Books and Bones: A Story of Love, Labor, and Applied Collections Management

Archaeology and Collections Management are two inseparable parts of the Cultural Resource Management (CRM) profession. Without either one, the other is not possible—Collections managers work to keep record of, physically preserve, and make accessible the objects that archaeologists dig out of the ground while archaeologists work to provide collections managers with a seemingly never-ending stream of artifacts and objects in need of care and a safe place to stay! For this blog, I want to take you in for a closer look at one specific intersection of collections management and archaeology—Book and paper conservation. You may be wondering; how does the conservation of book and paper objects relate to the practice of archaeology? It’s not like we dig piles of books and paper materials out of the ground, in fact, these types of materials are almost guaranteed to never be found in any meaningful context by your typical archaeologist as organic materials like paper and leather are often the first to degrade and become lost to the acidity of soil. What value then can a book and paper conservator bring to an archaeological operation?  Well, I’m glad you asked!  

An obvious answer to the above question is the preservation of research and reference materials which archaeologists use to inform and design their research questions and field methods. For example, historic reference materials like The Bureu of Ethnography Collection housed in the NCC reference library provide useful glimpses of information relating to recent histories of many of the indigenous peoples of North America. In fact, some of the cultural information recorded in these texts cannot be found anywhere else today due to the history of European Americans’ attempts to assimilate the cultures of Native Americans with their own—some indigenous knowledges and histories of North America have been lost to these practices although glimpses of them remain in cultural histories and collections like the Bureu of Ethnography’s annual reports. These glimpses then allow archaeologists to formulate and answer research questions, identify artifacts, and consider the cultural significance of a rediscovered site or object.  

As shown in the images below, even when safely stored away from harmful environmental impacts, book and paper objects have a limited lifetime and will eventually need some form of care to remain usable for future generations. This is where applied collections management, or in this case, book and paper conservation comes into play! In the case of the Bureu of Ethnography collection at NCC, many of the older leather-bound volumes had degraded to a point where even careful use of the object would certainly result in damage and the potential loss of irreplaceable information. However, after constructing a new case and rebinding the text block, this volume has been given at least an additional century of use when combined with continued proper storage and handling techniques.   

Note the condition of the leather binding in the images above: The spine has degraded to a point where the leather and label information are falling off and the cover has separated from the text block. In its current condition, using this object means risking pages falling away from the text block and information being lost or damaged.

In these images we can see the process of a repair called a Re-Case. This involves building a new cloth bound case, consolidating the text block as shown in the first image, and then binding the text block into its new cloth case. All that’s left to do is re-label these volumes with a Kwik Print heat stamping machine.

In addition to book repair, paper repair is a valuable skill to archaeologists and other cultural resource practitioners. In the images below we can see an example of the potential for data recovery through paper repair. Notice how after repair we now have a much better view of the railing depicted on the balcony in the image. Assuming the depiction is historically accurate, this image could be the only surviving record of the style of railing used on this balcony. Information like this is of great value to someone wanting to accurately restore a building according to federal standards set by the secretary of the interior which are necessary to follow to retain a historical designation and/or funding for preservation and repair of the building 

Conservators use a process not unlike paper matchet to repair paper objects. Using Japanese Tissue (a very thin woven type of paper) coated in a wheat-starch-based paste, a skilled conservator can make some impressively detailed repairs.

So now you know a few simple ways in which books and bones, or the practices of Archaeology and collections management work together to create informed views of our shared past. Be sure to keep checking for new NCC content as Chris continues to update us on the conservation of historical materials in the NCC reference library. And if you or your company are interested in receiving consultation for book and paper collections, please be sure to reach out to us as we offer custom collections care services throughout the year. Check out some of the other images below of data recovery examples in NCC historic reference materials!  

The above images show the process of repairing and reattaching a severely damaged atlas page. The page was first repaired by smoothing creases, mending tears, and filling gaps. A hinge was then made from Japanese Tissue and used to reattach the page to the text block.

This last image shows a reattached page with a large fill area as this part of the page was damaged and separated from the piece by the time it got to us.

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