Author Archives: Cornell University Library Conservation

About Cornell University Library Conservation

Cornell University Library Conservation is a part of the Department of Digital Scholarship and Preservation Services. The unit provides preservation guidance and conservation treatment for all Cornell Library collections.

Interns from China, Part One: bookbinding and book repair

By Michele Brown

The first 2 participants in our preservation training program for librarians from China, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, arrived at the beginning of November.



Zhang Lijing is a librarian in the special collections department in the Peking University Library.




Deng Liang is a librarian in the History of Science Collection at Tsinghua University Library.


The first two weeks of their program has focused on the history of western bookbinding, binding case-bound books, and repair of circulating collections.















You can see more photos on our Facebook page.

Stay turned for Part 2: care and handling, exhibit preparation and disaster planning.

Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes

by Michele Brown

A new exhibit: “Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes: a Dark History of Children’s Literature”   just opened in the Hirshland Exhibition Gallery in the Kroch Library at Cornell University. Utilizing Cornell’s rich rare book and manuscript collections, the exhibit explores  many themes in children’s literature.

The Division of Rare and Manuscripts Collections installs at least two major exhibits each year, and Cornell Library Conservation works closely with them to make sure the materials are displayed safely and look their best. Each exhibit takes many hours and fine coordination between several departments.

First, curators select and evaluate the materials for the exhibit. Eisha Neely (left) and Freddie  Loew discuss potential candidates.


These are then examined by conservators from the conservation unit. Michele Hamill will evaluate and, if necessary treat, flat paper and photos, whereas Michele Brown will treat books and other items, including broken game boxes.







The exhibit coordinator, in this case Eisha, decides on the color theme for the exhibit. The supports for all of the materials are made from high quality board by Pat Fox, Assistant Book Conservator,  who also advises the coordinator on the amounts of board needed for the supports.





















Rhea Garen , from the Digital Media Group, scans each item in the display.






The finished exhibit looks great! The materials are safe and supported. You can view the exhibit online.





Looks can be deceiving.

by Michele Brown

The History of Science collection recently acquired Caesalpini’s De Plantis Libri XVI, 1583, which according to the Encyclopedia Britannica is the first textbook on botany. Our copy is bound in full vellum and is in good condition except for dark smudges, brown stains (thought to be foxing), and worm damage throughout. It was sent to Conservation out of concern for the smudges and stains, which looked like inactive mold.

We consulted with Kathie Hodge, Associate Professor of Mycology in the Department of Plant Pathology & Plant-Microbe Biology, and author of the Mushroom Blog.



Professor Hodge took tape lifts of the black smudges and foxing, and examined them under a microscope. Surprisingly, there is very little mold in the book. The black smudges are apparently soot, and the brown stains are actually colonies of actinomycetes, a filamentous bacteria. The annotated slide below shows  that  mold spores are present, but in small quantities. It was actually difficult to find many mold spores on tape lifts that were taken throughout the book and on the binding.

The last  slide shows soot particles mixed with a few linen fibers from a tape lift of one of the black smudges.

Professor Hodge’s verdict is that despite its appearance there is very little mold or bacterial contamination of this book. She was curious, however, about the staining that has occurred around the worm holes.

We decided to proceed with dry cleaning and minor repairs. Stay tuned for Mary Schoenfelder’s report on this treatment.

China intern program

We are excited to welcome the first 2 interns in our China intern program on November 1.

“Knowledge creation is global. With fewer barriers to cross-border research, the well-being of collections in other countries is directly linked to the research we do at Cornell and around the world, and it benefits from their accessibility,” said Xin Li, Associate University Librarian for Central Library Operations. “Helping Chinese librarians preserve these materials ensures they’ll be around for the long run, which is part of the global mission of a land-grant university.”

Read the complete press release and visit the Grant-funded projects page  for more information about this program. Look for updates about our participants and what they will be learning while they are here at Cornell.

Rebinding Newton’s Principia

By Michele Brown

This year, the curator of the History of Science Collections requested a new binding for Cornell’s copy of the first edition (1687) of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton, generally referred to as Newton’s Principia.







