Interning in the Conservation Lab

My name is Sarah Kim and I am a conservation/preservation intern at the John J. Burns Library. I am entering my second year in the Bookbinding program at the North Bennet Street School.

This summer, under the guidance of Burns conservator Barbara Adams Hebard, I had the wonderful opportunity to repair De Bello Belgico, a two-set 17th century series, written by Galluccio Angelo, SJ (1593-1674), about the early history (ca. 1592 – 1609) of the Dutch War for Independence from Philip II of Spain.  This book was previously owned by Carlo De Poortere (1917-2002), the scion of a famous textiles family who was known for his prestigious book collection.

Photo of Carlo de Poortere’s red leather bookplate.

Carlo de Poortere’s red leather bookplate.

Our first step was to document the condition of the book before treatment with standard images, including a label with the date and the condition of the book, a color grid, a detailed description about the book, and a ruler to show scale.

multiple photos of book before treatment

These are some examples of what the “before” photos should look like: a label with the date and the state of the condition of the book, a color grid, a detailed description about the book, and a ruler to show size.

It’s important to take pictures to show the condition of the book before, during, and after treatments so future users can see how it was conserved. Along with the images, conservators also prepare a treatment report to document the condition of the book before it is treated, the treatment that was performed during the repairs, and the result of the treatments. For pre-treatment condition reports, conservators make detailed notes about materials the book was made from and any damage. For example, this book is a full-leather, brown, mottled sheepskin binding, with bumped corners (see explanation below) on the boards, and red and blue flower patterned endpapers.

For the treatment, the first thing that I did was surface clean the books. First, I used a soft, goat hair brush to gently remove any dirt and dust on the boards, spines, edges of the text blocks, and the endpapers. Then, with the Gonzo sponge, which is made of dense latex, I would gently dab on all the surface to pick up finer sediments.

photograph of damaged ("bumped") corners of a book

The corners are damaged (“bumped”), curling into the textblock.

After the surface cleaning, I did some corner repairs. As you can see in the picture above, the corners are damaged (“bumped”), curling into the textblock. This is a common damage to books that have been used over long periods of time. Using a syringe, I carefully inserted a thin wheat starch paste into the boards at the corners to make them slightly damp and flexible. Then, with  binder clips, I clamped the corners with small support boards to assure that they dry flat.

Photograph of a book being repaired with boards, binder clips, and helping hands

The small mechanism holding open the board is called a helping hand.

These are now left to dry overnight. The next day, I performed the same process on the back board corners.

As you can see in the above pictures, the cover boards are much straighter than they were.  The corners are now much smoother after the treatment. “Unbumping” the corners also helps preserve the textblock too, reducing the risk of pages getting caught in the corners and tearing during use.

Finally, I sat by the lab’s fume hood to gently brush on leather consolidant—a solution of klucel-g and ethanol—on all the leather parts of the book. Have you ever experienced dark red or brown streaks or powder on your hands after touching an old leather book? That’s called red rot. The leather consolidant helps prevent leather from becoming parched and flaking off. In a way, it’s like putting lotion on your skin to keep it from drying out. Klucel-g is mixed in with ethanol because the ethanol will evaporate, leaving behind the consolidant to seal the leather. If you were to mix the solution with water instead,  you risk dampening the leather to the point where it can be permanently darkened. The ethanol acts as a carrier to the klucel-g until it is exposed to air and evaporates.

After the leather consolidant dries, the repair process is finished. To complete the treatment, we take the “after pictures.

Photos of volume after repair

Other than the “unbumped” corners, the repair does not show a significant difference. Nonetheless, after pictures are taken to be documented.

Book repair and conservation is part of the bookbinding curriculum at the North Bennet Street School. I am glad for the opportunity to put the skills I have learned at school into practice on a rare book at the Burns Library. I am also glad to have had the opportunity to be in a conservation lab working on other rare books as well. This summer, I also worked on preserving English novelist Graham Greene’s (1904-1991) collection of books by placing the dust jackets into protective, archival mylar sheets. I  also helped with emergency preparedness, monitoring the temperature and humidity levels in the Burns Library, and preparing supports for the Being Social Before Social Media exhibition. Working with Barbara has been an invaluable experience, because I was able to see the many overarching responsibilities a library conservator has and it only affirmed the importance of conservators in the bookbinding world. As I continue to study bookbinding this coming fall, it is my hope that I will be able to help preserve books and other materials that continue to tell stories of how the world has changed.

  • photograph of conservation intern working at bench

    Working hard in the conservation lab! You can see the brush and the sponge that was used to surface clean at the bottom of the picture.

    Sarah Kim, Burns Library Conservation Intern and North Bennet Street School Bookbinding student (’18)

Works Consulted:;view=2up;seq=766;size=175;view=1up;seq=262

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