THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

6 posts categorized "Writing"

09 April 2019

Consider the cover: conserving a Chinese book

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The British Library's next major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opens 26 April and runs until 27 August 2019. In preparation for the exhibition, conservator Rebecca D'Ambrosio has been working on the conservation of one of the items which will be on display.

The story of a book through its binding

What does the cover and structure tell us about the story, provenance, use and journey of a book? Do they add value to the information it contains? The history of book binding has gone hand in hand with the history of writing. So, what happens if a covering is changed? Has anything been lost or gained? These are some of the questions we ask ourselves as conservators as we try to understand a book and consider how best to repair it.

The front cover of a book, bound in black leather with a design of a gold crown in the centre. The book opened to a page displaying Chinese characters in columns.

The lost original binding: A Chinese and Western book

The book, titled Zi bu ji jie (Explanation of the Radicals of Chinese characters), introduces the concept of how Chinese writing works. It was made in a Chinese style binding in Macao, China in 1840, commissioned by an American man, Issachar Jacox Roberts as a gift for Walter Medhurst who was translating the bible into Chinese at the time.

An inscription page which reads, 'L.J. Roberts Presents this page with his kind regards to Mr. Walter Medhurst. Macau, China, Oct 13th, 1840. The book opened to the first page. The back of the front cover has Chinese characters, and the titled page has an inscription stating, 'Roberts (Issachar Jacox)'

The broken second binding: The British Library style

Many years ago the book was dis-bound from its Chinese-style binding and re-bound into a Western-style binding. The disadvantages of this binding are that it does not respect its original opening direction from right to left, it deforms the structure of the book and new sewing holes were made in the process.

In addition to all this, the western-style binding has become worn around all edges and the back board of the cover is detached.

The back cover of the book, showing the cover has detached from the spine and is now loose.

The new conservation binding: Sympathetic to its origins

Rather than repairing the back board, it was decided with the Curator that this was an opportunity to return the book to a style of binding similar to its original.

Firstly, the spine was removed and the adhesive below was softened with the application of wheat starch paste. The Chinese book was now free of the Western binding but the remaining adhesive residue prevented the separation of the pages.

The book's spine with wheat starch paste applied. The milky adhesive covers the spine in a thick layer to soften the old adhesive. The spine with the wheat starch paste and old adhesive removed.
The original Chinese-style binding, showing a damaged spine.
The tears and losses in the cover were repaired and the spine strengthened with a toned Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch.

The repaired Chinese-style cover with a strip of Japanese tissue adhered down the spine. A close up of the new Chinese-style cover in an off-white cover.

Finally, because of the fragility of the book, new covers of a neutral-coloured Japanese paper were added, folded in the same way as the rest of the textblock pages. The whole was sewn together with linen thread re-using its original sewing holes and following the traditional Chinese binding pattern.

Adding to the story of a book

As conservators, knowledge of the history of the book format inspires every conservation treatment we carry out. We must take into consideration how our decisions will impact aesthetics, use and durability, historical aspect, value and significance. Every treatment will have a certain degree of impact on a book and adds to its story.

It was exciting to return this Chinese book to its original style, and learn more about its story as I added to it. Soon you will be able to see this book for yourself on display in the exhibition ‘Writing: Making your Mark’.

Rebecca D'Ambrosio

19 February 2018

Digitising books as objects: The invisible made visible

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Book conservator Flavio Marzo explores how the experience for users of online library material surrogates could be easily improved by enhancing invisible physical features of books.

Working as a book conservator within digitisation projects has been my job for many years. I started in 2006, only one year after joining the British Library Conservation team here in London after leaving my country, Italy.

The subject of that digitisation project was the digitisation and virtual reunification of the Codex Sinaiticus, possibly one of the most known and valuable manuscripts in the Western world. The Codex was compiled in the IV century AD and is the oldest surviving and most complete version of the Old and New Testament. Many years have passed since that project and digitisation has become a common work stream within public institutions. This is especially evident within libraries which now compete in uploading material from their own collections to make them available for scholars, students and readers across the globe.

