Monthly Archives: March 2014

Pests and other book related misery (1): bugs


Extensive larvae damage (Wikimedia commons)

Occasionally, I come across books which have served as a meal for some species of bug. Usually, this is historic damage, but it is always good to be on the look-out for more recent attacks. This is particularly important if books are kept in a damp environment (which is not good for them for a number of reasons!). The most common insect pests which target books are woodborers, such as the furniture beetle (Anobium punctatum), death-watch beetle (Xestobium rufovillosum) and grazers, such as silverfish (Lepisma saccharina) and booklice (Lipsocelis bostrychophilus).

A larva has obviously made its way through this page. Usually, a woodborer's tunnel can be traced through several gatherings within a book

A larva has obviously made its way through this page. Usually, a woodborer’s tunnel can be traced through several gatherings within a book

The larvae of furniture beetle and death-watch beetle love wooden boards and will also happily eat their way through closed books (see images above). An indicative sign is small piles of frass where the adult beetle has made its way out of the object, but most commonly the only evidence left are the little flight holes on the outside (even on the fore-edge) and the tunnels through the book. These woodborers like a cold and damp environment and within their 2-3 life cycle can cause quite a lot of damage. Keeping the relative humidity (RH) below 55% helps to contain them.

Noon's India (1941)

Insects have clearly targeted inside board edge – probably going for the adhesive used to attach the pastedown to the edge of the paper cover. Interestingly, although the outside of the cover also shows grazing damage, the insects (either booklice or silverfish) appear to have preferred the glue on the inside!

Silverfish and booklice, on the other hand, tend to graze on the surfaces of bindings and paper (see image on the right and below), being attracted by animal-based coatings (such as gelatine sizing on paper, and starch- or gelatine-based adhesives), organic material (i.e. dust), and microscopic mould (more on this particular pest in a later post). Silverfish like a cool, very damp (70-80% RH), and dark environment, while booklice prefer a higher temperature (upwards of 25 degrees Celsius).

Front cover of Noon's India

Grazing on the front cover of Noon’s India.

The ways to prevent insect damage are: to monitor a collection for any activity; to maintain a stable environment with low RH levels; and to keep dust to a minimum.

NB: I am not a book conservator and these observations are based on my untrained understanding of these issues. If in doubt, consult a professional conservator!


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Filed under Bindings, Damage to books, Preservation and conservation

Interesting bindings from the Angus Library

Angus 1In Spring 2012, when I did an assessment of the “hidden collection” in the Angus Library (Regent’s Park College, Oxford), I came across a number of interesting bindings. Although some of these books are in need of conservation, their current state gives us an insight into the materials bookbinders might use to cover books. In the first example (above), a piece of textile has been glued on to the centre of the spine – I’m not entirely sure about its purpose.  Was it to strengthen the text block or to hold it together before it was sewn? The thick cords would not have been visible once the spine cover was added. The spine cover of this “quarter binding” was made out of vellum reinforced with printer’s waste. The board covers are out of so-called “Buntpapier” (a German term for paper which is hand-coloured). The book is an eighteenth-century Leipzig publication and this is a contemporary binding.

Angus 2

The second example (on the right) shows a book-length strip of manuscript waste which is used as a sewing support. Normally, it would have been invisible behind the pastedown, which is evidently no longer there in this seventeenth-century publication.

Angus 3Personally, I quite like this one: it is probably an eighteenth-century publisher’s (temporary) binding of felt over paper boards. The felt has evidently been subject to some insect activity and part of the spine cover is lost as a consequence.

The Angus Library was recently awarded Heritage Lottery funding to increase access to its collections. The Library maintains a blog, for which their Antiquarian Cataloguer regularly contributes information on exciting finds. The staff also occasionally mount small exhibitions of books from their collection. To find out more, follow this link. A selection of their treasures is also accessible via this online exhibition.

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Filed under Angus Library, Bindings, Eighteenth century, Seventeenth century

52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 19: Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the art of making paper

The posts from Echoes from the Vault are always interesting and often very amusing. In this post, the art of papermaking is subjected to a practical experiment by staff from the University of St Andrews’ Special Collections team.

Echoes from the Vault

This week’s blog focuses upon one of the greatest works of the Enlightenment and 18th century – the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert. In scope nothing like it had been previously planned. Based upon the Cyclopaedia of Ephraim Chambers, this was the first encyclopaedia to include items from many contributors (Diderot and d’Alembert being amongst them, but also leading intellectuals of the day, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu), and the first to focus attention upon the mechanical arts. Additionally, it was the first encyclopaedia in the French language, and was aimed at representing the thoughts of the Enlightenment. As such, this gave the work a political stance, for on several occasions it survived attempts at censorship by the Catholic Church, in addition to the removal of its royal licence in 1759.

Title page from tome 8 of the Encyclopédie . After the removal of the royal licence, the authors’ names no longer appear, and a false name and address was given for the imprint. Title page from tome 8 of the Encyclopédie

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Filed under Eighteenth century, Historic Libraries