Preserving Ancient Books

Curators have various options when trying to provide research or instructional access to original materials that are in poor physical condition. At times, condition problems are a result of the “inherent vice,” such as the acidity of the ink, pigments, or writing support. Problems can also result from centuries of use and abuse, water and insect damage, and other environmental factors. Curators have to make treatment decisions in consultation with the professional staff of the Library’s Preservation Office when collections are is such compromised condition that they cannot be consulted safely in the reading room, seen by visiting classes, or exhibited without some form of intervention. Conservation treatment is just one aspect of the responsible custody of rare and unique materials—part of the Library’s behind-the-scenes work to collect, preserve, and provide access.

We can see this in the Manuscripts Division’s extraordinary holdings of nearly ten thousand bound manuscripts in the Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and other languages of the Islamic world, dating from the eighth to nineteenth centuries. So many of these manuscripts are in poor condition and disbound that the Curator of Manuscripts must decide which ones are important enough as texts and artifacts to be recommended for time-intensive conservation treatments. A case in point is an Arabic manuscript of 730 AH/1330 CE, containing Naṣīr al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Tūsī (1201-1274), Kitāb Taḥrīr Uqlīdus. It is designated Islamic Manuscripts, no. L153, and was part of the 1942 gift of Robert Garrett (1875-1961), Class of 1897, one of Princeton’s premier manuscript collectors.

It is a relatively early scribal copy of Tūsī’s redaction of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, and merited attention because of its age and poor condition, as well as the strong academic research interest in Arabic science and transmission of ancient learning. Indeed, the manuscript had been recently used for a Princeton graduate seminar (June 2014) on Arabic paleography and codicology, taught by François Deroche, an eminent authority on Islamic manuscripts. The text block suffered from water damage and subsequent mold growth primarily on the rear leaves. There were worm holes and damage throughout the textblock from insect infestation. The last three signatures were detached (and possibly out of order), and the sewing was compromised and broken throughout. There were minor leather losses to the spine, board edges and corners of the case. Moreover, there was evidence of prior (heavy) repairs along the inner hinges and throughout the text block along the signature spine folds.

Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts, referred the manuscript for conservation assessment and treatment to Mick LeTourneaux, Rare Books Conservator (Preservation Office). The correct order of the leaves first had to be established with the assistance of James Weinberger, Near Eastern Bibliographer (Collection Development). LeTourneaux then pulled the textblock down to individual leaves in order to clean the gutter margins, remove the heavyweight repairs where possible, and mend the signature folds, paper losses, and reinforce mold weakened areas with Japanese kozo tissue and wheat starch paste. The textblock was resewn employing a two-station link-stitch and the spine was lined with airplane linen extending from the joints to create hinges. The case spine and board corners were reinforced with dyed tissue and the board edges were consolidated with paste. The textblock was hung back into the case via the linen hinges which were melded into the joints with colored kozo strips. A drop-spine box was fabricated to house the manuscript. Conservation treatment took a total of 42 hours, including a custom drop-spine box, and will enable safe consultation of the manuscript, now and in the years to come.
Euclid before
Euclid after
Euclid manuscript, before (above); after (below)