THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

Introduction

Discover how we care for the British Library’s Collections by following our expert team of conservators and scientists. We take you behind the scenes into the Centre for Conservation and the Scientific Research Lab to share some of the projects we are working on. Read more

12 November 2014

The conservation of two late medieval Hebrew manuscripts

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Two Hebrew manuscripts in their original bindings came to the conservation studio as part of our
conservation program. Both texts contain the work of Abraham bar Hiyya (d. 1136) who was a medieval Spanish philosopher, mathematician and astronomer.

Background history

Little is known about bar Hiyya’s life except that he lived in Barcelona. Although there are points of similarity with other medieval thinkers, his writings contain a mixture of Neoplatonist, Aristotelian and Rabbinic ideas, with original interpretations. He was often quoted by later authorities and accepted as authoritative. There was often no distinction between astronomy and astrology in medieval Spanish or Latin text. Astrology was consulted for such things as births, journeys, business and weddings. Abraham was the foremost scientific authority in Spain at this time and he was a firm believer on this aspect of astrology. Many of the terms invented by Abraham have remained current in scientific and mathematic Hebrew to the present (1).

Besides Bar Hiyya’s Tsurat ha-arets which was copied c. 15th century in a Byzantine style of Hebrew writing (ff. 2r-54v), Or 10721  contains  two additional treatises copied by other scribes in the 15th-16th century. The two other works are Torat emet imun by Zecharia ben Mosheh ha-Kohen ha-Rofe (ff. 1r-1v; poetry), and Sefer ha-osher (Book of wealth) a scientific treatise (ff. 57r-61v).

Or 10721 right board  Or 10721 left board

CC by Right and left boards of Or 10721.

The first text was written by Abraham bar Hiyya and was one of the first Hebrew texts on cosmography. It is a short review of the ‘lands according to the seven climates’ - the chief source of geographical knowledge among the Jewish community at the time. Abraham bar Hiyya theorised that the Earth was at the very centre of the universe despite conflicting contemporary knowledge. The second text is a translation into rhymes of Bishop Marbod’s text (c.1090) ‘Liber Lapidum’- a tract on the medical and mystical qualities of precious stones. This text also considers astrological principles and the relationship between geology and the positions of heavenly bodies. The third (ff61v-62r) describes the restorative properties of the eagle.

The manuscript is written in iron gall ink and is attributed to a scribe who worked in Italy named Joseph ben Se’adyah Ibn Hayyim.

Or 10538 is a manuscript copied in Italy and dates from approximately the 14th or 15th century. It contains two treaties on astronomy and the Jewish calendar Sefer ha-Ibbur by Abraham bar Hiyya and Sod ha-‘Ivin by Yosef ben Yehudah Hazan.

Or 10538 right board  Or 10538 left board

CC by Right and left board of Or 10538.

This manuscript was copied in Italy approximately around the 14th or 15th century and was censored in the 17th century. Abraham bar Hiyya’s main astronomical work known as Hokhmat ha-hizayon contains two parts; the first part Tsurat ha-arets or ‘Shape of the Earth’, which is included in Or 10721, and the second Heshbon Mahalekhot ha-kokhavim or 'Calculation of the courses of the stars’ which incorporates a whole section on intercalation. The whole work is probably the first exposition of the Ptolomaic system in Hebrew and was the first complete textbook of astronomy in that language. In Or 10538 Abraham further considered the problems of intercalation to enable Jews to observe the festivals on the correct dates (2).

Both volumes contain texts from Abraham bar Hiyya and both have kept their original 14th or 15th century bindings. Even though the binding styles are completely different, they are both unique objects. We decided to take a minimal intervention approach preserving as many of the historic features and characteristics of these manuscripts as possible, and to allow binding features and intricacies individual to these bindings to be visible. Repairs to these volumes would be carried out in-situ, intervening as minimally as possible whilst allowing it to be accessed safely by a guided readership.

Conservation

Or 10721 - There was an increase in book production towards the end of the 15th century when paper became more readily available and also a greater demand for embellishment of finished books as they became more affordable to produce. This meant that binders had to create time-saving methods which led to the adoption of less durable techniques and materials. Despite this, when developing techniques for book conservation today, we can learn a great deal from medieval book structures as their continuing existence is testament to their strong mechanical techniques of production.

Or 10721 pastedown

CC by Left pastedown before conservation showing alum-tawed supports laced into boards and torn vellum.

