The concept of conservative restoration has an aim that transcends the mere aesthetic appeal given by a book which, previously damaged and unbound we see reborn with a new lease of life after restoration. The book owners themselves are very often the cause of longer lasting damage by saying for example “ Please make it look new” or “Glue it, glue it the best you can, put it together again at the least possible cost”. In fact the right attitude should be “Please intervene as little as possible taking care to respect the criteria with which this book was made in the first place”. The aim of conservative restoration is therefore the improvement of an ongoing situation of deterioration without causing further damage due to inappropriate action. Paradoxically, in cases of extreme deterioration, where the restorer’s intervention would be so radical that it would eliminate nearly all the original parts, conservative restoration procedures advise not to intervene but to store the book in a box made of neutral pH materials. This would keep all the book parts together, even if detached, deformed or incomplete (archaeological restoration).
Materials for restoration, indicated by the Institute of Book Pathology in Rome to the Schools of Restoration, have been tested over a number of years and are constantly improved and updated. They enable the restorer to remedy the most varied situations in the field of paper restoration, whether the damage is caused by chemical, biological or mechanical deterioration, without radically attacking the materials and in the meantime ensuring a good degree of reversibility of each product used.
Very often, the use of inadequate products and techniques, for example adhesives that are too strong or too acid, tatty retouch-jobs on prints and drawings, new bindings and book covers that are inappropriate in relation to the period in which the book was published, strongly compromise the delicate balance of the original binding and in general of an object, such as the book, made of several different materials. Let’s see some practical examples:
If I apply inappropriate new paper to an area where it is missing (especially on a print) there will certainly be undulations around the edges of the filled in gap, due to different tensioning of the original paper in relation to the new one used, which is not suited to the physical requirements of the original.
If I simply glue back a detached spine, whether in leather, parchment or cloth, without evaluating the reason that has brought about the mechanical problem, I submit the book to a violent shock each time I open it, thereby causing inappropriate opening and difficult consultation as well as cracking (often irreparable) of the spine.
If I apply new leather using unsuitable adhesive, I will certainly cause an irreversible unsightly dark rim between the parts that come into contact and where the leather is of light colour this problem is even worse.
If in any 16th or 17th century book I reattach the cover using the “case binding” method normally used for modern books, without taking into consideration an extension of the original broken cords and their subsequent lacing into the front and back covers, I can cause an unbalance between the spine and the covers, which could lead to breakage of the cover itself along the longitudinal axis of the joint.
If I replace an original cover made of shaped light cardboard with laced in cords on an old, rare valuable book even if this is in very good condition, only because cardboard is wrongly considered to be a “poor” material, I create a binding not in keeping with the original period of the book. It might be a new and very elaborate binding which aesthetically pleases the eye but is perhaps made of leather, probably tanned with dubious techniques, and has gaudy gold decorations. And so on.
How can you start being a conservator on your paper materials? If you are a bookseller or librarian, start by removing the dust which usually accumulates on the head of the book with a small brush or vacuum cleaner, in order to prevent it carrying humidity present in the air to the internal pages of the book and thereby causing stains or fungal spores. Bookshelves should be regularly dusted and checked for the presence of bookworms. One should keep books away from areas of the building exposed to direct sunlight because this causes the colour to fade and hardens the spines. Books should be placed on very dry shelves in a perfectly straight position (better still if horizontal), never askew.
If the material is documents or of a graphic type i.e. prints, drawings, watercolours etc., these should be stored in a flat position, away from direct light, radiators or damp areas and should be checked at regular intervals for any alterations to the colours or the paper. The latter could show in time small rust coloured dots called foxing which indicate the start of a degradation process. This type of care is both the beginning and the end of a discourse on conservation as it has to be followed in all instances, even after restoration work has been carried out. Restoration does not give the paper or book object infinite longevity, but good conservation is always the sign of good health of our (one hopes) beloved graphic works of art or books.