On May 16th I had the pleasure of attending my very first conservation workshop entitled Book Cradles for Reading Rooms and Exhibitions by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) hosted at the Ewell Sale Library and Archives at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Renee Wolcott, Book Conservator and Mellon Fellow at CCAHA, led the demonstration with assistance from CCAHA’s Education Program Manager, Stephenie Schwartz Bailey. There were 15 participants, including myself, from the tri-state area.
Ms. Wolcott began our morning with a slideshow explaining vulnerable book mechanics and a brief history of the book from medieval times to the present day. She explained how binding has changed throughout the centuries and how that has affected the aging of books. We then moved on to a discussion of the importance of book cradles, where to purchase them, which materials are best for rare books, and, lastly, how to construct them yourself.
Book cradles are an essential part of a library’s arsenal to maintain our precious collections. Rare books have a number of sensitivities that must be taken into consideration to assure the item is being handled and exhibited as safely as possible. Wolcott explained that a book is “happiest” when closed. They’re built closed, whether sewn or glued, and the opening and closing of them puts stress, even with the slightest use, on the spine. Over time, the spine can begin to break down. This is especially common in older volumes but is still prevalent in newer items. Sometimes, a book may have very stiff pages that require the use of a book strap to keep it flat. A book strap is a thin piece of plastic, generally made out of polyurethane or polyethylene, which can be wrapped around the text block to hold it open for viewing. Some books have glued spines, some have weak paper that can pull out from the spine, and some have weak joints. Book cradles assure that the right amount of support is given to the book to prevent further damage.
There are many commercial book cradles available for purchase. Unfortunately, not all of them are made from things that are good for your books. For approximately $500, you can purchase a beautiful mahogany book cradle from an Internet supplier. Even though it is visually appealing, it is not only high in price but wood can “off-gas”, meaning it will release chemicals and, in turn, potentially damage the item it’s supporting. Do your research before purchasing book cradles! You’ll want to look for something that supports the entire book including the spine and is made of a material that will not break down over time or release harmful chemicals. Polyethylene and acrylic are great alternatives.
On a budget? You can make your own! How to construct your own is exactly what the workshop was about. With an inexpensive rag-based mat board, you can make custom book cradles for just about anything in your collection. Ms. Wolcott provided each participant with a piece of board, an x-acto knife, a ruler, triangle, scissors, archival double-sided tape, and a pencil. Each person was given a copy of the “Hardy Boys”, to work with. You begin by finding the position in which the book can open without fighting back, its comfortable resting point. Then, draw the template based on how the book will be open. (See images below.) The entire process takes about 15 minutes between the measuring, cutting, and folding. Just about anyone can build a cradle as long as you can hold a ruler and an x-acto knife! The process is primarily based on scoring the board and folding into either a mountain (up) or a valley (down) based on the shapes of your item and they way its spine needs to be supported.
Ms. Wolcott and her assistant were very helpful, friendly, and open to all questions. The workshop was highly informative and a very pleasant experience. Please visit the CCAHA website for more information on workshops and seminars.
My cradle without book:
My cradle with book:
The book pictured above is Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, Greenfield Open Stacks 813 H463o 1997.
Interested in book conservation or restoration? Please take a look at the following titles in the Greenfield Library:
1. Basic Book Repair with Jane Greenfield [videorecording] written and directed by Mark Schaeffer; produced by Visual Education for the H.W. Wilson Company.
2. Bookbinding & Conservation by Hand: A Working Guide by Laura S. Young.
3. Books, Their Care and Repair by Jane Greenfield
4. Simple Repair and Preservation Techniques for Collection Curators, Librarians and Archivists