The Art and Science of Book Conservation

History and Goals of Book Conservation
Throughout history, humans have sought to preserve texts for future generations. As early as 750-550 BC, Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah called for protecting records for the future. In 1627, French scholar Gabriel Naudé published guidance on caring for libraries and their collections. Book conservation as we know it today, however, is a much more recent phenomenon.

The roots of modern book conservation trace back to 1966, when Florence, Italy suffered a catastrophic flood that damaged or destroyed thousands of historic manuscripts and printed books. With priceless treasures facing irreparable ruin, restoration specialists and conservators from around the globe rallied to the cause. Led by Peter Waters, who is widely considered to be the father of contemporary book conservation, experts worked tirelessly to rescue and rehabilitate the waterlogged texts. This restoration campaign inspired many of the principles and practices that continue to guide book conservators to this day.

What does the process of book conservation and rehabilitation entail? Stabilization comes first, taking steps to halt or slow damage, such as cleaning surfaces or mending tears. Next comes further cleaning to clarify and restore presentation while removing contaminants. The repair phase addresses more significant issues, employing techniques like rebinding or reinforcing hinges. Restoration represents the most interactive level, potentially including cosmetic improvements. While restoring to pristine condition may seem ideal, conservators must strike a delicate balance. “Improving the condition is the emphasis rather than restoring,” Waters once advised. Too aggressive an approach risks compromising the historical context of the age or possibly even damaging the text. Like artful surgeons, book experts repair damages while preserving the integrity of the original book or manuscript.

Threats to Texts and Tools of the Trade
There are countless threats to texts, from everyday dangers like accumulated dust and grime to catastrophic events like fires and floods. Books face constant risks from environmental and human causes. Storage environments plagued by high humidity lead to distorted, mold-speckled pages. Prolonged light exposure bleaches colorful illustrations. Pollutants interact with paper to form acids that gradually eat away at the pages. Insects feast on binding adhesives, paper, and inks. Improper handling breaks fragile bindings and tears irreplaceable pages. Only the care of seasoned conservators can salvage books from these barrages, nursing collections back to health through extensive treatment when needed.

Conservators employ a range of treatments tailored to the needs of each aging artifact. Basic supplies like scalpels, tweezers, brushes, and cotton swabs take on specialized roles, and precision instruments are wielded to align torn pages, remove stains, reshape warped spines, and more. Chemical techniques like paper washing remove degradation byproducts like acid. Bookbinding methods preserve and restructure bindings and covers. Digital scanning converts fragile originals into more accessible formats.

Preventive care is just as important—if not more important—than conservation. Guidelines for housing collections include: shelving books vertically to evenly distribute weight, allowing adequate air circulation, using archival folders made from acid-free materials, maintaining optimal temperature and humidity to avoid moisture damage, providing low light conditions to prevent the fading of pictures and text, as well as housing rare or delicate items in custom protective boxes.

Book conservationists are unsung heroes of the modern age of archiving. They protect and preserve text-based artifacts that reveal insights from the past. Whether a medieval manuscript or a vintage newspaper from the 1800s- such treasures are still with us thanks to conservators and their efforts.

Written by Jennifer Dunn, UNF Graduate


About Book Conservation at NEDCC. Northeast Document Conservation Center. Accessed June 13, 2023.

Conservation and restoration of books, manuscripts, documents, and ephemera. Wikipedia. Last edited March 4, 2023, accessed June 13, 2023.,_manuscripts,_documents,_and_ephemera#:~:

Book Conservation Wiki. Wiki: A Collaborative Knowledge Resource. Last edited May 4, 2022, Accessed June 13, 2022.