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Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Books on a shelf

Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

Even More Simplified Binding workshop with Karen Hanmer

June 4th, 2024

Bookbinding models are something of a theme for us this spring; in February, we installed our exhibit Object Lessons: Selections from the Conservation Services Historic Bookbinding Models Collection in Spencer Research Library’s main gallery. Creating and studying bookbinding models helps us to hone our hand skills and to better understand how books are made, which in turn improves the level of care we can provide for materials in KU Libraries’ collections

Four finished Even More Simplified bindings created in our workshop with Karen Hanmer.
Four finished Even More Simplified bindings created in our workshop with Karen Hanmer.

Then in March, Conservation Services hosted book artist, fine binder, and bookbinding teacher Karen Hanmer for a two-day workshop to learn a new (to us) binding structure. Karen’s “Even More Simplified Binding” offered us – that is, Whitney, Angela, and Kaitlin, the three book and paper conservators here at KU – an opportunity to brush up on techniques and to learn some new approaches to bookbinding that we can apply to our work.

Conservators watch as Karen Hanmer demonstrates backing - shaping the spine of a book - on a job backer.
Conservators watch as Karen Hanmer demonstrates backing – shaping the spine of a book – on a job backer.
Checking sewn text blocks to see how well they open.
Checking sewn text blocks to see how well they open.

Karen describes the Even More Simplified Binding as “stripped down to only the essential elements;” it is elegant and minimal in appearance. But because the structure of the binding is easily discernible, great care must be taken at each step to ensure a pleasing result. This structure was a good choice for our group of conservators with a range of bookbinding experience; we all found something to hold our interest, and we all came away with new skills. Karen came prepared with lots of examples of other bindings, so in addition to the fun we had making our books, we also had lots of great discussions and digressions along the way.

Conservators gather around to watch as Karen shows how to mark the spine wrapper before attaching it to the book.
Conservators gather around to watch as Karen shows how to mark the spine wrapper before attaching it to the book.
Detail view of the Even More Simplified binding with spine wrapper laced on, before attaching boards.
Detail of the Even More Simplified binding with spine wrapper laced on, before attaching boards.

Speaking for myself, I know that my approach to re-binding a book – on the rare occasions that it happens – has become much more conservative over the years. I’m interested in doing the most possible good for a book with the least possible intervention, and studying this binding has got me thinking about how I can apply its bare-bones-yet-structurally-sound engineering to projects that may come my way in the future.

Four people stand in the lobby of Spencer Research Library displaying books completed during a workshop.
Kaitlin, Karen, Whitney, and Angela with their finished books.

Angela Andres, special collections conservator

Spencer’s March-April Exhibit: “From Shop to Shelf”

March 5th, 2024

Conservators often say that what draws them to this work is the variety – every day is different! Always something new to learn! Never a dull moment! In my role as special collections conservator at KU Libraries, I am fortunate to work on interesting items from all of the collecting areas within the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, and my day-to-day experience bears out the truth of those clichés. Each book, document, and object I work with wears evidence of its own unique history. Physical condition, materials, marks or repairs made by persons past – sometimes these features tell a clear story about the life an object has lived, and sometimes the picture is murky, fragmented, or confusing. In the new short-term exhibit on view in Spencer Library’s North Gallery, I returned to the subject of a 2016 blog post to explore the ways that a book’s binding might provide information about who owned the book and how it was used.

Spencer Library’s three copies of Thomas Sprat’s A true account and declaration of the horrid conspiracy against the late king, His present Majesty, and the government: as it was order’d to be published by His late Majesty are displayed in the first exhibit case. This book relates Sprat’s official account, as Bishop of Rochester, of the failed 1683 Rye House Plot to assassinate King Charles II of England and his brother (and successor) James, Duke of York. The horrid conspiracy, as we’ll call it, was printed in London in 1685 by Thomas Newcombe, “One of His Majesties printers; and … sold by Sam. Lowndes over against Exeter-Change in the Strand.”