Technology has improved immensely since then and a lot of ‘ink’ has been spread across physical and virtual pages about the remit, the limitations and the advantages of what is offered to the public through the surrogates uploaded onto countless web portals. This piece is just another little drop into this ocean of ink to share some considerations built upon experience and from the perspective of a book conservator who sees, because of his professional background, the limitations of this, but also the exciting challenges to overcome them.

Books are physical objects and the pleasure of opening them, turning the pages, looking at (when decorated) the illuminations and their pigments, or at the accretions of the ink strokes, even smelling them, cannot be recreated on the screen of a home desktop. This does not mean that we cannot improve the experience and possibly further close the gap between the real object and the two-dimensional images.

I now work for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Digitisation Project and for the past 5 years, with a team of two conservators, I have been repairing documents (printed and hand written) and Scientific Arabic manuscripts for the team of scholars and photographers who are doing the real magic by gifting the world with the content now available on the Qatar Digital Library website (https://www.qdl.qa/en).

I have worked with books all my life since I was a 16 year old apprentice in a Benedictine Monastery. I have to admit that I am not an avid reader but I love books as objects and I get very excited about all the different little features and materials they are made from. How is it possible to please someone like me when offering online surrogates of complex items like books?

Books are recognised as 3D items and a lot of work has been done to migrate the content of those printed and manuscript texts into online, easy to access versions, but very little has been done to capture their physicality as objects.

Photographers, like any other professional, follow strict professional standards defined by general rules and specific project boundaries. Those standards are built to assure that the best possible result is achieved consistently and the meter to measure this result is the quality of the final product i.e. the image to be uploaded. Those images are supposed to reproduce as faithfully as possible the text and the carrier of the content of a book. Very rarely attention is given to the substrate or to the physical features of the object.

Lights for digitisation are carefully positioned to avoid shadows and they help to reduce surface irregularities and anomalies. This is all to the benefit of the written text and/or of the decorations, but with much loss for the lovers of the book as an object!

Here I want to describe some very practical ways to achieve different results and show some ‘behind the scenes’ of items I have been working on and how these very interesting results can be achieved with simple straight-forward techniques that do not require any high-tech equipment.

Raking light

I have mentioned the Codex Sinaiticus and I would like to start with it.

An image from the Codex Sinaiticus showing the page as viewed under normal light conditions.
Revelation, 2:7 - 3:5, British Library folio: 326. This image: Normal light.
The same image from the Codex Sinaiticus showing the page as viewed under raking light conditions, which shows as a much darker image..
Revelation, 2:7 - 3:5, British Library folio: 326. This image: Raking light.

 

All the available remaining pages of the Codex from the different geographical sites where they are presently held (The British library, The Library of the University of Leipzig, The National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg, and the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine’s) were digitised and uploaded onto the purposely created website (http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/). Contrary to common practice, all the pages were imaged both with normal and ‘raking light’. 

When imaging pages of books with normal light the attention is placed primarily to achieve the full readability of the text. Lights are placed and conditioned to radiate evenly over the surface of the page making sure no shadows are created and paying great attention to colours and tones to ensure they are as close as possible to the real appearance of the object reproduced.

What ‘raking light’ does is very different and the resulting image reveals a completely new landscape. Placing the source of light horizontally relative to the page results in an enhanced texture of the substrate which highlights and brings to life all the physical features present on the surface of the pages. These interesting and unique features can relate to the preparation of the writing surface or more generally to the specific material the substrate is made of e.g. papyrus, parchment or paper.

Here are some details of pages of the Codex Sinaiticus taken with raking light.

A page of the Codex Sinaiticus cast with raking light. This light has revealed the ruling lines, both horizontally and vertically, used to keep the text in place. An image of the Codex Sinaiticus as viewed from the top of the page looking down, under raking light conditions. The light has revealed the scraping of the surface of the parchment. The image also shows pricking holes, circled in red, which was done as an aide for ruling the page as an aide for the scribes.
In the previous images the source of light is now helping us to appreciate this famous manuscript on a completely different level.

