Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Protecting the Protectors

Freelance paper conservator, Michal Sofer, has been working on MoDA's book collections for the past few months.  The project has raised some interesting questions; when does a wrapper designed to protect something acquire the status of something that itself needs to be protected?

Over the past few months I've been working at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA) on a major project aimed at improving the condition and housing of thousands of books in the museum's collections.  This will mean that they can safely be handled by students, researchers and other users for more years to come.

Michal removing rusty staples from one of the
publications in MoDA's collections

One of the measures we are taking most frequently to safeguard the books' condition, is covering them with a Melinex*  wrapper.  This is most often to ensure the longevity of the numerous damaged dust jackets, which were originally manufactured to protect the books’ primary covering.

The Domestic Design Collection and JM Richards Library book collections in MoDA's stores date mostly from the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries. Many of them are cloth-covered hard backs with an additional dust jacket, often printed with quite intricate and beautiful designs, very evocative of a book's subject matter or the period during which it was published. 

Dust jackets have a long history: After a first appearance and brief period of use in the fifteenth century, the protective paper covering of books fell into disuse until reappearing nearly 400 years later - the single most important development favouring production and use of dust-jackets was the advent of publishers’ cloth bindings in the 1820's.

The Happy Glutton, by Alin Laubreaux  (1931)
Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, BADDA2356

Two Englishmen, William Pickering and Archibald Leighton, are usually associated with the early manufacture of book cloth around 1825-1830. Case bindings had replaced hand-bound volumes. Cloth in a wide variety of colors, finishes and textures, lent itself to being deeply embossed and colorfully decorated, and stamped with plates that completely covered the boards with designs. The need to protect these delicate cloth covers was ensured by the use of dust-jackets. The efficacy of such a cover is much evident in the collection, where pristine cloth covers are found under soiled and damaged dust jackets.

Some books from MoDA’s collection once belonged to the Silver Studio.  They were probably stored in the Studio itself, and appear to have been referred to frequently for practical purposes, leading to the loss of the original dust jackets. A significant number of these books were provided with protective brown paper wrappers during that time. This was an excellent way to preserving the primary covering materials, and to support book structures, since brown wrapping paper is relatively inert, is quite durable, and the book titles can be written onto the wrapping which is opaque and therefore hides any bibliographic information. These contemporary wrappers are now in various states of disrepair, having undergone up to 100 years worth of handling. Again, we have frequently provided these volumes with a secondary protective wrapping of Melinex over the brown paper dust jackets, so preserving evidence of the ‘provenance’ of the books (ie, proof that they were used in the Silver Studio).

A small but notable number of books  from the JM Richards collection have had their dust jackets laminated by well-meaning librarians, possibly between 1960 to 1980, when the they were housed by libraries in various learning institutions (library, college and school stamps have been found in the front covers). Rather than preserving the dust jackets as intended, this has ultimately lead to an accelerated degradation of them – as the heat-activated adhesive discolours and embrittles the paper cover. This damage is irreversible.
Some libraries have used poor quality polyester to create a wrapping for books which has welded itself to paper covers over time, discolouring, embrittling and cracking the paper, and adhering unevenly to printed surfaces. This often results in a more permanent disfigurement of the paper dust jackets, and can only rarely be successfully repaired, generally taking a lot of time, and the use of solvents. Sadly, the books that have been damaged in this way in the MoDA collection will remain as they are, for now. Thankfully, they are relatively few and far between.  

Hence, we now find ourselves taking measures to preserve protective covers designed to protect the primary book covers where we can with simple inert materials and methods. Who knows what measures conservators may take to preserve our melinex wrappers in the future?...


*Melinex is a tradenamed inert, archival standard polyester commonly used for the preservation storage of museum and archive materials. Our book wrappers are made individually to size, and to various templates for the protection of each individual book's requirements and without the need for adhesives.

If you have questions about the conservation of MoDA's collections please contact Emma Shaw
If you would like to use the collections for your own research, please contact Maggie Wood to arrange an appointment. 


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