Conserving Harper’s Three-for-One Field Book

Though a large part of our collections are flat—that is, they are unbound materials as opposed to bound, three-dimensional objects—a significant group of our holdings do live in bindings and book structures (some of my previous blog contributions have dealt with books, but none with as great a degree of intervention). These present additional challenges not found in treating documents, including:

  1. the mechanical action of opening and closing a book that must be considered in treatment;
  2. the historical style of the binding and materials used in its manufacture;
  3. the use of the book in future, which will determine the scope of the intervention (Do we return it to working/consultable condition or earmark it for digitization and rehousing only?);
  4. and the projected success of an intervention to a book structure (Is it worth the time, effort, and cost to our unit?).

These factors add additional layers to our decision-making process, and sometimes a treatment plan is revised in-process to accommodate the way the book is responding to an intervention. This particular field book was in such poor shape that some degree of treatment was essential; it couldn’t simply be rehoused after digitization, and the materials were robust enough to withstand an in-depth treatment.

Image of maroon book labeled "Kefinokee Swamp"

When Roland M. Harper’s field book arrived in our lab post-digitization, it had been cut out of a modern, maroon-buckram library binding—leaving nothing of the original binding—and was being held together along the spine folds of the pages with pressure-sensitive adhesive tape. The tape was integral to keeping the book’s pages in proper order, as many of the pages had split along the spine folds, and would have required careful reading of the notes to properly match the pages if they had become disorganized. However, tape causes many problems for the conservator, including adhesive residue and staining of the paper beneath, and requires extensive effort to remove (see this post from a graduate school friend about the problems of adhesive tape, including its component parts).

So, in order, the book needed tape removal; mending of the torn pages, both along the broken spine folds and elsewhere along the edges of the paper; resewing into functional book structures, using cords as sewing supports based on evidence found in the book itself; and a case or covering that is sympathetic to the binding.

3 glass jars with folded paperTape removal

Significant time was spent removing adhesive tape via the solvent chamber method. This involves a small container filled with an absorbent material, saturated with the solvent in use (in this case, we cut heavy cotton blotter paper to fit into baby food jars, and accordion-folded them to fit more absorbent surface into the container). The solvent chamber was then inverted over the tape and lightly weighted in place, and left to allow the solvent to penetrate. Once the adhesive had softened, the plastic carrier could be lifted away and slowly peeled back, moving the solvent chamber along the length of the tape until the entire piece was removed. Residual adhesive was swabbed away with solvent-saturated cotton swabs, and followed up with cellulose powder and a rubber eraser to finish the job.


With the tape removed, mends were made to the pages using lightweight Japanese paper adhered with wheat starch paste. A very fine, nearly translucent paper was used on simple tears, whereas losses were filled with heavier tissue to match the surrounding paper.

Resewing on cords

Two slightly yellowed sheets of bound paper.

Over the course of the treatment, this particular volume revealed itself to have originally been three separate bindings: three different books recording different portions of an expedition to the Okefenokee Swamp and its surroundings, later compiled in the library binding mentioned above. I suspected as such from the beginning, since there are three different series of page numbers, but it was confirmed once I realized that the middle of the three sections was written on different paper—this section didn’t feature a blue and pink rule or line below the heading section of the lined paper.

Once it was definitively determined that the volume was in fact three volumes, they were resewn on cords given the evidence that their original structure featured such a sewing support: sections of the paper were sawed out to make space for the bulk of the cords. This was not repeated for the resewing, as this weakens the paper. Cords were strung onto a sewing frame, which places sewing supports under tension to give best results for sewing. As the sewing progresses along the inside of the folds, the thread loops around the cords and snugs them tightly against the spine. The spines were then lined with Japanese paper to consolidate the pages and give further stability to the books.


Book weighted with red object


Construction of cases

With the sewing completed, I was faced with the realization that I had no idea what style or type of binding the original books featured, and I didn’t want to impose one on the volumes without good reason. I then remembered a reversible, non-adhesive binding structure I learned from a graduate school tutor intended as a protective and possibly temporary solution for a book whose original state may be unknown—a laced-on paper binding. This structure is similar to work done by Gary Frost on sewn-board bindings, one of the earliest types of book structures, and one of its strengths is that the base of the covers or boards is attached to the paper textblock at the time of sewing.

The laced-on paper binding draws directly from medieval parchment bindings, sewn on thin strips of parchment, which were laced through the covers. While these books date from a different period, the early 20th century, the reversibility of the paper binding made it a desirable option.

The textblock was prepared for this paper cover by adding additional pages to the front and back of each volume, cut to size from a similar weight of paper; the exterior page was stiffened by adhering a piece of cotton to the full width of one side, and extending over the fold to the back by about 1 centimeter. This served as the core of the covers.


Off-white covers


Three pieces made up each cover: the first extended the full width of the textblock, cut to match the dimensions, except in the spine area where additional material was folded over to reinforce the spine and the joints of the cover, and to provide a square that protects the pages from damage. The second and third pieces, mirror images of each other, mimicked the square along the three open sides of the book, with flaps that fold in and surround the stiffened pages described above, and lock into place with tabs and slots. A Japanese screw punch was used to carefully punch a series of holes through the layers of heavy paper and the stiffened pages, allowing the cords to be woven through and pulled snug, and be hidden within the cover ensemble. This is what holds the structure together without adhesive.

Now three separate volumes, as they were used originally, these field books present a stable collection item that can be served to researchers without reservation. The treatment process provided a window into the history of these books that informed our decision-making and culminated in a satisfying result.


A side view of 3 volumes bound in off-white paper.

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