Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Working from home: Making a girdle book model

September 14th, 2020

During the summer of quarantine, I constructed quite a few bookbinding models to try out structures I was reading about or hadn’t made before. I decided to finally pursue my dream of constructing a medieval girdle book. This style of bookbinding is most easily identified by an extension of the covering material, which often ends in a knot. The extension and knot allow for the book to be attached to a belt and carried on the person.

Only twenty-three girdle books are known to exist today, but if we judge by their presence in medieval art, they were a popular commodity at the time. Manuscript books were luxury items, so their representation in art signifies wealth and prestige. Because these books were meant to be carried on the body, they are usually quite small.

Girdle books have a lot of components, many of which were difficult to acquire early in the pandemic. So I reached out to bookbinder and teacher Karen Hanmer to see if she would sell me the raw materials. She enthusiastically agreed, sending me every last component to make the book, as well as an in-depth instruction manual. Because I have bound books for many years, the manual was sufficient for completing the project. However, for someone new to bookbinding, I recommend taking her class in person.

The first step was to construct the text block. I folded papers into groups of four sheets each (called a section or quire). A piece of parchment, a type of animal skin, was hooked as an endsheet around the outer sheets of the first and last section. The sixteen sections were pressed under a board and heavy weight. After a few days, I sewed the sections on sets of linen cords, using a device called a sewing frame that holds the cords taut. The sewing structure used on this book is called “packed” sewing, which requires sewing around the double cords and looping around a few times in between each quire to add strength along the spine.

Book being sewn on a sewing frame.
Textblock sewn on double linen cords, with linen thread, on sewing frame.

The sewing creates a natural round at the spine. In order to hold that shape, I placed the textblock in a press, further shaped the spine with my fingers, then attached parchment strips between the middle sewing supports with wheat starch paste. The parchment extended beyond the edge of the spine, to be attached to the

Sewn book in finishing press.
Sewn book in finishing press, with rounded spine shape.

The next step was to sew endbands at the top and bottom (head and tail) of the book. During the medieval era, the endband was sewn on a core (in this case, linen cord) that extended beyond the spine and was laced through the boards to add stability to the book. I chose to sew a primary endband using linen thread wrapped around a linen cord core. This style of endband has the bead (or thread pass-over) on the back. Then I sewed a secondary, decorative endband over it using blue and yellow silk thread, with a bead on the front.

Silk endband sewn on book.
Secondary endband sewn in blue and yellow silk, over a linen cord core.

The boards on medieval books were almost always made of wood. I’m not an experienced woodworker, so the wood shaping steps took a lot of time. I shaped the wood at the spine edge to accommodate the round of the textblock spine, on both the inside and outside of the wood piece. The other edges were beveled. Next I marked and drilled holes for the sewing and endband cords to lace through the wood, and chiseled channels between the two sets of holes. A channel was also cut and chiseled to accommodate a strap at the fore-edge

Book laced into wooden boards.
Front board, with linen cords laced through holes and channels cut in the wood.

Once the cords were laced through and wedged in place, the book was ready to be covered. Karen offered me a few options, and I chose grey pigskin. I have repaired many books covered in pigskin but hadn’t bound any new ones in the material. As expected, pigskin was tougher and less pliable than calf or goatskin. Once dry, the vellum spine lining extensions would typically be adhered to the inside of the wooden boards. I decided to leave them unattached at the front and adhered at the back, since I will use this model as a teaching tool and I wanted to show steps in the bookbinding process.

Girdle book model, open. Made by Whitney Baker.
Completed girdle book, open, with parchment spine linings adhered to the back board.

To close the book, Karen suggested making a simple clasp from brass rod, with a brass escutcheon pin on the center edge of the top board. The strap is a laminate of pigskin and airplane linen. I laced the strap through the back board and adhered it on the inside in the channel cut into the wood. Medieval books were often written on animal skin, which has a spring to it, so clasps were necessary to keep the book closed.

Karen’s kit was so complete that she even included some finishing embellishments. A contrasting gray leather was used to create the traditional Turk’s head knot that is often found at the end of the leather extension. I decided to create a simple design on the outer covers with a bone folder, and added upholstery tacks as bosses (traditionally used to protect the leather when the book was placed on a surface). Karen thoughtfully even included tiny scraps of parchment to create markers on the edges of the book’s pages.

