a book by its cover.

In her hands, crumbling relics of important writings become like new.

Combining centuries-old techniques with modern know-how, Boal, along with colleague Nancy Harris and a handful of other conservation technicians and student interns, painstakingly restore the priceless volumes to their original condition.

"There is an enormous amount of work that goes through that department," said Anthony Bliss, curator of rare books at the Bancroft Library. "It is an exemplary program."

They are responsible for taking care of the campus's entire collection of old and damaged books, posters, individual manuscript pages, blueprints and maps.

"We can't afford to put every book in the collection back to its original condition," Bliss said. "We have to be very selective."

The conservation staff uses a range of repair remedies to bring books back to life. Boal, who was trained in England, said conservation work requires a broad knowledge of paper and binding styles.

"It's like restoring an old building. The binding has to be appropriate to the time and place a book was published," she said. "It requires care, knowledge and sensitivity."

Walking inside the basement-level conservation laboratory is like stepping into a museum storage room. First-edition classics and ancient scrolls of papyrus lie scattered about waiting to be restored.

On one table, a 315-year-old book titled "The Author's Apology" is signed by its owner, his curious observations scribbled in the margins. His name: Isaac Newton.

"The challenge will be to wash and chemically treat the pages of that book without having Sir Newton's signature fade away," said Boal, who after 30 years of conservation work still gets visibly excited about being given such important restoration tasks.

For "Dialogo Di Galileo Galilei Linceo," Galileo's scientifically monumental treatise published in 1632 that countered the once widely believed theory that the Earth was at the center of the universe, Boal had to disassemble the book and put it back together.

The leather-bound book, one of only two in existence, was received broken into several sections.

The pages were first washed in metal trays using temperature-controlled water to remove old glue that was used to reinforce the book's original binding. The pages were then dried on metal screens and chemically treated to resist pollution and dust.

Using a wooden device that dates back to the 12th century, the folds in the book were recreated. A linen binding was sewn into the book's spine, then laced with a new leather binding.


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
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