When Or 10721 came to conservation it had missing areas to the leather exposing one of the sewing supports, a cracked and abraded surface, and a missing endband. The other endband was present but breaking away from the binding. One sewing support had broken in the gutter at both joints with the boards, which was causing the first and last sections to protrude from the boards (cut flush to the textblock) at the fore-edge.

A number of folios were loose with subsequent tears and crumpling to the edges. Where the vellum pastedowns had come away from the boards a section had torn away and was still adhered to the inner board surface. Rust from the metal bosses had caused burn holes in the first and last few folios, and the volume had surface dirt throughout.

Or 10721 endband damage  Or 10721 endband

Or 10721 spine

CC by Damage to leather spine: Thread remnants from the tail and head endbands showing damage from use and original lacing into boards.

Some of the damage that has occurred over time has exposed otherwise hidden codicological features which are of interest to the scholarship of bindings of this type. Therefore one factor in the treatment of this item was not to hide this evidence.

The treatment aims for this book were:

• To strengthen and stabilise the sewing structure and its supports
• To reconnect and repair the existing endband (head) and replicate its structure (tail)
• To support and reinsert loose folios and repair vellum pastedown
• To consolidate covering leather

The sewing supports were extended using linen thread which was frayed out and adhered to the wooden board. This repair in addition to repairing and reconnecting the endbands to their cores within the boards helped strengthen the opening of the boards and the connection of textblock to binding. It also helped to ease the sections back into the binding and prevent further damage to the paper where it protruded at the fore-edge.

Or 10721 spine after conservation

CC by Or 10721 spine after conservation.

Or 10538 is a manuscript written with iron gall ink on parchment with annotations and foliation in graphite. The binding is limp vellum with the double alum-tawed sewing supports laced into the cover and a foredge flap extending from the left cover. Writing is visible over the covering parchment. The binding has been sewn all along on two double alum-tawed supports with thick linen thread. These supports are crossed and laced into the cover in a triangle pattern. Remnants of alum-tawed ties were observed. There are no spine linings or adhesive on the spine which has a natural hollow. Paper labels are found on the spine and left cover.

We don’t know the exact date of the binding but we do know that limp vellum bindings were commonly used in Italy in the 15th century answering to the increased demands of the time. This is a non- adhesive structure, which relies on strong sewing and materials. On the textblock there are indications that it has been resewn: a central sewing hole is not used in the current sewing and there is evidence of a sewing support in the corresponding place on the spine.

Or 10538 right board pastedown

Or 10538 inside left board

CC by Top: Inside of right board showing alum-tawed supports which have been knotted together. Bottom: Inside of left board showing flap.

The covering parchment was severely damaged. Assessment showed that it was cockled, brittle, gelatinised, and stiff, with overall staining and abrasion. There was severe shrinkage and the foredge flap has been folded inside the left cover. The right cover no longer extends to the foredge of the textblock. Shrinkage resulted in tension which has contributed to loss of covering on the spine; 50% of the spine covering was missing. There were losses to the corners of the left cover and foredge flap joint. Paper labels on the spine were torn, lifting, and had losses. The sewing was in poor condition, with broken kettle stitches in the centre at head and tail.

Or 10538 spine

Or 10538 spine with supports released

CC by Top: Damage at the spine. Bottom: Spine after releasing the supports from the left cover.

The treatment aims for this book were:

• To strengthen and stabilise the sewing structure and its supports
• To repair the vellum cover and infill the losses keeping all the original features

The challenge was to repair the cover without disturbing the lacing paths and undoing the knots. The alum-tawed ties were carefully removed from the right board, leaving the knotted alum-tawed ties of the left board untouched. The spine was then carefully repaired using layers of Japanese papers dyed to match the original colour.

Or 10538 right board after treatment

Or 10538 spine after treatment

CC by Right board and spine after treatment.

Our approach is always trying not to disturb the codicological features as we can not necessarily anticipate what future research may be looking for. It is always the challenge of book conservators to make items accessible to readers while preserving as much as possible. In this case it has been very satisfying to be able to preserve the individual features of these unique items and make them available to researchers. Of course the books still need careful handling, as they are not only the carriers of content but also of the history of the objects and the history of materials and techniques of the time.

