Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle To Preserve and Protect

By Claiborne Smith

MARCH 2, 1998:  A visitor enters the book conservation laboratory on the fourth floor of UT's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center tentatively, eyes watching where not to place fingers and other delicate objects that might easily be pressed, pounded, or excised quite dexterously by the many tools present there. In the lab, with very little natural light, Mary Baughman, Pat Ingram, and Olivia Primanis conserve, restore, and preserve old and damaged texts. They, however, are as comfortable among the knives, presses, and heavy lithographic stones as a bed of nails must seem to an ascetic magician, who hands-down calls upon less patience than these women muster in the repair they provide the texts that come under their purview. Baughman, for example, spent 590 hours (she actually cites the figure as "590.5," an indication of the precision the conservators employ) conserving a rare copy of Dante's Divine Comedy. This is how she summarizes the time she spent on the Dante text: "I began the treatment in January of 1992 and finished it in December of 1993. In between, there was a month of microfilming, various correspondence back and forth with people in Italy, at three American universities (Princeton, Brigham Young, and UT)... hours of scraping away at adhesive deposits, hours of mending, hours of experimentation with materials for the above operations as well as the construction of the binding." Though all three share the projects that pass through their office, each has their strengths, with Primanis, who is the supervisor, interested in photographic albums, Baughman inclined towards book conservation and integrated pest management of the building, and Ingram specializing in creating complex housing boxes for the repaired items.

How rare is the HRC copy? Dante died in 1321; the earliest dated manuscript of the Divine Comedy originates from 1330. There are 27 manuscripts older than the HRC copy, but only six of those have extensive commentary written in the margins by at least four centuries' worth of readers. The HRC's manuscript is the only one known to have been made between 1355 and 1369, which alone makes it noteworthy to scholars because in 1370 Boccaccio began lecturing about Dante in Padua. It's the HRC copy's commentary that an Italian society of Dante scholars, the Societa Dantesca Italiana, was having difficulty reading since all they possessed was an old microfilm of the text. In a quirk that is unique to academic appellations, the Societa Dantesca Italiana dubs the HRC copy the "Texas Dante." The HRC acquired it at a Sotheby's auction in 1967. For the society members, finally seeing the previously hidden marginalia "was like an archeological find."

Though occasionally phrases like "big globs of glue" pop up in their vocabulary, Baughman, Ingram, and Primanis use the conservator's vernacular, which is decidedly not everyman's. What most people would call the "page" of a book, the conservators call a "support," because the page is literally the entity "supporting" the weight of the ink. Words like "plinth," "goat vellum," and "yaps" emerge from their mouths relatively frequently, and like a surgeon or mechanic, the women sometimes forget that their words are not the layman's. When that happens, there's an odd communicative disjunction, like some synaptic failure, and the listener can either stop them and request definition of terms or allow them to continue their story, which is by far the more revealing choice, since there is a poetry, an exact and exacting one, to their speech.

One facet of the work performed on the Dante text consisted of differentiating between "unsympathetic" and "sympathetic" mends, the unsympathetic ones being those areas of the text where previous book menders used paper that was too thick and heavy to fill in holes, or losses, in the pages or used far too much adhesive to stick that paper to the pages. As Baughman states, "The binding I removed was probably made in France in the 18th century. The binder used strips cut from a vellum manuscript to reinforce the gutters of each section. These are called 'guards.' The vellum guards were cutting into the paper each time the pages were turned. The 26 damaging guards and 34 [unsympathetic] mends were removed by very controlled applications of distilled water. Underneath the mends there were large deposits of adhesives. I thought to myself, 'This looks like a kid did it.' It's possible that the mending of pages could have been a job for a child in an 18th-century French binder's shop." The glosses or marginal commentary the Italian scholars compare to an archeological find was discovered with a microscope: "Very slowly and using a very small brush, I applied a tiny bit of water, waited until the adhesive released, pulled up the released area, and applied more moisture to the still adhered area... It took about 10 hours to release a flap which is about 2 1/2" x 11"." The patience required of book conservators hearkens back to the patience required of monastic scribes who made these books the conservators spend so much time conserving.

The HCR's Dante in a lying press before application of the spine linings, which will consist of Japanese paper lining adhered with cooked wheat starch paste.

Baughman can plainly state that "Conservators spend a lot of time removing various adhesives." But it's difficult to succintly state the ways she and other conservators came to their craft and how they were taught the discipline. Strong vestiges of apprenticeship are apparent in a field as specific, rigorous, and demanding of precision as book conservation. Baughman, who says she's always been "crafty," began work at the HRC as a filer in 1975, and soon thereafter "discovered" book binding; "discovered" is as accurate a categorization as any since at the time there was only one graduate program in the U.S. specializing in book conservation. The HRC's department didn't form until 1980.