Horizontal and vertical lines, holes pierced through the page, and scratch marks now appear clearly. They are traced on the surface of the pages for a purpose; those are features related to the page preparation that happened before the text was traced onto it.

The ‘bounding lines’ (vertical) and the ‘writing lines’ (horizontal) are impressed with a blind (not too sharp) tool onto the parchment sheets. The holes, highlighted with red circles in the second image, are used as a reference. This is known as pricking holes for the ruling of the page to provide the scribes with a guide for writing.

The scratches visible on the surface of the page are most likely the marks left by the pumice stone. The pumice stone was commonly used to prepare the surface of the abraded parchment sheet to make it more absorbent and therefore improve the grasp between the grease substrate and the writing ink.

Thanks to this lighting system it is also possible to see the direction of the indentation of those lines and holes. This information can help codicologists, even from the comfort of their homes, to understand from which side of the folio they were traced and pierced and so recreate the step by step process of the creation of an ancient manuscript.       

One of two images of a letter sent by the Emir of Baghdad to Lord Curzon in 1899. This image is taken under normal light conditions, with clear neat Arabic script contained in two borders, underneath a decorative image heading in red and gold.  The same letter from Emir to Lord Curzon as taken under raking light conditions. This image has revealed how the image was folded, and the number of folds that can now be seen, that were not visible under normal light conditions.
In this image we see the images of a letter sent by the Emir of Bagdad in 1899 to Lord Curzon when he was appointed Viceroy of India, first taken with normal and then with ‘raking light’. In the first image the letter is just a sheet of paper beautifully arranged and decorated with writing. In the second image the light tells us a completely different story; it shows us the use of this letter, the way it was folded and the number of folds it had.

How incredible that it is possible to see all these different insights by just slightly moving a lamp!

Transmitted light

Another technique to read paper from a different perspective is using ‘transmitted light’. 

This image of the same letter from the Emir of Baghdad to the Lord Curzon, is now revealed under transmitted light, another technique of reading paper, to have a watermark, with a Lion holding a flag bearing the word 'Reliance' within a circular sigil entitled around the inner edge as 'The Lion Brand, Croxley number 693, London. some watermark text is obscured by the overwriting Arabic script.

Simply by placing the same sheet of paper onto a light table (i.e. illuminating from below) it is possible to bring a completely new scenario to life. In this image for example we can clearly see the watermark impressed onto the sheet of paper of the previous letter, detail impossible to be seen only looking at the image taken under normal light.

Paper can be hand or machine made, and sheets can bear chain and wire lines or possess watermarks or not. These details can be of great interest to scholars and add valuable information to the understanding of documents in relation to their use and circulation.     

A page manufactured using laid and wove paper, which is revealed distinctively by transmitted light, showing the chain and wire lines on the paper. On the page itself can be seen a large central watermark of a Sphinx like creature with a crown between it's wings. On the left hand side of the page is arabic script in red, with text in black handwriting on the right hand side of the page.   a comparison to the left hand image of  laid and wove paper, this image of a machine-wove page from the India Office Records, shows the difference in paper, with no chain and wire lines and a clearer paper. The Page itself has again, a large watermark underneath the text, of the words 'Government of India'. Superimposed is flowing cursive handwriting in black ink.

Here are some more examples of sheets of laid and wove paper taken from different files from the India Office Record material, some showing again the characteristic chain and wire lines (except the last one which is actually a sheet of machine made wove paper) and some very distinctive water marks highlighted and made visible thanks to the used of transmitted light. 

Visualization of the physical collation of manuscripts

Books are made of folios and pages and those folios are ‘bound’ together. How the bindings are made is one of the real wonders of books. The variances are numberless and the materials and details of execution not only delight nerds like myself, but more importantly they inform researchers about the history of those books, giving insights into the objects that open doors to sometime unexpected cultural landscapes through links between different craftsmanship and cultures.