By Mariluz Beltran de Guevara and Zoe Miller

Further reading

(1) Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol 1, 2nd ed, Thompson Gayle, 2007
(2) Medieval Jewish Civilisation, An encyclopaedia, Ed by Norman Roth, Routhledge, 2002

26 October 2014

Bookbinder Bernard Middleton celebrates 90th birthday

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Born on 29 October 1924, legendary bookbinder Bernard Middleton celebrates his 90th birthday this week. Bernard spent much of his life working with British Library collection items at the Library’s bindery, then known as the British Museum Bindery, following his apprenticeship there.

Bernard Middleton
CC by Bookbinder Bernard Middleton at work. Photo courtesy of Bernard Middleton.

Bernard Middleton was interviewed in 2007 for Crafts Lives* by oral historian Hawksmoor Hughes. Crafts Lives is one of the oral history interview programmes run by National Life Stories, the oral history charitable trust based at the British Library. Bernard spoke about his time at the Central School of Arts & Crafts where he gained a general education and a grounding in bookbinding.

Listen to Bernard Middleton on the Central School of Arts and Crafts

“I was very happy there, I liked it.” recalls Bernard, “I liked the fact that my father had been taught in the same room, 25-26 years previously. And I was taught by his fellow student. It was a very good school – it was regarded really as the sort of Oxbridge of the craft world.”

The Central School of Art and Design was established in 1896 and became part of the London Institute almost a hundred years later in 1986. In 1989 it merged with Saint Martin’s School of Art forming Central Saint Martin’s College of Arts and Design, which today has its campus at King’s Cross, just a ten minute walk from the British Library.

The first thing Bernard was taught was how to fold paper, followed by instruction on how to sew a pamphlet , which he describes as “about the simplest thing one can possibly do in bookbinding”. The class learned the history of the way books developed from the scroll to the codex, and gradually took on more complicated bindings including cloth, leather (half-leather, full-leather), and gold-tooling.

Describing himself as “shy” and “well-behaved”, Bernard recalls the odd mischievous day which included throwing balls of wet cotton wool at the ceiling. “I remember throwing one and it hit the teacher in the middle of the back and stuck on his round coat. I was rather embarrassed when he turned around and saw me.”

When Bernard first came to the Bindery there were about eighty workers there and most of his time was spent making end papers. He quickly gained proficiency by working next to journeymen who taught the apprentices their skills. Bernard learned how to bind both old and new books acquired by the Museum’s Library.

Listen to Bernard Middleton on the British Museum Bindery

It was a hard life, with an initial salary of £1 a week and only a seven minute tea break each day: “We had to stand all day and that was hard work when I first went there. We were allowed to sit down for seven minutes at four o’clock to have tea, not in the morning – you had to stand up to have it then…I think it had been five minutes and then two more minutes were negotiated, and then the deputy foreman would bang with a stick on his press to indicate that we should stand up and get on with our work again.”

Bernard’s subsequent career has included managing Zaehnsdorfs, a large and successful binding firm; establishing his own business; researching and writing on the history of bookbinding and restoration; designing and producing approximately 100 original bindings; as well as receiving many commissions from noted collectors, academic institutions and libraries. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1951 and received an MBE in 1986.

A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique

CC by Bernard Middleton’s 1965 binding on his book A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique New York & London, 1963. C.108.d.39

Some examples of his bindings are below:

BL shelfmark C.160.c.17  BL shelfmark C.160.c.17
CC by A 1964 binding on Howard M. Nixon, Twelve Books in Fine Bindings from the Library of J. W. Hely-Hutchinson Oxford, 1953. C.160.c.17

BL shelfmark C.188.b.43  BL shelfmark C.188.b.43
CC by A 2004 binding on Marianne Tidcombe, The bookbindings of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson London, c1984. C.188.b.43

More examples of Bernard’s bindings can be seen at the St Bride Library off Fleet Street in London from 27 October to 14 November, 2014.

“My designs are intended to please the eye, not engage the intellect, principally by the employment of textures, strongly defined shapes and contrasts, and by the play of light on gold, preferably in combination and in a manner which complements the book." Bernard Middleton, Recollections (London, 2000), p.85.

With thanks to Philippa Marks (Curator, Bookbindings) and to Mary Stewart (Curator, Oral History) who edited the audio clips.

*Since the Crafts Lives project started in 1999, over 130 in-depth life stories have been recorded with British craftspeople, exploring both their personal lives and their work in the fields of pottery, glass, metalwork, jewellery, textiles and book arts. In August 2014 over 80 of these interviews were made available to listen to online in their entirety – including 13 craftspeople that work in the area of book arts, bookbinding and letter cutting. Visit http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Crafts to find out more.

