May I Check These Books Out?

Visiting the Special Collections at the Albert Sloan Library in the University of Essex was an eye-opening and fresh experience for me. It’s not everyday that you encounter centuries-old books and I was looking forward to seeing (and smelling) these ancient books. You know that musty old book smell that some secondhand book stores have? That was what I was expecting when we were ushered into the collections. However, I was sorely mistaken and now that I think about it, I really should have known better than to think that the books in this precious collection would be allowed to deteriorate enough to produce that musty smell. As I oh-so-carefully drew a book out from its place on the shelf and flipped through its pages, I was in awe at the structural integrity of the books. Its robustness honestly surprised me, not to mention the pages that were hardly yellowed or fragile, unlike my books left out for a year or two in the sun and humidity. The quality of the paper that was produced centuries ago made me question the quality we have now, although I suppose that is the difference between tedious manual labour and convenient mass production. It also led me to question if books were then the domain of the wealthier class, for they must not have been cheap to obtain. Literacy was also limited to a lucky few in Britain then, so the people who were able to purchase these books, to read and write in them, must have been from the upper strata of society.

My curiosity about the methods of conservation and preservation of these books brought me to the Parliamentary Archives Collection Care team. On their website, they outline some measures such as the application of preventative methods, the provision of ideal environmental conditions, careful handling, and collection management. Books would contain mostly organic materials like paper and leather (perhaps in the book covers or binding) would seem to require the utmost circumspection.[1] The Parliamentary Archives stores collections at a tight range of humidity and temperature levels, but I am unclear if the Special Collections in the Albert Sloan Library are stored at the same standards. Books that were received in particularly bad condition or are rapidly deteriorating would be subject to “’minimal intervention’ techniques, such as re-attaching a book board to a binding, or for more serious cases…‘full intervention’ techniques, such as re-sewing broken down sewing that holds the gatherings of a book together in the cover (binding), or repairing holes and tears in a paper/parchment document”[2]. This left me wondering if any of the books I had thumbed through had been restored in some way or another, but without a trace such that the original integrity remains.

Olfactory stimulation aside, the first thing that struck me visually as I lay my eyes upon the rows of books lined up on the shelves was how nondescript they were. The book spines were plain, the colours earthy, and the external design rather homogenous, requiring close observation to identify the differences. Occasionally, the edges of the paper are printed with a pattern that some may find familiar.

I often see this pattern in the scrapbooking section of my local arts and craft store and was surprised to see it had lasted through the ages. Some others have a pattern that reminds me of what I might see through the microscope.

Nonetheless, their unassuming exteriors actually conceal treasures. Some books feature such exquisite and intricate pull out maps, not unlike the geographical maps we might see in travel guides and fantasy novels these days. It is a thrill to see a city that may no longer exist by its former name and imagine the landscape and scenery. The maps also illustrate the forms of printmaking that were in practice.

Some of these books were printed, while some were handwritten. The printed versions naturally indicated that the books were meant for wide distribution, hence the necessity for mass-printed copies that take less time to produce. An example here illustrates the proper manner of eating.

The contents of these books surely reveal the matters that were of concern in society at that time as well, such as witchcraft in England. On the other hand, the handwritten books typically lend a more personal and palpable tone to these historical archives. Yes, a lot of them are banal records of a household’s spending, or a town’s records of births, deaths, and marriages, but these are all testimony to lives lived, and are such important contributions to developing a nuanced understanding of a different time.

This all ultimately begs the question: what gets remembered and what gets forgotten? Of course there is the matter of what was lost in the many years that have passed between the creation of the book and now, but if a book does reach the hands of a decisionmaker, how might they determine if it is important enough to be conserved? Berger discusses some of the factors that might affect this decision, as it would involve “deciding the value of an item to the collection today and hypothesizing its value to the cultural record some years from now”.[3] The factors include the “extent of damage, amount of use, content, artifactual value, rarity, and market value, among others” and it becomes necessary to create a kind of ethical code and selection policy. [4] It is all a rather risky business to me as judging if the content and value of a book is important can be influenced by the prevailing beliefs in society. Should the words of a woman for example be deemed frivolous in a particular time and therefore be left to disappear with time, people in the later years would never even have realized the loss of a whole world and perspective. I think this issue is an increasingly complex one as we progress into a digital age where there is an overwhelming amount of data to sieve through to decide what should be preserved. There are all new formats and topics whose cultural importance are not yet obvious, and it would certainly be a pity and a headache for future historians if valuable information is lost in this teething period.

[1] Parliament of the United Kingdom, “Collection Care”, Preservation and Access, <>, [accessed 1 April 2019].

[2] Parliament, “Collection Care”, <>, [accessed 1 April 2019].

[3] Sherri Burger, “The Evolving Ethics of Preservation: Redefining Practices and              Responsibilities in the 21st Century”, The Serials Librarian,57 (2009), pp. 57-68, doi: 10.1080/03615260802669086, pp. 60.

[4] Burger, “The Evolving Ethics of Preservation: Redefining Practices and Responsibilities in the 21st Century”, pp. 60.

3 thoughts on “May I Check These Books Out?

  1. The aftercare and restoration of books is not something that you think about when you pick up a book, but your blog shows how much effort is placed into taking care of the books to make them last. It is very much fascinating to see that books have to be kept at a certain temperature and will definitely be doing some more research on how books are preserved.

  2. The images and variety of books you provide are fantastic. The craftsmanship behind the original copies are apparent, and you really illustrate the intricacy needed to repair such books. You raise an interesting point on the decision making behind what texts should be repaired, and it is definitely an issue to which more attention should be drawn.

  3. Your discussion about how books are selected for collections is really interesting and I really liked how you include the senses in your description! Did you find out if any of the books you looked at in the special collections had been restored, and what impact that had on the item?

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