Grandpas in the bookstack

Grandpas in the bookstack
How we preserve parchment books
22 September 2016

Deep within the depths of our book stacks is a room filled with every bibliophile’s dream—thousands and thousands of old books. The rare book stack contains a wonderfully diverse collection of Renaissance and Early Modern-era parchment bindings. As part of our founding collections these books are affectionately called our ‘Grandpa books’.

Shelves of rare books

Our rare book stack

Some of our Grandpa books have fine historic bindings with parchment, leather, alum tawed, and paper covers. Examples of coloured parchment, such as the blue books in the image above, are particularly striking.

Parchment bindings are amongst the most at risk books in any library collection. The problem lays in the inherent nature of the skin, which is generally sheep, calf (vellum), or goat. Parchment is a hygroscopic material which means it absorbs moisture easily. It is held in a state of high tension due to the highly-skilled manufacturing process which is done entirely by hand. The process renders the animal-shaped pelt into a perfectly flat substrate suitable for writing on. This technique for producing parchment has not changed over several millennia.

Parchment maker scraping a sheep skin

A parchment maker at the William Cowley Parchment Works in the UK scraping a highly stretched sheepskin using a traditional lunar knife

Natural fluctuations in temperature and/or humidity can cause parchment to shrink or expand as it struggles to return to its original three-dimensional animal shape. Vellum can twist and distort even the thickest of book-boards, causing the books to tear themselves apart.

Parchment has always been a sturdy but expensive and time-consuming material to make. For this reason, parchment covers are found on books of considerable value. Parchment was also used as a covering material for blank stationary books which often contain important manuscript material.

The perpetual movement of vellum means there is a very high chance of the books sustaining severe structural damage. This means our preservation team have been busy developing suitable techniques for relaxing and flattening bindings with severely bowed boards.

Parchment book with bowed boards

17th century parchment binding complete with its original linen foredge ties, before treatment

The technique we use to relax the parchment is to gently introduce moisture back into the skin. We apply a sandwich of damp blotter and Goretex™ membrane to the boards. A ziplock bag is placed over the sandwich and sealed off to make a humidity chamber. The humidification process is a passive treatment which introduces moisture in a slow and controlled manner. On average, it can take between 4-6 hours for the parchment to become malleable enough to flatten.

Two Conservators treating a rare book

Sara and Rachel treating some splendidly decorated parchment bindings from the Library’s Clifford Collection

We have come across some surprising finds during our treatment of the rare book collection. This 17th century binding contains a piece of medieval manuscript ‘waste’ dating from centuries earlier. A thrifty bookbinder has used the waste as reinforcement for the lovely green endband.

Head cap of a book with medieval manuscript waste

Saint John Chrysostom and Sir Henry Savile (editor), Tou en hagiois patros hēmōn Iōannou Archiepiskopou Kōnstantinoupoleōs tou Chrysostomou tōn heuriskomenōn tomos prōtos [-ogdoos], di epimeleias k[a]i analōmatōn Herrikou tou Sabiliou en palaiōn antigraphōn ekdotheis  1612, nla.cat-vn2615203

Parchment book after conservation treatment

17th century binding returned to its original dimensions after treatment. The linen ties are safely tucked underneath the boards to protect them

When the bowed boards have been flattened these precious books return to their original dimensions and can be properly stored. Storing the books in custom-made pressure boxes contributes enormously to their long term preservation by providing gentle pressure and a more stable microclimate.

Conserved parchment book in a custom pressure box

Custom pressure box

The opportunity to help preserve our Grandpa books is a real joy. There are fine examples of parchment bindings on display in our Treasures Gallery—see what you can discover next time you visit!

Further reading

Christopher Clarkson, ‘Rediscovering Parchment: The Nature of the Beast’ The Paper Conservator Vol. 16 1992, pp. 5-26, nla.cat-vn1561469