Girdle book model, closed. Made by Whitney Baker.
Completed girdle book, closed, showing cover decoration, clasp, Turk’s head knot.

While this project took many evenings and weekends over a few months, I am very pleased with the results. I will add this model to our bookbinding model collection in Conservation Services, to teach bookbinding history to classes and public visitors.

Whitney Baker
Head, Conservation Services

A Conservator Working from Home, Continued

June 9th, 2020

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost three months since we began working from home. Since March 18, most University of Kansas employees have been working away from campus as we do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. I wrote about how I filled my time for the first month of work-at-home back in April; it’s now June, so I thought I would check in with an update. 

Much like the first month of working from home, I’ve spent most of my time doing online learning, development, and outreach activities, with Zoom meetings and some hands-on work rounding out the mix. 

In the professional development area, I’ve attended or viewed no fewer than 18 webinars, online forums, and recorded talks on topics ranging from preservation and conservation, of course, to social justice, wellness, and all things COVID-19 related. Highlights for me have been the series of conservation webinars sponsored by ICON, the professional organization for conservators in the UK; these talks have given me lots of ideas to follow up on when a more “normal” way of working returns. I have also been enjoying attending the virtual AIC – that is the American Institute for Conservation – annual meeting. And an especially powerful Zoom panel hosted by USC on supporting black employees and colleagues provided an intensely personal view, unfiltered by media accounts or editorializing, of how the culture of racial injustice in our country affects black people every day. This most recent national outpouring of emotion about racial injustice has led me to commit consciously to doing my own work to educate myself about racial inequality and to seek out ways in which I can be an anti-racist ally in both my personal and professional life.

Three infographics showing statistics related to the productivity of student employees in Conservation Services department of KU Libraries.
I created these infographics (using the free online software Piktochart) to celebrate the amazing contribution that our student employees make to the work of Conservation Services and the Libraries. Click image to enlarge.

I have also been spending time online posting to social media (you can find me @midwestconservator on both Instagram and Tumblr) about what I’m working on at home, and following other conservators and library professionals who are also sharing their remote work activities. Preservation Week was April 26-May 2, and I had a lot of fun designing a series of special infographics to share during that week, focusing on the incredible volume and variety of work done by student employees in the Conservation Services department. I’ve stayed in touch and engaged with my colleagues in the Libraries and the conservation field through a lot of Zoom meetings as well as good old-fashioned emails and phones calls!

A small book lies on a cutting mat; the book is bound in the limp binding style, with a laced paper case, green and yellow endbands, and a fore-edge tie closure.
One of the limp binding models I have made while working from home, this one with a laced pastepaper cover and green and yellow endbands. Click image to enlarge.
A handmade cloth face mask sits on a tabletop next to a sewing machine and other sewing supplies.
One of several face masks that I made in preparation for an eventual return to working in the lab. Click image to enlarge.

To balance all that online time, I’ve kept up with some hands-on projects, with my kitchen table serving as both office and workbench. I’ve been making some small models of limp bindings, and doing a lot of reading to go along with those. I’ve sewn some denim covers for bag weights, and made a small book futon to use at my bench in the lab. I also made myself a pile of masks to wear when I return to working in the lab. The return to campus will be phased, and early stages will certainly require use of face coverings in shared spaces such as the conservation lab. 

Angela Andres
Special Collections Conservator
Conservation Services

Treatment of Mary Huntoon’s Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, an Etching: Part 2

May 19th, 2020

In the first installment of this two part blog series, the Kansas artist, Mary Huntoon, was introduced. We shared how her print, Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, was prepared for an overall washing treatment in order to reduce several dark brown stains along the top edge that interrupted the image area and created bulging in the surface.

Before any washing treatments are performed on works on paper, all media are tested with the proposed washing solutions to ensure their stability. The surface is also checked for any areas where the print may have been previously restored, or even re-touched by the artist with another material that might be water-soluble. I carefully examined the print under magnification during testing in order to make sure the ink and paper were safe for washing. Everything checked out, so I was ready to start the washing step.

Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, prior to treatment. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.

Prior to washing, the print was gently surface-cleaned and the brown paper attachments were removed. You can read more about these steps in the first blog post about this treatment.

