Old books, many stories: preserving the evidence

This month I’ve been spending a lot of time handling and rearranging the older books in the Cory Library. This copy of John Lawrence’s The clergyman’s recreation, published in 1715, is a lovely example of the kind of book I’ve been dealing with and of what many of the eighteenth century books in the collection look like. It is bound in tanned calf hide (leather), which in this case has been sprinkled with acid to give it a decorative speckled appearance; there are impressed lines of decoration created by a roll tool, and other ornamental decoration has been stamped on.
John Lawrence's 'The clergyman's recreation', published 1715.John Lawrence's 'The clergyman's recreation', published 1715.
The reason for spending so much time with old treasures like this has not been simple pleasure (although it has been a pleasure!). The library will soon be moving to a new home within the Garden, and in preparing for the move I’m taking the chance to make some changes to the way these older volumes are stored on the shelves, in order to better protect and preserve them.

When I say “older books” I’m talking mainly about books published before the mid nineteenth century. This is a date we use loosely to signify the end of the hand-press era, during which each step in the printing and binding process was done by hand, and the introduction of mechanised printing, which was the beginnings of modern mass production. The materials and methods used in the binding of the hand-press era books, combined with their age, make them particularly vulnerable to damage and deterioration. It’s important that we do our best to store them in a way that minimises these risks.

With this in mind I’ve been working to separate out the books bound in leather from the rest. This will ensure that any leather bindings that are deteriorating will not stain the paper or cloth bindings of their next-door neighbours.

I’m also trying to arrange these old and vulnerable books on the shelves according to their size. A large book standing side by side with a small book is not well supported. It’s at risk of warping, and of putting harmful pressure on its smaller neighbour. By grouping books of similar sizes together each is supported fully by its neighbour. In the case of the very largest and heaviest volumes, the best practice is to store them lying flat, and we have some extra deep shelves ready to accommodate these volumes in their new home.

Having to think about the physical needs of these old books has refocused my mind on how much we can learn from them not just as texts, but as objects. Each one has many stories to tell. It was made, owned and used by people who have left traces of themselves on and in it. For example, the materials used in the binding and the style of decoration are the result of choices, and paying attention to them can tell us about the circumstances and preferences of the person who made the decisions.

As texts become increasingly available digitally and online, it’s more and more often the physical characteristics of a particular copy that make it exciting and of interest to researchers, because this is what makes it unique. That’s why we’re doing our utmost to look after our books as objects, preserving the evidence of past lives and times for the future.

Jenny Kirkham
Cory Library Manager