Preserving Imperfections – Basics in Paper Conservation

I have a copy of The Fair Penitent by Nicholas Rowe, published in 1776. I found it in a rare bookstore. It has no boards, barely any spine left, and the frontispiece has been cut out.

I love it.

18th-century drama is something of an acquired taste, so even if you don’t share my enthusiasm for the text itself, I’m sure many of you know the thrill that comes from finding a project. It’s usually an old book with torn and ragged pages, the leather flaking off, and boards detaching or gone entirely—and you’re going to make it all better.

I’ve always been more interested in binding new books than in restoring old ones, and my copy of The Fair Penitent is destined for a fresh, contemporary binding instead of an old-fashioned one. But before I can think about rebinding, the textblock needs some help, and I don’t know much about repairing old paper. 

With that in mind, I enrolled in a Basics in Paper Conservation course at the American Academy of Bookbinding. The course ran from August 13th through 18th in Telluride, Colorado. Our instructor was Renate Mesmer, the Head Conservationist at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. The Folger’s collection focuses on 16th and 17th-century material from the British Isles and Europe. All related to Shakespeare and the time in which he lived.

The Beginning

Lesson One was the Conservation Code of Ethics, and I gradually came to the realization that the course was going to be as much about preserving paper the way it was as repairing it.

Renate explained that while conservation does involve repairing damage, a conservator has more to consider than just aesthetics. Books come with a history, and that history is just as worthy of preservation. Not everything an uninformed eye perceives as damage needs to be fixed, so it’s important to cultivate an understanding of bookbinding history, and the history of any specific book you might want to work on.

I’ll give you an example: dog ears.

If you’re anything like me, reading those two words made you cringe. Renate showed us pictures of a heavily dog-eared book she worked on. But she has not and never plans to restore the page corners. As she explained, books have a history that is intertwined with their previous owners. Those dog ears represent pages and passages that were important to a past reader, and are an invaluable insight into the thoughts and values of that person. Considered in that context, the dog ears aren’t really something that needs to be fixed. In fact, they add to the value of the book. 

So before you start working on your own book, it’s best to take a careful look at what you have and understand what you’re looking at. You can begin by filling out a Condition Report, like the one below, and taking photographs. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with the book you’ll be working on, and organize your thoughts.

On my Condition Report for The Fair Penitent, I noted that there were a few pages with losses along the foredge. I took this for general wear and tear and described my plans to infill the missing paper. Upon reviewing what I’d written, Renate told me that what I saw as losses were more likely to be pages that the binder missed while trimming the book. There was no damage—the book was simply made that way. On her recommendation, I removed the infills from my list of repairs, as I could see the value in preserving the textblock the way the original binder had made it.


The next step is to clean the surface of your textblock with a soft brush. But make sure you have something under your book because even the dust might be worth keeping.

The Folger actually runs something called Project Dustbunny, which began in the gutter of a dusty and dirty old book. The idea was to test that dust to see if any human DNA could be found—in fact, they found two individual sets of human DNA. It’s now standard practice when cleaning books at the Folger to take one swab from inside each cover, and two swabs from the center of the book. These swabs are stored away in case they might be relevant to a future research project. 

You might want to consider keeping the dust from your old books too. I actually found a strand of hair in the gutter of The Fair Penitent! You can store such things in a small paper envelope.

Markings on the Book

Be gentle with any writing on the pages as well. Even with the prices written in pencil by the second-hand bookstores you bought your texts from. These things are an indication of provenance, and should be preserved as a part of the history of the book.

Unfortunately, I was a little too enthusiastic with my surface cleaning, and the pencil markings in The Fair Penitent were long gone before anyone mentioned that they should be left alone!

Book Structure

When it comes to pulling apart the textblock like I ultimately did, there are a few other things to keep in mind. The first is that you need to know what order the pages are in, so you can put them back together properly.

There are times when you’ll find pages and signatures are not sewn in the order that the printer intended. This doesn’t mean that you have to reorganize them numerically—in fact, it’s much better, like the untrimmed edges of my textblock, to preserve the error.

The other thing to remember is that the thread and the sewing structure are an important part of the book, and they need to be documented before you cut and pull anything. Make a diagram illustrating the sewing structure from one signature to the next, including the location of knots. This could come in handy, for example, if someone decides they want to know how many times the binder had to knot on a new thread in a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost (yes, this was a real research project Renate told us about).

Be sure to keep the thread, of course, and any bits of leather and spine—anything that comes off the book, really. If the work is for a client, it’s nice to paste these things on a card, or return them in a paper envelope.

My Book

My copy of The Fair Penitent is for me, and it’s a passion project, but I think I appreciate the copy I’ve bought even more now for having done this class.

Seeing hair in the gutter of my textblock, knowing that a few edges were missed by a hasty binder when he trimmed the pages—all of this gives me a more personal connection with the book as an object, and in turn a connection with its history.

I went on a paper conservation course to learn how to fix tears and dog ears, but the more valuable lesson was that a lot of it doesn’t need to be fixed at all.