As you may have surmised, the international book conservation community is relatively tight-knit. Nonetheless, when I first heard Baughman use the term "book conservation community grapevine," I thought she was kidding. In fact, a major source of news for the book conservation community originates in Austin, the Abbey Newsletter, the work of Ellen McCrady. It's printed eight times a year with some 1,040 subscribers. The following editor's note from the November 1997 issue may simply indicate McCrady's matronly style, though it certainly points out the familial nature of the book conservation community : "The list of donors could not be updated this time because Business Manager/Circulation Manager Bette Abeel, who records donations, was ill last week and unable to work her usual hours. (But she is much better now.)" What Baughman learned through the grapevine informed some major decisions on her work on the Texas Dante. "In the case of Dante we considered using the limp vellum structure, but rejected it because the springy nature of the vellum makes this type of binding resist opening flat. A limp vellum binding would have caused stress in the gutters of the pages. Through the book conservation community grapevine, I had heard about a modification to the limp vellum binding structure designed by Robert Espinosa, head of the conservation laboratory at Brigham Young." Baughman contacted Espinosa, learned the modifications, and the result has become HRC history, as the reading room staff reports that the Dante manuscript is used more than any other pre-1700 manuscript.

So while major changes were made to the binding of the Texas Dante, the intention in repairing a copy of the suppressed first edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was to change as little as possible because it came to the HRC almost in its original state. Glancing at Baughman's "condition report" of the Alice text readily puts the reader in mind of an autopsy report a la Scully from The X-Files; imagine one of the HRC's book conservators in officious lab coat laying Alice on an examining table and speaking clearly and factually to the microphone: "The book was damaged by moisture.... There are small accretions on the cover and there are many tiny areas of insect damage (probably silverfish) scattered on both covers. The edges are abraded and the corners are worn and need consolidation.... The gold tooling on the spine is very worn. The "A" and "S" in Adventures and the "W" and "D" in Wonderland are completely worn or torn away."

The flap it took Baughman 10 hours to release in order to reveal valuable, previously hidden marginal commentary.

Uncanny, yes, but there's good reason for such specificity. The text came to the HRC when it acquired the Warren Weaver Collection of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in November 1969. Weaver (1894-1978) was the world's most prodigious collector of Carroll, whose actual name was Dodgson, memorabilia. Carroll originally presented a handwritten account of a tale he spun on a boat ride with young Alice Liddell to Liddell herself in 1864 as a Christmas gift; upon the encouragement of friends, he decided to have it published by Macmillan and embarked upon finding a suitable illustrator. He settled on the established John Tenniel, who would later force Carroll to remove a chapter of Through the Looking-Glass because to illustrate "a wasp in a wig is altogether beyond the appliances of art." He also quite contentedly forced Carroll to suppress 2,000 copies of the first edition of Alice because he was not satisfied with "the printing of the pictures," but Carroll respected his opinion and obliged his request. Among the 2,000 copies were 20 that Carroll had already inscribed to various friends, which Carroll "immediately tried to recall," according to Morton N. Cohen, author of Lewis Carroll: A Biography. On August 2, 1865, Carroll wrote in his diary: "Finally decided on the re-print of Alice, and that the first 2,000 shall be sold as waste paper." Instead of being sold as waste paper, the 20 inscribed copies were sent to children's hospitals. The HRC copy is one of those 20; it has the name "Alice Cousins" written in black ink in the very front, with the title page bearing the words "Convalescent Institution" and "Children's Branch August 1866" written on the front paste-down (the paper stuck down to the front inside cover). The copy eventually ended up in Bangalor, India on the dirt floor of a book stall, where Weaver bought it. It's now the India Alice.

As the editor of Harper's Magazine, Lewis H. Lapham takes space each month to nostalgically decry the sad state of something or the other in present-day America. This month, he laments the vanishing study of old, classic texts in favor of new technologies. In the capacity of persuading the reader, he reveals some of his own reading habits: "I cannot read without a pencil in my hand, and in books that I have admired I discover marginalia ten and thirty years out of date, many of them revised and amended to match the shifting angles of my perception. In an edition of Flaubert's Sentimental Education I find a scribbled note in what I take to be my handwriting at the age of nineteen, a note subseqently crossed out (in my handwriting circa age thirty) and contradicted by the remark 'foolishly romantic.'"

Mary Baughman, are you taking notes?

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