One Book’s Conservation Journey

by Lara Kemp Reusch, senior book conservator at DK Conservators, tasked with restoring the surviving Rare Books Collection of the University of Cape Town Libraries’ Special Collections salvaged after the Jagger fire in April 2021.

I had gotten used to being met with blank stares when I told people I worked in book conservation. So it was quite odd for me when people started recognising what I did. What brought this change was the UCT library fires. Following the aftermath of the destruction of the library, many people have become more acquainted with book conservation and its importance. However, from my experience, most people still do not know much about how the books actually get restored. The DK Conservators team have picked out one of the many water-damaged books to illustrate what the conservation process entails.

The British Army is a thick book, roughly A5, cloth-bound, with gold finishing on the front cover and the spine. It had extensive mould-damage to its cover, and the binding of the book block had loosened.

Before the book reached our premises, it was housed in cold storage in order to prevent the mould from spreading further. Cold storage allows us to press pause until we are able to dry the books in controlled conditions and start working on them. Once the book has been dried in a de-humidifying facility, it is brought to our premises. The first step in the conservation process is to dry-clean the book. This means that all surface dirt is removed from the book. We use a special vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (high efficacy particle absorbing) filter and a small soft-brush attachment. This is vital to ensure the mould spores are not released back into the air. Dry cleaning the books is often a long and monotonous process, because dirt gets trapped in the gutter of the pages and so each page needs to be dry cleaned individually. A lot of patience, and a good audiobook or podcast, is required for this stage of the conservation process.

This is Jessye Seaford, one of our flat paper conservators, dry cleaning our book. She is wearing a respirator mask, protective eyewear, latex gloves and a lab coat to protect her from the toxic mould spores. Due to these health hazards, and the scale of the project the DK Conservators team works in shifts to assist with the dry cleaning.

Once the book has been freed of mould and other surface dirt, the book must be documented and photographed. The details of the book are noted down, as well as the condition of the book and which parts of the book damaged.

Busy with the documentation is Jodi Le Roux (pictured above), a PhD student at UCT. Jodi has been involved in the salvaging of the library collection from the start as a volunteer and has continued working on the collection as an intern at DK Conservators.

Once the book has been documented and photographed, a course of restoration is determined from the documentation assessment.

We start by removing the cover from the book block. The damaged spine card and mull is removed so that the book block can be realigned. Once it is realigned, we apply new mull which is an open weave cotton cloth that unites the signatures while keeping flexibility in the spine. We then insert an oxford hollow which is a flattened paper tube which strengthens the spine and allows the book to be opened flat more easily. 

Here I am working on the spine of the book block. I started at DK Conservators as an intern three years ago and have enjoyed the challenges and learning opportunities that each project so far has brought.

While I start working on the book block, Jamie Seaford (pictured below) removes the cloth from the original boards and water washes them to remove the dirt and stains caused by mould. Once the book cloth is dry, Jamie uses it as a reference for colouring a piece of natural cotton, which is used to replace the damaged parts of the original book cloth.

Jamie has been working at DK Conservators for almost six years. He was exposed to conservation from a young age through his father, Keith Seaford, one of the owners of DK Conservators.

Once the book cloth is repaired, we create a new cover structure with grey boards and a spine card, and paste the book cloth onto it. We always ensure that the corners of the book cloth are cut at a 45-degree angle and that the two sides are sitting flush against each other. With all repairs and paste downs, we use a mixture of acid-free PVA (polyvinyl acetate) and archival methylcellulose, which means that all our changes are reversible. Reversibility is a very important aspect of conservation and needs to be taken into consideration at every stage of the repairs.

James Dunlop (pictured above) is busy with the book cover. He is one of the interns helping with the project. He found out about the work we are doing through his mother, who is a librarian at UCT, and his interest in the project has consequently developed into a passion for book conservation.  

Here you can see James removing the lens tissue which was applied to the fragile spine piece in order to keep it intact while pasting it down onto the coloured cotton cloth.

Once the cover is complete, the cover and the book block are finally reunited. We call this “casing in” the book block. The last few steps are to paste down the mull onto the cover boards and to insert acid-free end-leaves at the back and front of the book. The acid-free end-leaves act as a buffer to limit the migration of acidity from the cover to the book block.

Here Jodi can be seen pasting down the “paste down”, the part of the end-leaf that is pasted to the inside of the cover. (The other side of the end-leaf is called the “fly-leaf”.) Once the paste downs are dry, we check if there are any faded spots on the cover cause by the mould. These we touch up using chalk pastels. Once we are happy with the colour, we use a fixative spray to stabilise the pigment.

Finally, the book is pressed in a book press until the book has fully dried. This ensures no trapped moisture can cause the cover boards to warp. We examine the book one last time to make sure everything is in order before we log a report on its final condition. Once the entire process is completed it is placed in the crate with the other completed books.

I hope that following our restoration process for this book has been illuminating. Of course, there is much more involved in the restoration of the collection, but I hope this at least gives a taste of our daily tasks here at DK Conservators. We still have many books ahead, with different binding techniques and materials, and in various states of disrepair. But we look forward to working on overcoming the challenges that are still ahead. No matter how many books we restore, each time we do a little happy dance when we get to place another one in the completed crate.

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