The Anatomy of a Book: Saving The Naturalist's Library

Posted: March 11, 2015 - 13:33 , by ROM

Books are remarkably durable. Fragments have survived from ancient times, while others have traversed the centuries in near perfect condition. One such example is the St Cuthbert Gospel from the 7th century, the earliest intact European book. But despite the robust structure of the book, the rigours of use and the passage of years cause many fall into disrepair and to require mending.

One of the most important duties of librarians and archivists is to maintain and preserve books for future use, and this often means fixing them. One of the ROM books has recently undergone repair and offers a look at how books are made and mended. This is the damaged copy of volume XIII of The Naturalist's Library by Charles Hamilton Smith from 1842. The front cover and spine have fallen away, exposing the binding. The binding stitches have loosened, allowing the pages to slide about in the covers, and some of the pages have been torn. 

The modern book is essentially unchanged since late antiquity when the codex form began to replace the scroll. Each book is comprised of three basic parts: the covers, the spine, and the book block. 

Book covers are designed to protect the pages inside, and they can be made from various materials. Medieval books often have thick wooden boards as covers, sometimes covered in decorated leathers or rich velvet or brocade fabrics. From the early 19th century on, decorative paper covers became more common, often with a marbled effect. The most common cover material for the codex book is reinforced cloth or leather.  

The book block consists of the stack of pages of text that form the content of the book. The block is made up of sections of folded paper, known as signatures. The first codex books would have been written on parchment which is a very durable material, but costly. Paper technology was developed in China, and the earliest known fragment dates to the 2nd century BCE.  Paper travelled to Europe from the Arab world via Muslim Spain around the 12th century, but it was not much used until the 15th century and the development of the printing press. Paper brought the cost of book making down, but is a much more fragile material and prone to mildew, mold, discolouration and tearing. The Naturalist has some tears, as well as some discolouration, known as foxing. The tears can be repaired, but not much can be done to remedy foxed paper.

The spine is perhaps the most vital part of the book, and the most vulnerable to damage. The spine keeps the pages together and the more often a book is opened and used, the more stress it endures. There are many kinds of bindings which make up the spine of a book. Modern paperback are usually glued, but traditionally books are sewn together using various stitches. One of the oldest is called Coptic stitch, and was used in Egypt from as long ago as the 2nd century CE.

When constructing a book, a stack of signatures is held together and then pricked and stitched or glued together. Above, the book block of The Naturalist is being pressed and the old glue and loose stitches cleaned and tightened, securing the signatures together again. 

After the binding is secured, the spine and cover boards have to be reattached to protect the binding and pages. Japanese paper, which is delicate but strong, is often used to provide new backings for old spines. This means that the look of the original book and binding can be maintained, while strengthing and repairing any damage.  One the far left, a piece of Kozu paper is carefully dyed to match the colour of the cover boards. The matched paper is then curled over the spine, creating a hollow tube that protects the binding, and glued down under the hinge of the cover boards on the inside and outside of the book. Finally, the old spine is reapplyed to the new spine. In the book below, it is difficult to see where the old material and new material meet. 


The result is a fully repaired book, ready to be used and read for years to come!