Washing a Book

I was recently asked to conserve an 1864 copy of The Latter-Day Saint’s Selection of Hymns from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The book was in rough shape and the pages were stained throughout. However, the sewing in the textblock was sound and I didn’t want to disrupt that to wash the paper.

The book before treatment.
The boards were coming off but the textblock was sound and the sewing was intact.
Stains were apparent throughout the entire book.

Washing paper is a common practice among book conservators. Normally, washing is only done when a textblock must be taken apart, but it is also possible to do while the textblock is still together. It’s something I’ve done before, though rarely. The process was presented to me many years ago by Bill Minter, an experienced conservator, and I found it to be a successful treatment.

To wash a textblock, it has to be completely immersed in water. Because paper is weaker when wet, the textblock must be supported in a way that won’t cause more damage. I used a deep tub with three nylon strings running across the top (had the book been larger, I would have used a larger container and more strings). This worked sufficiently to both immerse and support the textblock.

washing a book washing paper
Three strings support the book in the water.
washing a book
As the textblock absorbed water, the pages fanned out.

To remove the textblock from the water, the strings were clipped and the book was carefully closed. The textblock was then carefully lifted from the water and the strings removed.

The washing process is pretty simple, but drying the textblock is a challenge. The conservator must ensure the textblock, a solidly wet brick of paper, dries evenly all the way through. I began by interleaving several sheets of blotter paper throughout the textblock and placing the textblock in a press. After applying enough pressure to squeeze an excess of water out, but not so much pressure as to damage the textblock, I removed the wet blotter paper. I then added more blotter paper and pressed the textblock again. I repeated this about five times until the pages were no longer saturated with water but still felt damp.

drying the book
The textblock interleaved with blotter paper.
drying the book
Blotter paper was interleaved at intervals that were 1/8″ to 1/4″ apart. More than that would have overstressed the textblock’s spine.
drying the book
drying the book
Looking at the spine of the textblock. The blotter paper extends outward.

To complete the drying process, I again interleaved blotter paper throughout the textblock. I then sandwiched the book between acid-free corrugated cardboard and water resistant boards. A fan was placed blowing on the spine of the textblock. The flutes of the cardboard were placed perpendicular to the fan to allow air to pass through.

drying the book
The interleaved textblock is sandwiched between corrugated cardboard and then between two boards.
drying the book
Wind from the fan blows on and around the spine and through the flutes of the corrugated board.

drying the book

drying the book

The fan was left on overnight and the textblock was completely dry by the next morning. The pages were significantly cleaner.

The completed treatment
The completed treatment

Christopher McAfee


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