Comment: 
Thank you for a greatly detailed and instructive post- very useful for us conservators working on our own! Out of curiosity: how would you go about relaxing a parchment binding where the stiffness is located primarily around the joints? Would you treat this area with spot-humidification?
Comment: 
Hello Victoria, Thanks for your interest in our conservation treatments. For further information you can contact us via our Ask a Librarian Link: http://www.nla.gov.au/askalibrarian
Comment: 
Thanks for this great article as I've been dealing with the same issue (though our books are not quite so lovely !
Comment: 
Hello Bryan, we are very fortunate to have such a lovely rare book and manuscript collection here in Canberra. Thanks for your interest.
Comment: 
Fascinating - thank you for that insight into the care of our heritage.
Comment: 
Thanks Phil, I'm glad you enjoyed the post!
Comment: 
An excellent article. To be honest I thought I knew what parchment was until I was enlightened by this informative piece.
Comment: 
Thank you Anthony, the term parchment can be confusing given that there are papers on the market called 'parchment paper'. I'm glad the post was informative.
Comment: 
Wonderful to know our heritage is in such safe hands. Thank you.
Comment: 
Thank you Colleen!
Comment: 
What a wonderful story. The preservation of old books is essential. But books are made to be read. Hopefully we will be allowed, under controlled conditions of course, to access such books. The oldest book I've handled is Dampier's Voyage to New Holland, dating from 1703. As I read it, I could not help but wonder about who all those were, who had read it before me.
Comment: 
Thank you for your comments Robert, as a national collection we are lucky to be preserving these rare books for the public. For further information about use of our reading rooms please contact our Librarian team at: http://www.nla.gov.au/askalibrarian
Comment: 
The use of Goretex is interesting. I investigated permeation of liquid chemicals through Goretex - its callendered layers of Teflon that have been stretched to produce a 2D array of microscopic holes. Multiple layers produces tortuous passeges that vapout can diffuse through, but actually quite slowly (minutes rather than seconds). Seems like a good choice to allow gentle rehydration of the parchment.
Comment: 
Thanks for your interest in our work David!
Comment: 
Thank you for such an interesting and detailed description regarding the care of ancient books. The oldest book I've been allowed to handle (with gloves) was in the Muniments Room, at Westminster, baptisms & marriages at St. Margaret's, Westminster. Now I'm awed at the amount of work that must go on at such an ancient repository. When I entered the library, there were thousands of books , with locked, wooden bars, to prevent books being removed. The room was vast, and little dust mites twinkling in the light coming through the ceiling.
Comment: 
Thanks Shirley, what a wonderful opportunity you had in Westminster. I feel very fortunate to work with NLA's historic books every day, they have so many stories to tell!
Comment: 
a fascinating and very informative article. Thank you.
Comment: 
Thanks Helen!
Comment: 
Fantastic work being done by NLA staff. Such patience and pride in your work must leave you feeling well rewarded when you complete these types of tasks! Congratulations Rachel and others.
Comment: 
Many thanks for your support Chris!
Comment: 
I found this very interesting, You just don't realize exactly what work goes into the preservation of these precious books. It just goes to show you learn something new every Day.
Comment: 
I'm glad you enjoyed the post Judy, thank you.
Comment: 
Will any of these treasures ever be digitised and put in the MagicBox by DatacomIt I saw at the exhibitors room at the recent National ALIA 2016 Conference in Adelaide? It is a fantastic way to show these items without touching them as it is shown page by page on the touch screen with the item encased in the clear box on show.
Comment: 
Thanks Margaret, digitisation is certainly a wonderful tool. For further information about our planned projects please feel free to utilise our Ask a Librarian tool: http://www.nla.gov.au/askalibrarian
Comment: 
A fascinating article about book preservation. It is wonderful to see that these old treasures will be around for many more years to come.
Comment: 
Thanks Rosalyn, it is amazing which objects survive through history. Books have generally always been treasured objects, so it's a real privilege to help them along in their next chapter of life.
Comment: 
Great article. There is a real thirst for this information from those of us who are just amateurs in this space. Intellectual hobbyists we might be called, with just a few grandpa books. Than you.
Comment: 
Thanks for your comments David, as a fellow bibliophile I can understand the excitement that comes from collecting and caring for old books.
Comment: 
I have an 1800s nursery rhyme book and it needs some attention. Can you direct me to a person or place where I could get it rebound?
Comment: 
Hello Vanessa, what a wonderful sounding book you have! We have a great tool from which you can obtain more information about your request: Ask a Librarian http://www.nla.gov.au/askalibrarian
Comment: 
Very interesting , thankyou for the insight.
Comment: 
Thank you Ralph!
Comment: 
Thank you for looking after our heritage. Very interesting article.
Comment: 
Thanks Erica, glad you enjoyed the article.
Comment: 
Never heard of it Thanks for this great info to preserve our precious treasure
Comment: 
Thank you Maurice, they are precious treasures indeed!
Comment: 
A delightful article thanks and may I suggest two corrections : 'the problem lies' and 'blank stationery books'. Kind regards
Comment: 
It's really interesting to see how detailed and challenging preservation of books can be. There's so many elements involved in respecting the best practices for handling and storage.
Comment: 
Very interesting.
Comment: 
Thanks for your wonderful article I found this so interesting. I knew that great care had to be taken to preserve our valuable old books but didn't realise just what a difficult and fascinating work it was. Thank you for this amazing insight.
Comment: 
It is good that someone is able to preserve such history, thank you so much for what you do. Some years ago we toured Parliament House, on display was the Magna Carter, it was mind blowing to see this signed paper (a part of history) and to remember what it means for us today.
Comment: 
As a NLA volunteer during 2013-14 who worked each week dusting many of these books - with great people in the Preservation Section - and having grandchildren of my own I am amused that they are known affectionately as "grandpas" because their covers have become warped and bent and require straightening. Thank you for a very clear article about this possibly ancient and valuable craft of re-straightening vellum-bound books. Time for grandpa to have a warm shower!