Caring for Rare Books and Special Collections in the Hesburgh Libraries

“Without the incredible resource of the people in conservation… Rare Books and Special Collections would not be able to exist in the present or in the future. It wouldn’t be able to be a resource for students and for faculty.”

– Heather Hyde Minor, Professor, Art History

Rare books and special collections don’t preserve themselves. The Analog Preservation and Conservation Unit in the Hesburgh Libraries is a dedicated team of people to do just that: care for the University of Notre Dame’s overall collections in the hopes that the items will inspire research, learning, and teaching for generations to come.

Notre Dame Stories recently created this video to highlight this team and the important yet little known work they do to protect and renew some of our most precious items in the Libraries’ collections.

Preparing a Parchment Fragment for Posterity

By Maren Rozumalski, Gladys Brooks Conservation Fellow

The recent acquisition of a late Byzantine Greek manuscript fragment gives us an excellent opportunity to highlight the relationship between Rare Books and Special Collections and the library’s Analog Preservation Department.

The more degraded “flesh” side of the parchment bifolio.

The fragment is a single sheet of parchment, approximately ten inches tall by sixteen inches wide, folded down the center to create a bifolium. It is written on both sides in iron gall ink with red pigment initials. This piece is believed to be from the 13th-14th century and is yet to be identified fully. Initial studies indicate it contains sermon extracts, but the exact genre of the manuscript is unknown; all texts are unidentified currently. It will primarily be used in the teaching of graduate level Greek Paleography.

“Hair” side of the parchment bifolio.

The fragment came to the library in a delicate state. It has not lived an ideal life over the centuries, and as such, it was important to have the preservation department evaluate its condition before it was allowed to be handled in classes and by researchers. One of the main issues was that some of the text was obscured due to creases resulting from moisture damage. Moisture damage is problematic when dealing with parchment, because it is not reversable and any moisture introduced during treatment has the potential of furthering the degradation.

Microscopic examination of the parchment confirmed that it has water damage and that the degradation and darkening were at least partially due to mold damage. There was no evidence of active mold. Magnification also revealed that the surface layer of parchment on the flesh side of the parchment was lifting and flaking off in the areas with the most degraded areas.

Together with RBSC, the following treatment goals were decided:

1. Flatten the parchment to reveal the obscured text where possible.
2. Remove staining to improve text legibility as needed, and where possible.
3. Mend tears and areas of loss to stabilize the fragment.
4. Provide housing for handling and storage support.

Each treatment was done selectively, so that the parchment was as undisturbed as possible and other treatment goals could be accomplished. This approach is best for the longevity of the parchment and also leaves the possibility of a theoretical codicological reconstruction to determine the original construction of the codex to which this fragment once belonged.

The humidification zones.
Diagram of the Gortex humidification pack.

Four zones were identified as needing “flattening” (more like gentle stretching) to gain access to the obscured text. Humidification, though not ideal, was deemed the only option. A system was devised which allowed each zone to be humidified in isolation. I settled on a Gortex pack sandwich method, which introduced the moisture evenly from both sides of the parchment. This way the parchment became workable more quickly than if moisture were only being introduced from one side and needed to permeate all the way through. Each area was humidified until it was pliable, but never felt wet. The parchment was gently stretched once it was workable and held in its new position as it dried. The stretching worked better in some areas than others, but all of the text is now partially visible making the text more visible.

In-progress surface cleaning.

The darkest areas of parchment with text were surface cleaned with a 50/50 solution of ethanol and deionized water. A damp cotton swab was rolled over the lines of text, lifting up the surface dirt as it went. The ethanol in the mix helped the water evaporate more quickly so it would soak into the damaged parchment.

A patch of parchment roughly the size of a quarter was lifting and about to pop off the document. This was consolidated using a 3% gelatin mousse, which is comprised of cold gelatin strained through a very fine sieve until it is light and frothy.  Gelatin mousse is much easier to control than liquid gelatin since it stays in place after brushing, and because as a drier adhesive it does not permeate the substraight as much as other adhesives.

The tear repairs and bridge mends were done using pre-coated tissue made with wheat starch paste that was reactivated using the same gelatin mousse. The repairs were done on both sides of the parchment so a thin translucent paper could be used but the repairs would still be strong.

UV photograph of “flesh” side of parchment.

UV photography was the last step before making permanent housing for the fragment. Iron gall ink appears darker in UV light than it does in visible light, so the Greek text will be easier to read in UV photographs than in normal light photos or in person. These photographs will aid users working with the fragment.

The final challenge before returning the fragment was housing. Developing a housing system was the most important aspect of this treatment so the fragment can safely maintain its active life. After experimenting with several models, a double-sided window mount was designed, which I adapted from the British Library’s housing for burnt fragments from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton. The parchment is contained within a packet of polyethylene strips and various weights of polyester sheeting. The strips on one side instead of two solid sheets allow for plenty of airflow so there is no danger of creating microclimates. This also helps minimize polyester’s tendency toward static electricity build-up. The fragment was then secured between two window mattes made of corrugated board.

Diagram of the double-sided window mount.
The fragment after treatment and in its housing.

All of the treatment goals were reached using a “less is more” approach, and sturdy housing was constructed. The fragment is back in the library ready for active use.

Compendium Animalium: (Re)creating an Early Modern Book

by Erika Hosselkus, Curator, Latin American Collections and Jen Hunt Johnson, Special Collections Conservator

In the fall of 2019, my fellow curator, Julie Tanaka, and I planned our exhibition, Paws, Hooves, Fins, and Feathers: Animals in Print, 1500-1800. This exhibition was an opportunity to share Rare Books and Special Collections’ holdings with South Bend community youth as much as a showcase of our natural histories featuring animals. We promoted the show with local school districts and arranged visits for first graders, second graders, and high school students.

