When Every Piece Counts: The Fragment Project!

In the library world, it is quite common to find books harmed by wear and tear, poor quality of the paper, and inappropriate handling, among other things. While damages may vary, one of the most common consequences can be the dissociation of parts of the book from the entire volume. For instance, the book cover or even some pages may get separated from the item. When the condition of the paper is very brittle, some fragments of the pages may also get detached by simply turning the pages or moving the volumes. When this happens, the book is incomplete, and several “orphan” pieces require special attention.

As the Collections Officer in the Collections Management Division of the Preservation Directorate, one of my responsibilities is to ensure that our General Collections, consisting of over 27 million books, pamphlets, and bound periodicals written in over 460 languages are kept preserved for future generations. This includes making sure that the books are complete for all patrons now and in the future. With that in mind, I have been collecting a great quantity of brittle fragments and parts of books – small fragments of text, a few pages, illustrations and plates, or loose covers – which had been separated from fragile books and pamphlets and leading a project to reunite them.

I created the Fragment Project many years ago, aiming to reunite missing pieces to the original volumes. The project includes creating search protocols and a fragment database, updating information in our bibliographic database once the items are reassembled, and rehousing the fragments to protect them for the future. Finding the original volume and reuniting the loose pieces is not an easy goal to begin with. And it gets even more daunting, challenging, and time consuming, given the magnitude of the collection and the many languages of which it is comprised. I also want to think of it as an exciting treasure hunt, where every piece is precious and, when you find the matching book to the pieces, it feels like you really found a treasure.

In 2017, after establishing a collaboration with the Digital Collection Management & Services Division (DCMS), my colleague Jan Lancaster of the Digital Scan Center (DSC), joined me in this effort. We review each fragment (single pages or multiple pages that appear to be from a single book) and take measurements and notes. These notes include condition, language, page numbers, illustrations, chapter headings, and footnotes or captions that provide clues as to the source from which the fragment may derive. With photos and notes in hand, the search in the Library of Congress bibliographic database and other global databases takes place, also indicating the rarity of an item if a book was not held in many libraries. All findings regarding the fragments (matched or not) are documented in the fragment database.

Now that you know a little bit more about the project, how would you like to join me in this treasure hunt? If so, let me tell you the story of an orphaned green, white and gold marbled cover with a special bookplate, a search endeavor that took a little more ‘legwork’ to identify its match and led to a poignant and surprising discovery.

Amida Bookplate

Green and white and gold marbled cover with red leather corners and spine, and bookplate of Amida Stanton inside cover. Photo credit: Jan Lancaster

This beautiful and distinctive marbled cover and the bookplate of Amida Stanton were the keys to identifying the book to which it belonged. The Library has Amida Stanton’s dissertation, Gerbert de Montreuil as a writer of Grail romance, an investigation of the date and the more immediate sources of the continuation of Perceval. Chicago, 1939, 209 pages, 32 cm (12 ¾ in) PQ1445.P35 S7 1939 lccn.loc.gov/74187745 . A folio book of 1734 by Antonio Maria Lupi, 1695-1737 in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, has her bookplate in it. lccn.loc.gov/2013659190

Amida Stanton was a scholar with an interest in both French medieval poetry and ancient Roman inscriptions. Seeing these bookplates led me to wonder if she had donated other books to the Library. First of all, her life dates and some biographical information about her would be needed in order to look further.

A search through the Library’s subscription Newspaper databases led to many newspaper accounts of Amida Stanton and her family in Kansas City. Amida was a professor of French and Italian literature at the University of Kansas. She lived from 1884-1941 – only 57 years. After her death in 1941, there were further articles mentioning that her sister, Alta Stanton, donated Amida’s personal library of 300+ books of French and European literature to the Library of Congress in August of 1951. Having this date in hand, further research led to the discovery of the lists of Amida’s books Alta donated in 1947 and in 1951 in the Gift & Exchange correspondence in the Manuscript Division.

Amida and Sister

Left: Amida Stanton, 1884-1941 www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018646923/
Right: Alta Stanton, her sister, who donated more than 300 of Amida’s books to the Library in 1947 and 1951 www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018646922/. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Eleven of Amida’s books can be found in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division, but this still left me wondering which one was missing this marbled board. The measurement of 18cm (about seven inches) was another key. The match was discovered by searching for 18 cm books in her collection. In fact, several of her books had these beautiful, marbled covers, all 18 cm! Three books were by George Sand, one was by Daudet (on microfilm), and finally, this one by Théophile Gautier, was the match!

Covers

Green and white and gold marbled cover with red leather corners and spine, and bookplate of Amida Stanton inside cover. This is the missing cover to Volume 1 of this 1905 edition of Le capitaine Fracasse by Gautier: 4PQ Fr 1622 Gautier, Théophile, 1811-1872, Le capitaine Fracasse. Éd. définitive., Paris, Bibliothèque-Charpentier, 1905, 2 vols., 18 x 11.5 cm; 7 x 4 ½ in  lccn.loc.gov/ltf91056770

After the matching book was found, the cover and the book were placed temporarily inside a preservation-quality enclosure awaiting to enter the preservation queue for final repair. And what a great moment that was!

Rehousing

Example of tying and housing inside preservation-quality custom-made enclosures Collections Management Division, Library of Congress. Photo credit: Jan Lancaster

Until March 2020, when the pandemic forced us to place many projects temporarily on hold, several thousand fragments had been reviewed and over three hundred matches identified with the books completed. For others, the research continues.

This is definitely a behind-the-scenes activity that integrates a variety of skills in order to make knowledge accessible and preserved. No matter how long it takes, it is extremely exciting when we find the original book to which a fragment belongs. As I mentioned before, it gives us a feeling of uncovering a real treasure, as we know that future patrons will have the possibility to enjoy the complete content of each item. And, as a Library of Congress employee, I feel humbled and privileged to have the opportunity to be part of this process.

And there are so many interesting stories to tell behind those discoveries!

Now that this “orphan” cover with a spectacular bookplate is no longer an orphan, the treasure hunt continues to match other fragments, together with the incredible learning that it entails, diving into the vast world of knowledge represented by the Library of Congress’ collection.

Conservation at the Library: What We Do!

The Library of Congress stewards hundreds of thousands of paper-based and special format materials, and the Conservation Division at the Library employs a diverse staff of conservators, preservation specialists and technicians to treat and care for the incredible range of collections. Special collections materials, as well as the expansive general collection, are cared for according […]

Hello World!

Preservation gives us a special way of looking through the library. The questions we ask while maintaining these works reward us with distinctive answers about the intentions, knowledge, and creativity that they embody. This blog is intended to help you see the collections through our eyes by giving you the literary equivalent of a look over the shoulder of the Library’s preservation staff as they do their work.