Three copies of The Horrid Conspiracy on display in the exhibit From Shop to Shelf in Spencer Research Library's North Gallery.
Three copies of The Horrid Conspiracy on display in Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery.

After leaving Lowndes’ shop these three edition-mates embarked on separate journeys, only to arrive back together again in our stacks over three hundred years later. The books’ differing conditions and binding styles invite speculation about their adventures (and misadventures!) in the intervening years. The exhibit compares the physical characteristics and evidence of use seen on the three volumes and considers what these features might tell us about who owned them and how they were used. We cannot know for sure, but it is so fun to wonder!

A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library's North Gallery.
A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery.
A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library's North Gallery.
A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery.

In case two, we expand our examination of different binding styles to include a small selection of bindings from Spencer Library’s rare books collections. The display includes books in original paper bindings or wrappers from the publisher, books custom-bound for private owners in either a plain or a fine style, and others bound simply and sturdily for use in a lending library. Spencer Library’s collections are rich with examples of bookbinding styles across the centuries; this assortment of volumes represents just a fraction of the many ways that a book might have been bound either by bookseller, buyer, or library.

Treatment and rebinding of MS E279, part 2

January 22nd, 2021

All the way back in October 2019, I wrote about starting on the treatment of MS E279, Historia flagellantium…De recto et perverso flagrorum usu apud Christianos…Ex antiquis Scripturæ, patrum, pontificum, conciliorum, & scriptorum profanorum monumentis cum curâ & fide expressa, by Jacques Boileau. This volume is the manuscript, dated 1691 and with annotations believed to be in the author’s own hand, for the printed version of the same title published in 1700. Spencer also holds a copy of the printed edition at Summerfield B2655.

The volume was weakened by past water and mold damage and so required especially careful handling throughout the treatment process. After photographing the volume in its pre-treatment condition, I first cleaned the residual mold using soft brushes and low-suction HEPA vacuum, working in our bio-safety cabinet to reduce my exposure to the mold (and prevent contamination of other collection material). After the volume was cleaned, I removed the damaged binding and took apart the sewing.

A damaged folio from MS E279 before treatment, at left, and being mended during treatment, at right.
A damaged folio from MS E279 before treatment, at left, and being mended during treatment, at right. Click image to enlarge.

The most time-consuming part of the treatment involved mending tears, filling losses, and guarding the sections (adding a reinforcing strip of thin Japanese tissue along the fold to strengthen it prior to sewing). The manuscript also has numerous notes and additions pasted in which needed reinforcement or reattaching. Once all the mending was complete, the volume was ready to be sewn and bound. In discussions with Special Collections curator Karen Cook, we considered different options for rebinding the book and settled on a conservation paper case binding, which would provide gentle support for the fragile text.

I sewed the volume with fine linen thread over three cords, adding new endpapers, and added sewn endbands of the same linen thread around rolled paper cores. After lining the spine with Japanese paper, Western laid paper, and linen, I attached a new case of medium-weight handmade paper. The case is attached only by the linen spine linings and by the sewing and endband supports which are laced through the case. The result has an appearance that is similar to and visually compatible with historic limp bindings. This structure has the added benefit of being easily removed if future caretakers of this volume wish to rebind it in a different fashion.

MS E279 after treatment in its new paper case binding, with linen spine lining and laced sewing supports.
MS E279 after treatment in its new paper case binding, with linen spine lining and laced sewing supports. Click image to enlarge.
The title page of MS E279 shown before treatment, at left, and after treatment, at right.
The title page of MS E279 shown before treatment, at left, and after treatment, at right. Click image to enlarge.

The newly-bound volume is housed in a clamshell box along with the old boards. While this manuscript is still fragile, the repairs and new binding will allow it to be consulted by researchers in the reading room, which was not possible in its prior condition. To view this manuscript or any of Spencer’s collections, you may make an appointment to visit the reading room during our updated hours.

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 inside of the boards.

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