Before a work on paper is placed into a bath, the entire object must slowly undergo a humidification step. This helps to relax the paper and the media and prevents aggressive swelling. Then the object is gently sprayed with deionized water using a fine mist attachment in order to fully saturate it. This step-wise procedure ensures a gentle transition for the object into the bath.    

The print was washed in successive baths of pH-adjusted deionized water and air-dried. I examined the print once again to assess the progress of the washing step. The stains had noticeably lessened, but they were still quite visible, and I decided to test another stain reduction technique.

Using a small brush, I gently introduced very small applications of a dilute reducing bleach to the stained areas. This reduced the stain to an almost undetectable level. Then the bleach was fully rinsed with additional baths of pH-adjusted deionized water. I used an ultraviolet lamp to check to see that all the bleach, which fluoresces under ultraviolet radiation, was rinsed away.

The etching Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, by Mary Huntoon, in normal light, after treatment.
Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, in normal light, after treatment. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.

After the stain reduction and overall washing was complete, it was time to address a few structural concerns. Weak creases in the upper corners made the print vulnerable to breakage and tearing, so I reinforced them using Japanese paper applied with wheat starch paste we make in our conservation lab. Instead of cutting the Japanese paper, it is wetted and torn. This torn edge makes use of the long kozo fibers in the paper and creates a strong mend that integrates well into the paper. After all the mends and reinforcements were complete, the print was humidified a second time and flattened between thick felts. Pressing between felts helped to remove planar distortions along the edges, while also maintaining the plate mark of the etching.

Now that the treatment is complete, the print is ready to be returned to the collection where it can be safely examined by visitors to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library.  

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library is home to the collection of papers and original artwork by Kansas artist and art therapist, Mary Huntoon (1896 – 1970). As part of a collaborative initiative between KU Libraries and the Spencer Museum of Art, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, many of the prints, drawings, and watercolors by Huntoon will be treated.

Creases in the upper corners of the etching Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, by Mary Huntoon, being reinforced with Japanese paper attached with wheat starch paste.
Creases in the upper corners were reinforced with Japanese paper attached with wheat starch paste. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.
The etching Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, by Mary Huntoon, in raking light, prior to treatment (at left), and after treatment (at right).
Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, in raking light, prior to treatment (at left), and after treatment (at right). Call number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.

Jacinta Johnson, Associate Conservator, Mellon Initiative

What Remote Work Looks Like for a Conservator

April 30th, 2020

Working at home has become the new normal for many of us since around mid-March, when a national state of emergency was declared because of the novel coronavirus (COVID19) and many states, counties, and municipalities began to issue stay-at-home orders. Essential workers have been doing an amazing job keeping services functioning and supplies in stock, and of course health care workers are fighting the virus at great personal risk every day. 

For those of us deemed non-essential, staying home and following public health advice is the number one thing we can do to support our essential workers, and to combat the spread of COVID19. After that, the next best thing we can do is take care of ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors while maintaining good hygiene and safe distance. After THAT, we can help by continuing to do our jobs to the best of our ability in these challenging circumstances. For some people, work at home might not look a whole lot different from how it looks in their workplace. Others, including many of us conservators, are finding our days looking radically different from a typical day in the lab.

In pre-COVID19 times, a regular day for a conservator probably consisted mostly of doing treatment and other hands-on work at the bench, with a smaller amount of time spent on an assortment of other activities such as email, research and reading, writing, outreach, meetings and committee work, collection surveys, and so many more “other duties as required.” In our new work-at-home reality, the “other duties” now make up the bulk of our work days. Some conservators may have the space and equipment to do treatments at home; I have seen examples of this on social media, although in these cases the treatments are limited to general collections materials. Conservators who work on rare books, special collections, and archival materials (or on museum collections of almost any kind) do not have the option to bring those materials home. There are other hands-on activities that conservators can do that do not require access to collections, such as practicing sewing end bands or making bookbinding models. Many conservators have put their hand skills to work sewing masks for donation to health care workers and community organizations. 

Prior to the emergency declaration, when it was becoming clear that widespread closures were likely, the conservation community began to collect ideas for activities that conservators could do while working from home. Conservators from around the world contributed ideas – everything from webinars and professional development opportunities to free online learning resources and links to articles and video tutorials. I have referred to this list often as I put together my daily work-at-home tasks. 

