Research through survey: A book conservation project

Tuesday 16 August 2022

In March earlier this year, I was honoured to visit the University Collections reading room at the University of St Andrews Library to explore some volumes in the collection which had been previously conserved.

To give context to this visit, I am currently a MA student at West Dean College in the field of book conservation. My thesis is focused on the book board reattachment technique being championed by conservator, Emma Fraser. After attending a digital workshop on the technique presented by Emma, I was spurred to look into it further, to test and examine the technique in a conservation context. Emma has also previously delivered an in-person workshop hosted by the University of St Andrews in 2019 to demonstrate the technique to attendees from Icon Scotland, the professional conservation body in the UK. Under Emma’s close supervision, delegates on the workshop applied Emma’s technique to rare books from University Collections.

Reattaching book boards

My interest in investigating the technique as an addition to known board attachment techniques stemmed from my own research and student practice. Board detachment is a common challenge with historic books, particularly leather-bound bindings where the leather has deteriorated at the joint and gives way when handled. Many articles written about existing board reattachment techniques use anecdotal evidence or testing methods unconnected to real-life handling to validate their efficacy.

So when the opportunity arose to revisit both the workshop examples, and books repaired using the technique as part of Emma’s private practice, I jumped at it, and I am really grateful to Erica Kotze ACR, Conservator at St Andrews University, for facilitating this session.

A collection in use

Access to collections and interaction with authentic objects are key concerns in conservation so it is wonderful to see conserved books being regularly used, particularly as teaching materials by lecturers.

Conducting a condition survey on the rare book items from St Andrews which had previously been repaired using the technique – half from the workshop participants and half from Emma’s private practice – was a rare glimpse into how books had fared after being repaired and then returned to use. For various reasons, it is often unusual for conservators to be able to return to their work and examine it in such detail, making my time with the previously conserved bindings so valuable.

Photo credit: Emma Fraser

Further research

The data gained from this survey, combined with the library’s record of how many times each book had been handled, has proved formative in how I conduct and record the findings of my own handling tests within the parameters of my research project. In this way, the bindings at St Andrews will contribute to the corpus of knowledge around the use of this particular technique.

Emma Fraser has submitted an article on the methodology of implementing the technique for an upcoming edition of the Icon Journal and my own research on the topic will be completed in September 2022.

I would like to thank Erica Kotze, Libraries and Museums, University of St Andrews and Emma Fraser for arranging the session and answering my subsequent queries. It has been an incredibly informative experience and I look forward to sharing the results of my research.

Lizzie Willetts
West Dean College

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