Learning how to repair books at Mottisfont

Repairing damaged books at Mottisfont

When I was offered the job of Conservation Assistant I knew I would have the opportunity to learn new skills, but little did I know how quickly these chances would arise. One month into my new role we were scheduled for a book repair training with Caroline Bendix, an independent Library Conservator who has been an advisor to the Trust since 1992.

People often say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, however in our training that’s exactly what we needed to do. The aim of this session was to make minor repairs to hardcover books and dustcovers. Listening as Caroline guided us through an assessment of what was needed it was clear there were many components to understand before any work is begun.

It was hard not to feel a tickle of guilt for childhood offences as she highlighted the causes of damage including pulling books out by the top of their spine and forcing them into narrow gaps between others.

Spines and corners

The types of damage forming the focus of this training included hollow spine repairs and delaminating corners. We began by discussing the mending paste utilised for these repairs. It’s known as wheat starch paste and is the same kind that has been used by bookbinders for many hundreds of years. It is also reversible, a key requirement in conservation, and it works!

With the paste set up, we were given a demonstration of how to repair delaminated corners.

Repairing the corners of a damaged book
Repairing the corners of a damaged book
Repairing the corners of a damaged book

Although the theory is simple enough it’s the tricks of the trade that make it possible to get a good result.

In basic terms this repair requires gently moving apart the surfaces needing to be re-joined, applying the paste and then carefully pressing into position. It sounds easy, but getting the right amount of paste, and with a good consistency, brushing it in changing directions (to avoid going onto the covering material) and keeping supporting fingers paste free can prove a challenge.

Then it was our team’s turn to try. We turned our attention to hollow spine repairs, and those in our team who had been trained before were asked to take over. Here we were reminded how the identification of the book construction is crucial; it must have a hollow spine in order for this to be the correct approach. 

A hollow spine in need of repair
A hollow book spine in need of repair
A hollow spine in need of repair

This repair works by creating a support, known as a hinge, underneath the loose side(s) of the spine covering. The 'hinge' must be cut to the appropriate length and width, folded in half and pasted before being positioned and attached. This hinge then attaches to the spine of the textblock and the spine covering, re-securing it in its original position. Finally, the whole book is wrapped with a bandage and left to dry.

Re-attaching the covering back to the spine
Re-attaching loose covering back onto a book spine with a 'hinge' of tape
Re-attaching the covering back to the spine

There are many considerations to what sounds like a relatively simple task, however: the type of paper, how to make the correct measurements, the amount of paste, being very careful with fingers, and so on.

Thanks to Caroline guiding us through these tasks, we now have the right training... and practise makes perfect, or so they tell me! As a team, we carry out book repairs once a month, in front of visitors. Our next book repair session will be on Thursday 28 February 2019, 11am-3pm - come and take a look.