To describe a book structure is a very delicate and laborious process, but one that conservators are trained to do and that they automatically do many times when conserving those books as they record the treatments being carried out.

A lot of work has been done during recent years to create tools able to easily make this complex information sharable with the wider audiences. One I wish to mention here is VisColl, developed by Dot Porter at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (https://github.com/leoba/VisColl) in collaboration with Alberto Campagnolo at the Library of Congress, a friend and colleague.

A image capture of a page from the University of Pensylvania, of a program called VisColl. The image, with a muted blue background, shows four images of a digitised manuscript, with a section on the left hand side showing the structure of the book and the pages digitised, in white.

In this image we have, additional to the images of the digitised pages, diagrams (on the left) of the structure of the section where those pages are located and, highlighted in white, the specific pages shown on the screen.

Those diagrams, surely more easily understandable than many wordy descriptions, can help researchers to step into a completely new level of understanding for the manuscript, providing vital information about the history of those items, the way they were put together and possibly evidences of late alterations or even forgeries which may have occurred throughout the centuries.

Digitisation has opened new ways to look and make use of books and, I believe, the improvement of understanding of physical features is the next step that should be consistently and widely taken to enhance the online user experience.

One of the issues digitisation has brought to the attention of conservators and professionals involved in the care and preservation of library material is the fact that by enhancing the ‘fame’ of objects we can cause an increase in how much those same objects are requested for access.

To justify restriction in handling objects, which for the most part are very fragile and extremely valuable, we need to improve the online metadata and the amount of information available with the surrogates. Those presented here are just some examples in how, quite easily, this can be done.

Obviously the smell will stay within the walls of the libraries, but those are pleasures to be experienced in situ, and alone (almost..!) at the table of the reading rooms. No surrogate can replace that for the lovers of books. 

10 October 2017

Magic in Conservation – using leaf-casting on paper and palm leaves

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As the library is preparing for the opening of the new exhibition: Harry Potter: A History of Magic, on October 20th, and objects for the exhibition begin to arrive into the studio, our minds turn to ‘magical’ transformations of objects in conservation. Visitors to the studio are often stunned by amazing transformations of objects in our care, particularly when shown before and after photographic evidence of treatments. But our work is not based on tricks, but knowledge and skills, and is far from instantaneous! However, there is one conservation process known as ‘leaf-casting’, which comes nearest to ‘magic’, as understood in the traditional way of things happening suddenly in front of our eyes. Similarly to a performing magician, with prior preparation, a conservator using a leaf-casting machine can transform a damaged object in an instant with the help of paper pulp, gravity, and suction!

Blender  leaf casting machine and press
Picture 1: Tools of the trade: A blender to make the pulp, a leaf-casting machine, and a press.

The mechanical pulp repair process only takes less than a minute! Holes, tears and missing areas disappear, as if by magic once the paper item is put into a leaf-caster!

Paper item on the grid
Picture 2: A paper item placed on the grid in the leaf-caster and masked off.

Pouring paper pulp
Picture 3: Next, the leaf-caster is filled with water and paper pulp poured into the machine.

Missing areas filled with paper pulp
Picture 4: The missing areas are filled with paper pulp once the water has been sucked out of the machine.

The leaf-casting process draws on the principles of papermaking and is particularly successful for large-scale repair of damaged artefacts. Our test repair, illustrated above and below, shows the torn edge and holes seamlessly covered by new paper fibres with the repair being more visible in the areas round the edges where the degradation of paper fibres was most pronounced.

Before and after
Pictures 5 & 6: The damaged paper before and after leaf-casting.

Although the process is mainly used for paper, it has also been tried out on palm leaves as part of the final research project carried out in the Copernicus University in Torun, Polandi. The process was not widely known, but offered a real opportunity for dealing with a large amount of damaged material in a more efficient way than it had been done previously. A Tamil manuscript - Sri Vaishnava Sect doctrines by Pillai Lokacharya - written on 256 leaves was a case in point.

