A clean sweep of a herbal

Cleaning in progress, with tools at the ready.

Today I’m working on a treatment that is basically the rare book equivalent of cleaning under the couch cushions. This 2-volume herbal was used by a previous owner as a plant press, and many leaves, flowers and other assorted plant parts were discovered in-between its pages by our special collections librarian.

The plants had already caused damage, such as acid-burn and staining, and also made it difficult for readers to handle or read this book. So we made the decision to remove the inserted plant matter. We photographed all of the pages with plants in them, then carefully removed all of the larger material. However, there were a lot of smaller plant pieces that got wedged down in the gutter of the pages, so I gathered up all of my favorite small tools and got down to work!

The majority of the pages were fairly easy to sweep clean with my soft squirrel-hair brush, but there were three that were literally FULL of dirt. Those took me almost 30 minutes each to clean out fully, using a combination of tools that included a dental scaler, microspatula, a stiff small brush and a mini-vacuum. While using the dental scaler I had to be very careful not to poke holes in the paper or get caught on the sewing thread, but it turned out to be a very useful tool indeed!

Before cleaning
After cleaning

This was originally published on the ConserveThis! Tumblr, on April 20, 2016.

Bibliopaths: The case of the lacquer binding |Rita Udina. Paper & Book conservation and restoration

Bibliopaths: The case of the lacquer binding |Rita Udina. Paper & Book conservation and restoration

Merry, Sparkly, and Bright!


It’s that time of year when houses and trees glow with holiday lights and, here in the Midwest at least, cars and windows boast thin layers of glimmering frost each morning. A few of the books in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library are getting a sparkly coating as well, thanks to a phenomenon known as efflorescence.


Efflorescence can affect a number of materials, including stone, concrete, and leather. It occurs when the amount of moisture in an object exceeds the amount of moisture in the air around that object. This causes the moisture to migrate towards the object’s surface. Once the moisture reaches the surface, it evaporates, leaving behind any salts that may have been dissolved in it.

Leather bindings often contain salts left over from the tanning process. If these salts are dissolved in any moisture that a book contains, then the drier air of fall and winter will bring them, in dissolved form, to the book’s surface. Once the salts reach the surface, the moisture evaporates, and they appear as a sparkly white powder. Fear not, the environment in the rare book vault is carefully controlled and kept at a constant temperature of 60 degrees with a humidity of 44%. Our conservators are never concerned about a little efflorescence in the winter.


When books are sitting next to each other on a shelf, the efflorescence tends to appear only on their spines and top edges, as these are the only places where the leather is exposed to the air. The powder has no harmful effects, and a single swipe of the finger will remove it. As the weather warms, the holiday lights will come down, windows will no longer be etched in frost, and the efflorescence will fade. But we’ll know it’s there, waiting, a little bit of sparkle just under the surface. -BS

Efflorescence is often mistaken for mold, but a good way to tell the difference is:

1) it only happens to the leather-bound books (vs. a mold outbreak, which will affect neighboring books regardless of cover material)…and

2) there shouldn’t be any white powder on the paper (vs mold, which will often infect both paper AND cover material). 

Dot Porter, Curator, Digital Research Services at the University of Pennsylvania Library, offers a video orientation to Penn Library’s LJS 189,  Zakhīrah-ʹi Khvārazmshāhī, by Ismāʻīl ibn Ḥasan Jurjānī. The manuscript was written in Persia in the 14th century, in Persian. It is a medical encyclopedia in 9 books, with discussions of physiology, anatomy, pathology, diagnosis, fevers, specific diseases, surgery, fractures, poisons, and antidotes. Includes indexes, although some leaves are missing. Most leaves re-margined with pink paper; a few leaves have original margins and extensive marginal notes or commentary.

Whoa, that pink! That’s wild. 

Also, shout-out to their curator, for eschewing those silly white gloves! Thank you for not embracing their unnecessary use! Gold star!

Deckle-Fetishism | The New Antiquarian | The Blog of The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America

Deckle-Fetishism | The New Antiquarian | The Blog of The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America

Your Old Books – RBMS – Rare Books & Manuscripts Section

Your Old Books – RBMS – Rare Books & Manuscripts Section

“Rare Book Conservator – Career Spotlight”

As Yasmeen Khan, a Rare Book Conservator at the U.S. Library of Congress says, “Books are like a mirror into the past.” Working at the Library of Congress gives you a chance to combine an appreciation for books with a love for history and preserving the past! Visit the Library’s website, loc.gov, for more information.