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Of No Small Account: A Lilliputian-sized Diary from World War I, Part 2

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This is a guest post by Jennifer Evers, a Senior Book Conservator in the Conservation Division.

In the previous post about the Irving W. Greenwald diary, we had ultimately decided that the best way to safely preserve the diary was to carefully disbind it so that the conservation issues could be more thoroughly addressed.

After capturing the condition of the diary with both written and photographic documentation, I disbound and prepared it for treatment. This included removing the sewing thread, which I set aside to be returned to the division along with the diary after treatment.

A text block with miniscule writing is split into two sections, with spine sewing exposed.
Irving W. Greenwald Diary, during treatment. Disbinding in progress. Photo: Jennifer Evers.

I then carefully reassembled the pages back into their original (and sometimes modified) gatherings.

As I worked on the diary, I had the opportunity to reference the transcript of the text created by Greenwald’s sister and daughter, which is available on the Library’s website (and is invaluable to those who would otherwise strain to read that miniscule handwriting). At first, I used the transcript mostly to confirm that single detached pages were being reassembled in their proper order. But I quickly became immersed in Greenwald’s account of his daily activities, thoughts, and experiences during the war.

Reading through his accounts is a poignant reminder that war isn’t just something to read about in history books, with lists of battles fought and won. The soldiers fighting these wars were real people with lives and dreams and struggles. Like all of us, Greenwald was just a person making his way through life, which has moments of both tragedy and hilarity. Even when he was marching through the French countryside towards the battle lines at the front, he could still find the humor in situations, such as this event that occurred on April 25, 1918:

“Change our hats and go back to main road for retreat. Villagers turn out to look. Bugle blows call to colors accompanied by the hens who do not know what to make of it. They cackle in a horrible discord which creates laughter that cannot be subdued. I try my best to contain myself but I lose control. I am reprimanded.”

He also has periods of profound sorrow and hopelessness, such as in this poetic entry from August 12, 1918:

“Restless and awake all night. The guns are thunder, the flares are lightning, the rain is shrapnel. Why do men do it? Why do they kill? Why do they destroy? I have no courage to-night. No will to live. Then think of Leah and Cecilie (his wife and infant daughter). I must not despair.”

There are moments of peaceful introspection, as in this entry from August 29, 1918:

“A little shelling in the distance, in the direction of where we are going. The further we go the more I like the walk. Then I think, surely this should feel good to everybody. Do they all think as I do, that life is queer, that while in the midst of an enjoyable stroll, such as this is, one little shell might spoil it all, and there is a possibility that a shell might come to spoil it for one of us?”

And as someone who is currently struggling to learn French, I really empathized with this entry from April 24, 1918:

“Make an attempt to speak French with the women of the house. I really thought that I could carry on a conversation in French. That belief lasted only two or three minutes. My delusion is dispelled. I wish that I had brought with me a French dictionary.”

In addition to writing copiously in his journal, Greenwald also wrote many letters to friends and family back home. Ink and paper were often difficult to come by and were carefully hoarded by the soldiers, as he indicates in this entry from June 2, 1918:

“Write a new letter to Etta. Borrowed paper. A small item to crow about, but even a piece of paper has high value here and if I can save a sheet out of my own stock, I feel as if I have done something to be proud of. How easily a man becomes small.”

After finally managing to tear myself away from the transcript of the diary, it was time to begin treatment.

As mentioned, many of the bifolia had split along the spine folds. Although some of these splits were minor, a substantial number were more significant and had in resulted in pages that were completely detached from the diary. I mended the splits by guarding the folds with a very thin, long-fibered Japanese repair tissue and wheat starch paste. I took care not to apply mends over any of the text, which is so tiny and extends so far into the gutter of the text block that it could not be obscured in any way. After this guarding, the gatherings (or small sections of the folded pages nested together) were pressed under weight for several weeks, which lightly compressed the additional thickness from the new material that had been added at the spine.

I then resewed the text block with thin linen thread using a single hole link stitch and a curved needle. This sewing method allows the text block to open easily with minimal restriction, which is very important because so much of the handwriting extends all the way to the gutter of the text block.

A text block with miniscule writing sits with one folio open on a work surface. A curved needle and thread are used to sew the spine.
Irving W. Greenwald Diary, during treatment. Resewing. Manuscript text is visible running far into the gutter, parallel with the spine. Photo: Jennifer Evers.

I pasted up the spine and gently rounded it, and the gleam from the gilt edges of the diary became apparent in a way that was barely discernable before the pages were realigned. I then lined the spine with overhanging long-fibered tissue, both to further consolidate the text block and to provide an attachment to the leather cover.

The same text block with a new tissue spine lining, sitting on a work surface under weight.
Irving W. Greenwald Diary, during treatment. Text block under weight after rounding the spine. Photo: Jennifer Evers.

For the original leather cover, I repaired and rebuilt it with a new piece of deep maroon goatskin. I pared this new leather as thinly as possible and lined with thin long-fibered tissue before adhering to the underside of the covers beneath the lifted pastedowns.

A detached leather case, maroon, sits open on a green work surface.
Irving W. Greenwald Diary, during treatment. Case rebuilt with new leather at the spine. Photo: Jennifer Evers.

I then reattached the text block to the repaired leather cover, inserting the overhanging spine lining beneath the lifted pastedowns. Next I re-adhered the pastedowns, and applied mending strips at the inner joints to bridge the gaps between the pastedowns and flyleaves. I adhered the original leather spine onto the new spine of the diary, returning it to a book that both looks and feels much like it did prior to treatment, although now all of its pages are secured in place and it can be safely handled by researchers.

The repaired text block inside the repaired leather cover, sits on a dark surface with a color target.
Irving W. Greenwald Diary, after treatment. Photo: Jennifer Evers.

It was truly an honor to be able to treat this World War I diary. For me as a conservator, one of the more arresting passages in the journal comes on September 4, 1918. After a period of prolonged shelling by the Germans, Greenwald was selected to act as a scout, and temporarily left his diary with a fellow soldier for safekeeping. He writes:

“Having given Doherty my diary, I repent, thinking with a pang of heart that it is the first time I have ever parted company with it.”

It was humbling to realize that this is the very diary that I had been working closely with for the past few months – an item of great importance to its owner, as well as a trove of information for future researchers of the Veterans History Project collections at the Library of Congress.


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Comments (5)

  1. Thank you for this beautiful holy work; a breathtaking account of reconstructing a book, a man’s mind and spirit. Truly compelling! Kudos to all of you at LOC and the Greenwald family. What an honor it is to read and reflect on this. With gratitude, Anne, Grand Marais Minnesota

  2. Truly awarding work. To preserve eyewitness accounts of history is a wonderful gift. Thank you for your diligent, caring skills. It’s so important to save this first hand account of history as it truly was.

  3. Great piece. What unit was he a part of?

    • Greenwald was part of the E Company of the 308th Infantry Regiment. You can find out more about Greenwald’s life and service here!

  4. Beautiful work! Thank you for sharing this.

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