A variety of treatments were tried out on the leaves before they arrived in our studio. They had very old string repairs, and roughly 25 of them were treated using fish glue and palm leaves to repair the missing areas.

String mends and palm leaf repairs
Pictures 7 and 8: Examples of older string mends and a palm leaf repairs respectively.

The remaining leaves showed varying degree of damage ranging from worm holes, breaks, damaged or missing ends and edges. Some were totally fragmented with the text completely lost.

Damaged leaves on light table
Picture 9: Typical damage to the leaves (1-10) made more visible by the light table.

With no undamaged leaves left in the batch to be conserved, I suggested that we try the leaf-casting on leaves that have suffered severe loss to the base material. Before the process started, the inks incised into the palm leaves had to be tested and proved to be stable. The leaves were leaf-cast in batches of 5 using toned paper pulp. Once they were taken out of the machine, they were dried, pressed, cut into individual strips, faced with toned Japanese tissue and cut to size using a template.

Leaves in a leaf-caster and dried
Pictures 10 & 11: Leaves in a leaf-caster and dried respectively.

Leaves cut to size
Pictures 12 & 13: Leaves cut into individual strips, faced with tissue and cut to size.

The template gave a rough idea of the length and width of a leaf, particularly if it had ends missing or was incomplete. It was not meant to make them uniform, keeping those with undamaged ends or with a natural curve unchanged. Below are two batches of 10 leaves from the manuscript before and after conservation.

Leaves 1-10
Pictures 14 & 15: Leaves 1-10.

Leaves 241-250
Pictures 16 & 17: Leaves 241-250 before and after conservation.

Leaves with less damage were not put through the leaf-caster, but mended by hand. A surgical needle was used to insert toned paper pulp into worm holes, and small missing areas. A piece of blotter paper was placed underneath for absorption of excess water.

Leaves mended by hand and mending needle
Pictures 18 &19: Showing an example of leaves mended by hand and a beaker with toned paper pulp and the needle used for mending.

The leaf-casting technique used on the palm leaves had several advantages. It returned some flexibility to the leaves, making them less brittle, and it was also a time saving treatment when compared to the traditional repairs using palm leaves. The before and after photographs of the treatment have this magic ‘wow’ quality of seeing items transformed not by a magician, but by a skilful practitioner!

Iwona Jurkiewicz

 

Notes: I would like to thank my colleague Lorraine Holmes for training us to use the leaf-casting process, and for helping me with the conservation of palm leaves.

iThe conservation procedure to repair the palm leaves manuscript from Cambodia was developed as a final conservation project by Anna Hałucha-Lim in the Copernicus University in Torun, Poland – for details see:

Anna Halucha-Lim ‘Kambodżański rękopis na lisciach palmowych (XIX/XX w.) ze zbiorów Muzeum Azji i Pacyfiku w Warszawie – propozycja konserwacji zachowawczej ;Torunskie Studia o Sztuce Orientu, Torun, Tom 1.

24 July 2017

Do more together than we can ourselves: The unique partnership between curator and conservator

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Zoë Miller and Peter Toth

curator, n. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g. gallery, museum, library, or archive) is a content specialist charged with an institution's collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material.

conservator, n. A person employed in the conservation of artefacts or sites of archaeological, historical, or cultural significance. Cf. conservation n. 1f.

The British Library is the custodian of thousands of manuscript treasures and it is a shared duty of its curators and conservators to care for and interpret them. I’m inviting you to share this meeting of minds and how it brings our collection to life through the rediscovery of a unique fourteenth century manuscript; Egerton MS 2516.

Once part of the library of bibliophile friar Leonardo Mansueti of Perugia (d.1480), this fragile selection of writings from Cicero and the famous African magician and philosopher Apuleius was brought to our conservation studio by curator Peter Toth for assessment and treatment advice.  