So, what does working at home look like for me? I will say that the one thing that working at home has in common with working in the lab it that every day is different! About five weeks in, I have fallen into something of a rough routine, but because I have a three-year-old, a first grader who is doing remote learning, and a spouse who is also working from home, it’s necessary to keep my schedule flexible to adjust to the needs of my “coworkers.” 

On the first day of remote work, I took that list that my conservation colleagues had compiled and spent some time sorting it into categories – webinars, online courses, lectures, articles, wellness, and so on. I deleted things that I’d already done or were not applicable, and highlighted those that were of greater interest. I also added a few projects that were already underway and could be continued (at least partially) from home, and brainstormed some new ideas for projects that I could start. 

Working from this list, I set about making a to-do list for each day that includes basics like checking email and posting to social media, and a few items from the master list of activities. It’s a good day if I can get everything checked off that day’s list, and most days I do. I’m an early riser, and now that I don’t have a commute, I’m able to start my day earlier to get ahead of things. Once the kids are up and fed, my first grader and I sit at the table and work side by side; he’s mostly gotten the hang of the online learning technology so I just help keep him on task and guide him when he’s stumped. When he’s done for the day, I usually have about an hour more of work time until lunch, and family lunches are definitely a highlight of working from home, especially now that the weather is pleasant enough that we can eat outside on the patio. In the, I’ll continue to work on my list of activities while navigating sibling politics and keeping them supplied with snacks and activities of their own. The mute function on Zoom is certainly my good friend these days! 

Two children color with pens and crayons at a kitchen table.
My kids often keep me company while I work at the kitchen table.

That’s how I’ve been working – but what have I been working on? By my count as of Friday, April 17, I’ve watched 9 webinars and 4 archived videos of past presentations or conferences, attended 10 Zoom meetings, read 15 book chapters and 3 articles, posted to social media 39 times*, taken 3 online courses, sewn 26 masks to donate, and followed along on 2 e-forums. I have also been working on 4 projects in various stages of development, including writing up instructions for an oversized book enclosure and a custom cradle for digitization of manuscripts; a research project about training students who work in special collections; and a possible book arts video series. Later this week I will be going in to Spencer when my colleague will be there doing a regular building check; it will be good to see the lab, and I plan to collect some tools, materials, and books to help with some projects I am dreaming up, including models of some binding structures I haven’t tried before.

A pile of handmade cloth face masks.
One of my work-at-home activities was sewing cloth face masks to donate to local health workers. I followed a tip to use round shoelaces for ties due to the difficulty obtaining elastic.

Somewhere in each day, whether it’s after lunch, early in the morning, or at the end of the work day, I’ve been making time to walk, run, take a bike ride, or do yoga; these activities help me enormously when it comes to managing the stress and uncertainty of this time. I’ve been grateful for the wealth of self-care resources that colleagues have shared, and for all the personal accounts of how people are dealing with this situation; knowing that I am not alone when I’m feeling a little at sea is so helpful. While I miss my colleagues and at the lab very much, I am heartened by the collective effort we are making along with the rest of the world – to have even a small part in a truly global effort is really quite inspiring. Wherever you are reading this from, I hope you are staying safe, taking care, and keeping your sights set on what’s good in the world.

A father and two children on a walk in a residential neighborhood.
Most work-at-home days end with a family walk around the neighborhood.

*There is a robust and lively social media community of libraries, archives, museums, conservation professionals, and other cultural heritage institutions and workers. Find me on Instagram and Tumblr as @midwestconservator. Spencer’s Ann Hyde Postdoctoral Researcher, N. Kivilcim Yavuz, is also on Instagram as @manuscriptsetc, posting about Spencer’s manuscript collections every day while we are closed. Be well, y’all!

Angela Andres
Special Collections Conservator
Conservation Services

Working as a Team to Make Collections Accessible

February 11th, 2020

Lynn Ward, Processing Archivist:

When new collections, or additions to existing collections, are accessioned into the Spencer Research Library, I arrange and describe the material so that researchers can access them.  More often than not, when I begin to look through the unprocessed boxes, I find some interesting surprises.

The Frowe and Lathrop families collection recently received a donation of many additional boxes of correspondence, photographs, diaries, slides, documents, and other material. This collection comprises several generations of the Frowe and Lathrop families from the 1840s to 2016, many of whom lived primarily in Kansas.