It had been rebound in the 1970’s in a way that was unsympathetic with the date of its printing.  This by itself would not normally be a reason to rebind it, but the sewing had broken, there were water stains throughout, and mold growth had damaged the edges of many pages.  As a whole, the volume was fragile.

It is used frequently for teaching, and its deteriorated condition made this difficult.

The curator was anxious for this work to have a more appropriate binding. Since the book needed to be resewn,  he agreed that washing the pages could improve their flexibility and increase their longevity.


Washing and paper repair

The pages were washed using filtered water alkalinized to a pH of 8.5. They were deacidified using a  calcium hydroxide solution, and then re-sized with 1% gelatin solution.  We were concerned with lightening the paper excessively and losing any of the manuscript notations. Washing  and resizing removed much of the staining and returned flexibility to the pages. In the photo above, the pages on the left have been washed.

Each folio was reinforced with thin usumino (from Hiromi) using wheat starch paste (Aytex P from Talas and filtered water). Paper edges damaged by mold were reinforced with thin usumino or tengujo tissue (also from Hiromi). It was resewn onto 5 raised cords, reusing the original sewing holes.


Unfortunately, there is no record of the original binding. The original endbands were also gone—replaced with machine-made endbands in the 1970s—but since a fragment of green thread remained I sewed on new green and white endbands.

It was covered as a tight back using fair calf (from Hewit’s) that was dyed using Hewit’s water-soluble aniline dye and Fiebing’s leather dyes.

We decided a Cambridge panel binding was appropriate for this time period. We found two valuable resources for deciding on the design. The Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies had several images of bindings for this period. English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800 by David Pearson (British Library and Oak Knoll Press, New Castle: 2005) was also a good source.

Terry Buckley’s 1996 Guild of Book Workers presentation on leather staining and dyeing provided valuable guidance for dyeing the leather for the Cambridge panel design.

The new binding is more attractive and opens easily, making it more useful as a teaching tool. It is also in a better condition for digitizing, should that option be considered in the future.






Department of Digital Scholarship and Preservation Services

The Department of Digital Scholarship and Preservation Services (DSPS), recently started a blog. Cornell University Library Conservation is a unit within DSPS.

The Cornell University Library’s Digital Scholarship & Preservation Services program facilitates collaborations within the Cornell University community in the creation and management of digital scholarly content and tools to support learning, teaching, and research. The program also enables sharing of content through online repositories such as e-publishing systems or institutional and subject repositories. Program staff work closely with the Library’s IT group in developing technical solutions and collaborate with the Library’s departmental liaisons and subject specialists in identifying needs and delivering services. Staff collaborate with Cornell Information Technologies’ academic technology services in facilitating the integration of technologies to support learning and teaching.

Check out their latest initiatives.

An enclosure for a cypress sprig

by Michele Brown


In addition to books and manuscripts, Cornell has a rich collection of unusual artifacts. Recently, a sprig of cypress plucked by Lafayette from George Washington’s grave  came into the Conservation Lab. It was housed in an archival envelope that caused damage whenever the sprig was removed for viewing.



I decided to attach the sprig to buffered 4-ply mat board using a flexible strip of polyester threaded through slits on the board. The polyester is held in place on the back of the board with double-sided tape. Another piece of polyester was attached to the bottom of the board and serves as a tab for pulling the sprig out of its enclosure. A second piece of mat board was glued (pva) to the back of the board holding the sprig in order to secure these attachments.


The mounted twig fits into a sink mat constructed from mat board and Volara polyethylene foam (from University Products). Utilizing a case binding structure, the board holding the sink mat was hinged to a board with a 4 mil polyester film window. I used Canapetta cloth from Talas for the spine piece.

You are able to view the sprig through the window, or you can open the window for closer examination. As mentioned above, you may also remove the sprig and its backing board.

Fragments of the sprig found in the envelope were encapsulated, and along with a letter explaining the provenance of the sprig,  also stored in the box. This whole structure might be overdone, but I’m pretty sure the sprig is now safe from further damage.