Ownership note

Ownership note by Leonardo Mansueti in Egerton MS 2516, f. 162r.

The volume had been rebound in the nineteenth century in a style and design typical of the collection of Francis Henry Egerton. The very small script was written in iron gall ink on thin parchment to save money, and decoration was kept to a minimum. This book was destined to be a scholarly study text and it is an early and important manuscript of the works of the second-century Apuleius.

Original spineTight opening

Original spine and tight opening in Egerton MS 2516.

Peter is able to read and interpret the ancient text and marginalia and to provide this crucial contextual and historical narrative. When he presented us with this book we could immediately see the problem. Its materials had aged so much that it couldn’t be opened beyond forty five degrees! It was so tight that we could not see the text in the gutter. The pages were fragmented, mutilated and corroded by the chemical action typical of this ink. Like leaf skeletons they were incredibly fragile and impossible to turn.

Damaged foliosCut marks

Damaged folios and cut marks in Egerton MS 2516.

As conservators, our first sight and handling of an object can play like a movie of its life. We experience the ageing character and material signs of use and damage known so well of leather, parchment, threads and paper. Even the smells and stains, the cuts, marks and tears of a hundred scholars thumbing the pages are brought to life as we hold it in our hands. There were mysterious cuts to the tail of many folios, which suggested a purposeful extraction. Could this have been to remove mould, mistakes or secret text? Perhaps the parchment was stolen for love notes by a fifteenth century student? 

The existing book boards with a gold crest and inscriptions are part of the unique provenance of this object, and yet the re-binding destroyed evidence of the manuscript’s original shape and sewing. Peter explained that its hard work as an academic ‘set text’ contributed to the patterns of deterioration we see today. We therefore tailored our treatments to preserve evidence of this damage and limit our repairs and intervention to safeguard the narrative. We created a new binding from calfskin replicating the Egerton tradition to respect this significant part of its history.

Removing sewing

Removing sewing from Egerton MS 2516.

The old leather, glues and overcast sewing threads were painstakingly removed by parchment specialist intern Camille Thuet. Once the delicate folios had been released, medieval manuscript cataloguer Laure Miolo was able to access and identify hidden marginal notes. She found fifteenth and sixteenth century comments and a Greek quotation from Euripides which had been added by early readers of the text and reveal how it was used and interpreted. 

Quotation

Quotation from Euripides in the lower margin of Egerton MS 2516, f. 123v.

With the help of conservation imaging scientist Christina Duffy, Camille analysed dark stains across areas of script which were speculated to be early attempts at revealing hidden text. Multi-spectral imaging was also useful in enhancing faded marginalia.

Chemical damage

Historical chemical damage on Egerton MS 2516 f. 4r in an attempt to improve legibility of corroded iron gall ink.

Multi-spectral imaging

Multi-spectral imaging of Egerton MS 2516, f. 116r.

The treatment proposal had two clear aims: 

Enabling access and digitisation through repair of the delicate and damaged folios to ensure they continue to exist for future generations

Preserving and protecting historical evidence so that as much of the past is accessible to the future reader.

A new guard book structure means that the original parchment text block is protected from adhesive and the necessary mechanics of the binding’s spine. This allows every part of it to be viewed, and no part to be constricted. Parchment likes to breathe!

New guard structure

New guard structure.

New flat opening

New flat opening.

New binding

New binding.

Gold finishing

Gold finishing on Egerton MS 2516.

The books in our rich collection inspire both for the intellectual information they carry and as artefacts of craft. We were able to make complex conservation decisions to preserve this manuscript through collaboration with curators. We must together protect what our collection will represent in the future where respect for such treasured objects only grows in this changing digital age.

Thanks to Camille Thuet for her observant eye and parchment knowledge, and to Peter Toth, Andrea Clarke, and Laure Miolo for their historical expertise. The manuscript has now been restored and completely digitised and is available at the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site here.