Addition to Frowe and Lathrop Families Records prior to processing.
The collection addition was received in multiple boxes. A photograph of Eva Lathrop can be seen on top of one of the boxes. Frowe and Lathrop Families Records. Kansas Collection. RH MS 1510. Click image to enlarge.

One of the interesting items that I found while going through the unprocessed boxes was a red satin Valentine box. When I opened the candy box, underneath cherished cards and invitations, I found an inscription on the bottom written by Eva Lathrop, “Feb[ruary] 14, 1924/ Fred had my diamond ring in this box of chocolates and presented it to me. The ring box was wrapped in the foil off of one of the pieces of candy.” She accepted A. G. (Fred) Phillips’ proposal, and they were married several months later. Spencer Research Library doesn’t always keep objects unless they have a good story to tell, which this candy box does. Kaitlin McGrath, a student in the conservation department working with Collections Conservator Roberta Woodrick, created a special box to house the Valentine box. 

Valentine candy box with inscription.
The Phillips’ valentine candy box with a ‘sweet’ story! Frowe and Lathrop Families Records. Kansas Collection. RH MS 1510, box 14. Click image to enlarge.

One of the most interesting sets of finds in this collection were very early family photographs inside hinged cases, dated from the 1850s-1870s.  There are over 20 daguerreotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes of identified or partially identified men, women, and children related to the Frowe and Lathrop families. Some of the small, ornately-decorated cases appear to be made out of gutta purcha or vulcanite—common plant-based materials used in this time period. Normally, print photographs are put into acid-free folders and a document case. However, these fragile, bulky photographs in their cases needed special consideration for housing and accessibility.  

Valentine poem in a photograph case.
The interior of a photograph case containing a Valentine poem clipped from a newspaper. Frowe and Lathrop Families Records. Kansas Collection. RH MS-P 1510(f), box 1. Click image to enlarge.
Exterior of a photograph case containing a Valentine poem.
Exterior of a photograph case containing a Valentine poem. The case is possibly made out of gutta purcha or vulcanite. Frowe and Lathrop Families Records. Kansas Collection. RH MS-P 1510(f), box 1. Click image to enlarge.

Angela Andres, Special Collections Conservator: 

Most of the cased photographs that Spencer already holds are individual items within their collections, so they are housed individually in custom enclosures. The size of this group makes that approach impractical; it would be time-consuming to make so many special enclosures from scratch, and they would take up a lot of shelf space, which is always a consideration when housing our collections. Housing this group of photographs together also made sense from an access perspective; a single container is easier for staff to retrieve and for researchers to view than twenty-some separate containers.

I estimated that I could fit all of the photographs into one standard size flat archival box, provided I could safely arrange them in two layers. Lynn sorted the photographs by family groups into two sets, and then set about devising a lightweight but protective structure for the interior of the box. I created two trays from layers of archival corrugated cardboard, with cavities cut to fit each of the cased photographs. Each cavity is lined with soft Tyvek® fabric to prevent abrasion of the cases, and cases with loose covers are tied with cotton tape to prevent shifting. I attached strips of archival foam around the edges of the lower tray to support the upper tray, and added handles of linen tape to the upper tray for easy removal.

Upper tray of housing for cased photographs from the Frowe and Lathrop Families Records.
The upper tray of the photograph housing, with handles for lifting the tray out. Frowe and Lathrop Families Records. Kansas Collection. RH MS-P 1510(f), box 1. Click image to enlarge.
Lower tray of housing for cased photographs from the Frowe and Lathrop Families Records.
The lower tray of the photograph housing, with foam bumpers to support the upper tray. Frowe and Lathrop Families Records. Kansas Collection. RH MS-P 1510(f), box 1. Click image to enlarge.

Lynn Ward, Processing Archivist:

After the cases returned from conservation in their special box, I needed to come up with a way to describe the cased photographs. Normally for a print photograph, the description would be connected to the folder in which the photograph is housed. Since these cased photographs were arranged in layers in their special box, I decided to describe them by layer and by rows within each layer. Each photograph in its case was described with its location in the box, as well as the identification, or partial identification of the individual(s) when known.   

The Frowe and Lathrop families collection finding aid can be accessed online. For more information on how to access these materials, see our website: