The primary aim of conservation of rare books is to stabilise them for current and future generations of users and prevent further deterioration. Librarians always have to balance the conservation of rare books with the needs of users to access them. Principal tasks carried out by our conservators include cleaning textblocks, removing old, damaging, or non-functional repairs; reattaching loose or broken boards; repairing or replacing sewing; carrying out paper repairs and reattaching loose leaves; improving book openings through spine lining and joint repairs; mending tears and splits to paper, parchment or the binding; constructing new bindings; and making protective boxes to store fragile books.

The galleries below showcase the conservation work undertaken on a number of our rare books. The video 'Conserving Rare Books at King's College, Cambridge', talks through the principal conservation challenges and processes librarian's face and demonstrates how these are dealt with by book conservators

Shakespeare's Fourth Folio (1685) (1)

King's copy of the Fourth Folio, published in 1685, was in a poor condition at the start of the project. The front board was completely detached and the back leather joint was split. The covering leather was damaged and the corners of the boards weakened and cracked. A number of the pages of the book were dirty, brittle or missing some parts through wear and tear.

The volume has a full calf leather, tightback binding with six raised bands. Blind tooling on the spine and the boards and gold-tooled panel on the spine with the title of the book. Prior to conservation the front board was completely detached and the back leather joint was split at the head and tail (top and bottom) of the spine. The covering leather was worn, especially along the edges, corners and spine. Both the head- and tail-caps had suffered considerable wear.

Shakespeare's Fourth Folio (1685) (2)

Shakespeare's Fourth Folio (1685) (3)

Shakespeare's Fourth Folio (1685) (4)

Nostradamus Prophecies (1672) (1)

This book (Thackeray.J.59.23) has a full-tanned leather binding in dark brown sheepskin, with an asymmetrical panel design marked by double-filleted blind tooling on the boards and gold-tooled borders on a red leather label and other panels on the spine. The printed textblock is attached to the boards using five sewn raised bands. Prior to conservation the front and back boards of the binding were detached from the spine and textblock with associated losses to the leather along the joint. A good deal of the remaining leather along the joints was also cracked and degraded. On the spine, the leather was cracked diagonally across the width of the spine at the headcap; at the tail cap a good deal of the surface leather was lost and what remains of both the head- and tailcap were lifting.

Nostradamus Prophecies (1672) (2)

Nostradamus Prophecies (1672) (3)

Nostradamus Prophecies (1672) (4)

William Fulke, A Confutation of a Popishe, and Sclaunderous Libelle (1571) (1)

This book has a parchment wrapper with manuscript writing on both sides. Recyling of manuscripts in book binding was a common practice. The wrapper was in a generally poor condition prior to conservation with a substantial loss on the spine. The wrapper was discoloured by ingrained surface dirt and stained by tidelines and liquid stains. Where affected by stains the parchment was brittle, cracked and split. The back cover in particular has a minor loss adjacent to the exposed sewing. The wrapper is cut to the dimensions of the textblock, the corners of the wrapper curled outward in all cases and there are losses at the tail corner of the front cover and head corner of the back cover as well as at the headcap and tailcaps where there are splits at the joints and losses. In all instances, these areas of damage exposed the textblock.

William Fulke, A Confutation of a Popishe, and Sclaunderous Libelle (1571) (2)

Le Rime Di Francesco Petrarca (1711) (1)

This book (Thackeray.L.3.40) has a nineteenth-century tanned leather binding with a heavily adorned spine piece embossed with blind- and gold-tooled decoration and five fake raised bands. The front and back boards have gold- and blind-tooled panels, with three-colour endbands over a slim cardboard core and marbled paper endleaves. The printed texblock is on hand-made paper and the head, tail and foredge of the textblock is decorated with marbling that matches the endleaves. Prior to conservation, both boards had become detached from the binding, and two of the fake raised bands on the spine were detached and missing. The endcap leather and endbands, and the foredge corners on both boards were also damaged.

Le Rime Di Francesco Petrarca (1711) (2)

George Thackeray
Our ambitious project to catalogue and conserve the English literature section of the Thackeray collection of rare books.
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