28 June 2017

Time-lapse Video Showing Conservation of Tangut Documents

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The Tangut documents are part of the Stein collection that is held at the British Library. They were recovered by Aurel Stein in 1914, during his Third Expedition to Central Asia (1913–1916). From the moment they were unearthed from the ancient city of Kharakhoto, a major centre of the Tangut State of Xia located in the Gobi Desert right inside the present-day Chinese border with Mongolia, these important items have remained untreated. This has made their study impossible.

Tangut fragments

Conservator Vania Assis is in charge of repairing and stabilising the documents, which have survived in a fragmentary state, in the aim of eventually digitising them as part of the International Dunhuang Project. This task is a time-consuming process, where all fragments need to be humidified to unfold all their existing layers. However, in order for this to happen, all the sand from excavation needs to be removed beforehand, or else it would sink into the paper fibres and permanently obscure the text. Only once cleaned can the fragments be flattened and repaired, using small Japanese paper tabs to stop disintegration.

So far, more than 1500 items have been conserved, and many are already housed in spot welded polyester sleeves, ready to be digitised. Hopefully, making these items accessible will help unfold more secrets about the Tangut Empire which only existed from 1038 to 1227.

17 October 2016

From West to East: Conservation of the Chinese novel ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’

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By Heather Marshall

Six volumes arrived in the Conservation studio at the British Library. They are all bound in Western style bindings, quarter bound in dark blue leather and marbled paper, and they are very much in the format and style with which you will be familiar when looking at a traditional book.

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One of the six volumes, open, showing the restricted opening, detached boards and spine piece.

I discovered that these volumes contain one of the greatest Chinese novels: the Dream of the Red Chamber (in Chinese: Hong lou meng), written by Cao Xueqin in the 18th century. This edition (British Library shelfmark: 15333.a.1) was made during the Qing dynasty, and it is dated 1811. It is a printed item.

The Dream of the Red Chamber is also called ‘The Story of the Stone’ (in Chinese: Shi tou ji) and it is one of China’s greatest classic novels. Written during the Qing dynasty, this work is widely recognised as one of the pinnacles of Chinese fiction. It narrates the story of two branches of a wealthy aristocratic family (the Jia family) and gives us a vivid account of the Chinese culture and society at that time, portraying funerals, rites, cuisine and medicine aspects.

However, it is relatively unknown in the West, despite the fact that the first translation into English was produced in 1812, just one year after the production of this Chinese copy. It is curious that the original item has at some point been rebound in Western style. The size of the novel is remarkable and when bound in Western style it arrived at 23 fascicules in 6 volumes! The current Penguin books edition is longer than War and Peace!

Books and other collection items in libraries often go through several transformations by being put into a number of different bindings in their several hundred year lives. This can vary from complete rebinding from one style to the next or an amalgamation of styles, through different repairs deemed necessary over the years.

Until recent years, when an item from East Asia was ingested in a Western library’s collection, it was usually rebound with Western style technique, including a hard cover with a spine, which usually contained the title in English. It was in fact believed that in this way the items would have been better stored on the shelves and the paper would have been more protected from dust or humidity. The same happened for the British Museum Library’s items from China (now the British Library’s Chinese collection).

The British Library Lead Curator for East Asian Collections, Sara Chiesura, has informed us that more recent and contemporary acquisitions are left with the original binding and put in a custom made box for shelving. This approach goes along with the current conservation trends, which tends to intervene as little as possible on the original items, and to adopt non-invasive techniques to stabilise them.

As a Book Conservator making decisions about the type of repairs needed to a fragile or damaged binding can be very complex and you will always need to consider the evidence which gives the story of the past. Do you keep a book in its current format and make repairs? Sometimes, in fact, even if the Western style binding is not ideal for East Asian items, the binding itself becomes part of the history of the item, and can sometimes reveal information about previous owners or collectors.

Would a new binding be better able to protect the book for the future and honour its history too instead?

