Good Wood: Using Beech to Rebind a Medieval Manuscript, Part 1

This is a guest post by John Bertonaschi, Senior Rare Book Conservator in the Conservation Division.

In the course of caring for the Library’s rare collections, the Conservation Division sometimes must rebind books that were originally bound with cover boards made of hardwood. Whenever possible, we attempt to use the same materials and techniques for the new binding, so we are always on the lookout for the right species and size of wood to make new cover boards. This wood must be quarter sawn, which is the most dimensionally stable but also the least cost-effective way to cut up a log. The Division has an ample supply of white oak, which was used extensively in England. However, I had been searching for quarter sawn beech, and specifically, beech of a dimension wide enough to rebind Decretum Gratiani, is a 13th century manuscript is part of the Law Libraries collections. It  was written, at least partially, in Switzerland or southern Germany. This manuscript is currently undergoing treatment by my colleague Katherine Kelly and I.

Decretum Gratiani 13th century manuscript, before treatment. Photo credit John Bertonaschi, 2016.

Decretum Gratiani 13th century manuscript, before treatment. John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2016.

Decretum Gratiani. The binding had an extremely tight opening, with lots of distortion in the parchment. Photo credit John Bertonaschi, 2016.

Decretum Gratiani. The binding had an extremely tight opening, with lots of distortion in the parchment. John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2016.

Calls to commercial hardwood dealers had been fruitless. Then, I learned of an urban wood sale organized by the Parks Department in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live. This sale, the first of what is planned to be a regularly scheduled event in the County, did not offer any quarter sawn pieces, but the man in charge of the sale, Patrick Harwood, was sympathetic to my plight. After listening to a brief explanation of our project and, later, looking at images of the manuscript pages, he was confident he could find beech or a substitute hardwood and quarter saw it in dimensions sufficient to meet our needs. I greeted this news with great enthusiasm, tempered somewhat by potential issues with our budget and the very specific ways items must be purchased for the Federal Government. You may imagine my joyful astonishment, then, when Patrick generously offered to donate the wood to the Library in support of our work in Conservation. A light breeze could have knocked me over, but, luckily I was indoors at the time.

A beech log ready for milling. Photo credit Patrick Harwood, 2022.

A beech log ready for milling. Patrick Harwood, Conservation Division, 2022.

Montgomery County Parks is part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) and administers all of the parkland in Montgomery County. In the course of their duties, they must remove fallen and dead or dying trees, and this wood is then repurposed by being milled into pieces for sale, or for construction or other woodworking projects for MNCPPC.  Unusable wood is chipped and returned to the soil as mulch, so nothing is wasted. A few months after our initial contact, Patrick emailed me with a picture of a beech log which he thought would meet our specifications.

This was exciting news, but brought up another issue. As the greatest research library in the world, the Library of Congress has collections touching on virtually any subject of human endeavor, but we are not set up to cure quarter sawn hardwood. This is a careful process that takes many months, or, sometimes even a year or longer, depending on conditions and the desired moisture content of the wood. Where would we do such a thing? Space is at a premium on our Capitol Hill campus. How could we be sure of not bringing pests into the library environment? Conservators are great problem solvers, though, and staff members stepped up suggesting their own garages and back yards as suitable spaces. I thought I might be able to set up a drying space on my deck.  The discussion was rendered moot when Patrick, coming to the rescue again, offered to cure the wood at his facility. For him, it’s part of a normal routine.

In subsequent posts, I will update the status of the curing process, and formally introduce the Decretum Gratiani manuscript and its treatment in the Conservation Division.

Beech planks drying indoors at the Pope Farm Nursery. Photo credit Patrick Harwood, 2022.

Beech planks drying indoors at the Pope Farm Nursery. Patrick Harwood, 2022.

At Patrick’s invitation, I paid a visit to the Pope Farm Nursery in Gaithersburg, MD where the Parks Department has its milling operation. I looked at some of the beech that had already been quartered and watched a smaller beech log being cut up. I’d never touched freshly milled wood before. It’s about as wet as something can feel without actually having moisture on the surface. No wonder it takes so long to dry!

Stay tuned and I will keep you updated on the status of the curing process as well as conservation treatment of the Decretum Gratiani manuscript.

The portable sawmill in action. Photo credit John Bertonaschi, 2022.

The portable sawmill in action. Photo credit John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2022.

Quarter sawing. Photo credit John Bertonaschi, 2022.

Quarter sawing. Photo credit John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2022.

Patrick Harwood, left, with expert sawyer Eric Lemley and a piece of quarter sawn beech wood. Photo credit John Bertonaschi, 2022.

Patrick Harwood, left, with expert sawyer Eric Lemley and a piece of quarter sawn beech wood. John Bertonaschi, Conservation Division, 2022.

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2 Comments

  1. Anner M. Whitehead
    July 7, 2022 at 3:48 pm

    This story is wonderful beyond all imagining. Hoorah for eveyone. And thank you.

  2. Linda Blaser
    July 8, 2022 at 7:55 pm

    Very cool, John. I didn’t know MNCPPC had that type of operation. They offer us, it’s citizens, a lot of wonderful opportunities. It’s nice to see how generous they have been with LoC and your project, too. I’d love hear more about your project as it progresses and to see the book when you’re done.

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