(The following is a guest post by Dan Paterson, preservation specialist in the Book Conservation Section of the Conservation Division.)
In preparation for display, Conservation Division staff recently treated a historical 17th century book of Spanish laws for governing settlements in the New World. “Recopilacion de Leyes de Los Reynos de Las Indias,” printed in Madrid in 1681, has been added to the “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibition. The book is from the Jay I. Kislak collection housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
According to John Hessler, curator of the Kislak collection, the translation of the title is “Collection of the Laws of the Kingdoms of the Indies” and is an extremely important compendium. The book was brought together under the reign of Charles II and is a compilation of all the laws that had been drafted by the Spanish in the New World since its discovery. Containing copies of all the laws, privileges and charters for the running of settlements in the Indies, this volume provided information on every possible facet of community planning and as such gives incredible insight into how the Spanish administered the first settlements in the New World, updating the information found in much earlier documents like Columbus’ Book of Privileges, which is also a collection of legal documents.
All books that are selected for exhibit undergo a conservation review. During this process, conservators identified numerous problems with “Recopilacion” to be addressed before safely displaying the item.
The volume is in its original limp vellum binding, a common style for books from Spain during the 17th century. Limp vellum covers were the least expensive way to bind a book based on the cost of the vellum and the time required to complete the binding. There were some annotations and glosses in the text and on the flyleaf. Because of their presence, and the rather pedestrian binding, the book was likely a “use” copy and referred to often – not something that sat on a bookshelf.
There were several failures with the binding that subsequently caused damage to the text pages. The most significant problem was the break and loss of the original sewing supports, as highlighted in the image to the left. The sewing supports serve as the primary attachment between the cover and the block of text pages. Frequent use would contribute to them breaking. Without the supports, the cover had separated completely from the text, as seen in the image below right. Also, the vellum had shrunk and wrinkled significantly. Vellum is very sensitive to moisture and reacts badly to getting wet. These large losses, visible in the image to the left, threatened the text pages underneath. There are stains throughout the text pages that suggest the book was exposed to water at some point. That exposure was likely a contributing factor to the shrinkage of the cover. As a result, the edges of those pages are now flush with the cover and without protection.
In addition, the first leaf and the title page had numerous tears and losses along the right side of the book. The first leaf was also breaking away from the text block at the spine edge, and the last leaf of the volume had significant tears and losses throughout.
It’s fortunate that it was never rebound, because that evidentiary value may have been lost if it had been put into a more expensive binding at a later date.
The tears and losses to the text block were repaired first. Mends were made using long-fibered Korean paper and wheat starch paste. The spine edge of the first leaf was repaired so that the page could be turned without fear of causing further deterioration. The back page was flattened and stabilized, also using mends made from Korean paper and starch paste.
Once the pages were stabilized, new sewing supports were added. The supports were attached to the original ones using unbleached cotton thread, sewn through the original sewing holes and wrapped around both the original supports and the new material. In order to reattach the vellum cover, the lacing holes were repaired and the losses to the vellum were also filled in at the same time. Finally, the repaired cover was laced back onto the text pages in the traditional manner.
The final treatment decision was whether to address the shrinking of the vellum. It is possible to carefully and in a controlled manner expose vellum to humidity and gently stretch it back to a larger size. However, due to the extensive damage to the vellum where the losses had occurred, it was determined this procedure would be too risky and potentially cause more harm than good. Instead, a custom fitting box was made for long-term storage and to protect the text block edges and prevent further damage.
Now in its display case, the volume is safely supported by a plexiglass cradle measured and designed to fit the book exactly. Following the exhibition, the book will be returned to the Rare Book Division and available for researchers.