21 October 2014

Paper cuts: small but mighty!

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Hardly noticeable and barely bleeding, paper cuts are the mother of all library injuries. Anyone who deals with paper on a daily basis will have at some point suffered such an affliction. Paper cuts cause a seemingly out of proportion amount of pain due to the anatomy of our skin and the structure of paper. When very thin and held in place, a sheet of paper becomes inflexible and can exert very high levels of pressure – enough to slice through flesh! Yikes! Let’s go under the microscope to see what's happening...

Paper of the night  Paper cut
CC by Left: A single sheet of paper at x30. Right: Paper cut (image source).

Most paper cuts result from new sheets of paper held strongly in place. A rogue sheet may come loose from the pack but remain held in position by the rest of the tightly-knit sheets. In paper, more resistance is felt when a force is applied parallel to a sheet of paper. This has to do with the paper’s tensile strength. Tensile strength measures the ability of a material to resist rupture when force is applied to one of its sides under certain conditions. Held in place, the sheet of paper becomes extremely resistant to buckling, stiffens, and acts as a razor.

Dislocated sheet

CC by A sheet of paper that strays from the pack can cause serious paper cuts!

A paper’s edge may appear to be smooth and flat, but on a microscopic scale paper edges are jagged. Paper cuts leave a wound more like one from a saw than a knife (a miniature papery saw).

Copy book paper

CC by Pages from a copy book at x30 magnification. Fibres at the surface give paper a serrated edge. The black lines are page lines.

Paper cuts are remarkably painful. They usually occur in the fingertips, which have a greater concentration of nerve cells (neurons) than the rest of the body – an evolutionary trait to protect us during the exploration of our environment. Neurons send chemical and electrical signals to our brain, and some of them, called nociceptors, detect potential harm. Paper cuts stimulate a large number of nociceptors in a very small area of the skin. Shallow paper cuts don’t bleed very much so pain receptors are left open to the air resulting in continuous pain as the wound cannot clot and seal. As we continue to use our hands, the wound flexes open, continually distressing these neurons.

Not only do paper cuts part the flesh with a micro-serrated paper edge, but they also damage skin either side of the wound due to the composition of the paper. Pain receptors are continuously irritated by the combination of cellulosic wood pulp, rags, grasses, chemically-coated fibres, and bacteria that make up paper. Paper may also include other additives such as chalk or china clay to make the paper easier to write on. Sizing gives us a great variety of papers to suit the specific type of ink we wish to apply, but involves mixing many additives into the pulp to determine the correct surface absorbency.

Paper cuts from envelopes can be particularly stingy due to the layer of glue along the sealing tab. The glue is made from gum arabic, which although edible to humans, can pack a punch if embedded inside a wound. Gum arabic is the product of hardened sap taken from two species of acacia trees, and is also used as a binder for watercolour painting, and in traditional lithography.

Envelope adhesive x30

Envelope adhesive x200

CC by Gum arabic glue at x30 and x200 magnification coats the paper tab on an envelope. When the gum is moistened it forms a seal with the adjacent paper.

When skin closes around the paper cut these foreign particles become trapped inside causing a great deal of pain. This is why a cut from a razor blade is usually less painful than that from a paper cut: razor blades make clean incisions without leaving behind any foreign particles. It hurts initially, but the pain soon ebbs away. Bleeding caused by a razor cut helps to wash away any infection-causing particles, while paper cuts bleed very little (this also reduces your chances of getting any sympathy!)

Razor at x50

Razor at x200

CC by Razor blade at x50 (upper image) and x200 (lower image). The razor’s edge is smooth allowing a clean incision without introducing foreign bodies.

It might seem strange that sometimes needles for a flu jab require quite a bit of force to pierce the skin, yet paper (PAPER!) can slice through. This is due to the random orientation of collagen fibres in our skin allowing us to withstand pinpoint forces.

Point forces at x20

CC by Human skin feeling the pressure under a sharp pin.

Our skin does not have a comparable strength against shearing forces such as those exerted by paper, and so, we are susceptible to the small but mighty paper cut. Libraries can be dangerous places. Be careful out there!

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

 

Further learning:

Paper May Be the Unkindest Cut, Scientific American, Volume 306, Issue 3 , Mar 1, 2012 |By Steve Mirsky 

Why Do Paper Cuts Hurt So Much? Scientific American - Instant Egghead #25