The repair work on these Chinese items became therefore a rare case at the British Library. After a discussion with the curators, we decided that the ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ would have been taken out of its current western style bindings and been put into a Chinese style thread bindings, housed in wrap around ”Tao” cases. Using strong, archival materials, the 6 volumes (23 fascicules in their original format) deserved the sympathy of a return to their origins and a non-Western approach was the best option for the original fragile, thin paper and the need for gentle opening and a secure binding.

As with many Chinese books that have been rebound in Western style, the tight hard binding in contrast to the fragile and this Chinese paper often does not work. In this case, the solid animal glue at the spine created a tight opening and did not allow the bindings to open far enough to see all the text. The detached boards and spines caused much damage as well.

2
Above: one volume after the animal glue was removed from the spine, clearly showing the divisions into fascicules of the original Chinese book and leaving the evidence of the more recent Western style binding.

Working with the item, I immediately noticed some original holes (in the paper text block), which gave me evidence of where the original Chinese thread sewing was. I could therefore reuse these original holes to recreate the sewing for the Chinese binding, tracing back the binding’s original state.

The so-called “Thread Binding” was the usual Chinese binding format in 1811. It is strong and the sewing rarely breaks. Thread bound fascicules in wrap around cases (known as “Tao” cases) would last indefinitely. They allow the flexible pages of each fascicule (which are double sheets, with the fold where the pages are turned) to open flat under their own weight and not be restricted by the spine.

The treatment stages:

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Open fascicule showing repairs to be made with Japanese tissue.

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Repairs were made (with wheat starch paste, a neutral adhesive and Japanese tissue) to the delicate spine edge which is still partly glued together by the animal glue used on the previous Western binding.

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Detail showing remains of the original paper twists and their holes.

The paper twists are used to bind the loose leaves of each fascicule before it is sewn. They are made from a twist of paper pointed at one end and in this case inserted in two places into each fascicule. The Chinese style binding is very strong and the paper twists are often thought of as an ‘inner binding’. They hold each fascicule together before sewing and can act as a back up to the sewing if it breaks.

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Paper twists inserted.

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Trimmed paper twists.

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One stitched fascicule.

Each of the 23 fascicules were re-stitched using the 4 existing sewing holes, using a strong linen thin thread. Extra care was taken to re-use these holes by sewing with a very blunt needle. The needle then finds the hole and eases gently through without causing any damage to the fragile paper.

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Traditionally thin silk (lined with paper) is folded around the corner of each fascicule to protect the corners and give another source of strength. In this particular case aero cotton was lined with Japanese paper.

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Re-sewn fascicules (with corners and covers).

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Flexible opening.

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Cases (Tao style cases) were custom made to ensure the fascicules have a snug fit and give very good protection to the book. It is a big advantage of the Chinese style of binding that the elements work together but can also be separated. The wrap around case has to be exactly the correct size. If it is too tight the fascicules can bend, if it is too loose fascicules may fall out! These cases were often remade several times in the book’s life. In this case strong, archival materials have been used so correct storage and handling will ensure good protection for the fascicules and cases in the future.

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The wrap-around case is made of board covered in cloth, lined with paper, and then fastened with bone pegs.

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“Chinese Book” is the expression used for the whole object. For this copy of the ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ 23 individually bound fascicules were encased in 6 wrap around cases (keeping with the format of the 6 western style volumes which arrived in the studio).

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With thanks to Sara Chiesura for input on this post.

Bibliography:

Atwood, Catherine, ‘Japanese folded sheet books: Construction, materials and conservation’ in The Paper Conservator, papers from the 10th anniversary conference, 14-18 April 1986, part 2

Helliwell, David ‘The Repair and Binding of Old Chinese Books’ in The East Asian Library Journal, Spring 1998, Vol. VIII, no. 1

Ikegami, Kojiro, ‘Japanese Bookbinding’ adapted by Barbara B. Stephan, Wetherhill, London, 11th edition 2007

Wood, Michael, ‘Why is China’s greatest novel virtually unknown in the west?, in The Guardian, 12th February 2016