Beyond tours, which are primarily a visual and aural experience, we wanted to provide a fun, hands on opportunity for local kids related to our exhibition. Touching, holding, and even smelling is integral to the experience of handling a book—especially an old book. We wanted young students to be able to feel the weight of traditional early modern wooden boards and handle a half leather binding. We wanted them to be able to view our woodcuts and engravings of an early modern rhinoceros, elephant, sloth, and other critters up close! 

This desire to share the physical experience of a rare book with kids prompted us to explore the possibility of creating a facsimile of an early modern book that students could handle freely. As curators in a special collections setting, we interact frequently with conservators, our colleagues skilled in the treatment and preservation of books. They provide guidance on handling rare materials and perform repairs that facilitate use of our materials on a daily basis. This project, however, was a special opportunity to collaborate with our preservation department, particularly one of our conservators, Jen Hunt Johnson, and our current Gladys Brooks Fellow, Maren Rozumalski. The COVID-19 pandemic presented a challenge and has postponed our use of the facsimile, but it has nonetheless been completed! This blog post is an opportunity to share the facsimile with readers and to highlight the collaborations that often occur between curators and conservators.

Julie and I met with Jen, Maren, and Sara Weber, our digital project specialist (and the constant force behind this blog!) to flesh out the details of this project. Ultimately we decided to create a sort of composite facsimile volume comprised entirely of images selected from the works featured in our physical exhibition. Sara photographed the images that Julie and I selected. They were formatted and printed on heavyweight paper chosen to mimic the look and feel of early modern rag paper. Jen and Maren then performed the heavy labor to construct this artifact! In the following paragraphs, Jen describes her work on, and experience with, this project.

Creating opportunities to promote our collections is a goal that’s shared between curators and conservators. As the facsimile provides an opportunity to bring elements of the RBSC exhibit to a broader audience through school visits, and other programming, the project also introduces participants to the work that conservators do in the library to treat and preserve books. Handling this book offers a tactile experience to illustrate the ways in which an historic book structure functions, and allows the audience, particularly children, to handle materials such as paper, leather, and wood, that they may be less encouraged to interact with when encountering our rare and fragile materials. This is an opportunity for participants to feel engaged in an environment where there are often barriers and restrictions to objects that can limit the sense of personal connection.

Creating the facsimile during the initial outbreak of a pandemic was not without its challenges. Working remotely restricted access to tools, equipment, and a proper surface to work on. Coordinating decisions regarding printing, sewing, material choices, and also foreseeing and troubleshooting problems was much harder to do through emails and still images, as compared to face-to-face meetings, and ready access to materials and supplies. In the end, a patio table and clamps set up in my living room served as a sturdy station for preparing wooden boards. A lying press, non-slip foam shelf liners, and careful balancing made do for a job backer to secure the material being worked. A 12 x 12” granite floor tile made a reasonable weight, applying even pressure when drying large areas like endsheets when a book press was unavailable. I even had to source material from a mail order wood shop when I realized the original wooden board I had purchased to work with was too thick to fit our textblock, and local vendors were closed due to the pandemic. None of these situations were ideal, but working through the process and figuring out what worked was ultimately rewarding, and fun!

We are very excited about the final product that has emerged from this collaboration. Here we share some photographs of our unique creation, Compendium Animalium, and we look forward to sharing the volume in person in the future with students on campus and in the South Bend community!

What Do You Have in Special Collections? We have Rare Books…

Notre Dame Special Collections holds approximately 132,000 volumes of rare books and periodicals. In the collection, there are really old books and really new books; books that have high monetary value and books that don’t; books with paper covers and books with hard covers; books that look like books and books that look like art. What is a rare book then? Why is one book in the rare book collection and not another? And exactly what kinds of rare books does ND Special Collections have?

The mixture of old and new and varying monetary values and formats points to the fact that it’s hard to define precisely what a rare book is. Perhaps the question isn’t so much, “What is a rare book?” but rather, “What makes a book rare?” Supply and demand play a large role. If there are only a couple of copies of a particular book, it seems logical to believe that that book is rare; however, if no one is interested in acquiring that book, then the book isn’t necessarily rare. If there is greater demand than the number of books available to meet demand, then a book may be said to be rare. High demand, though, is only one part of the equation in determining whether a book is rare.

Above and beyond supply and demand, a book must have some sort of intrinsic value or importance. That is, what importance does a book have in the field of study to which it belongs? More simply put, does the book have research value? For example, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818, is quite popular and readily available whether in your local library or through any of a number of bookstores and online booksellers. But editions of this book are found in special collections. Both the original 1818 edition and the 1831 revised edition published in a single volume by Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley have intrinsic value for literary studies. The first presents Shelley’s ideas in 1818 before she suffered from multiple personal tragedies—the deaths of her son, daughter, and husband, of her friend, George Gordon (Lord Byron), and being betrayed by her friend, Jane Williams. The third edition, considerably revised by the author, reflects the change in her philosophical ideas. After suffering these tragedies Shelley revised the text to exemplify her belief that human events are not decided by free will but by material forces beyond human control.

BOO_003701271_v1-00g-blackA book might be considered rare if it is the first printing, has particular historical importance, or has specific significance to a particular collection, institution, or other setting. The Holy Bible printed by Matthew Carey in 1790 is one example of all three of these considerations. The Carey Bible represents the printing of the first Catholic Bible in the United States, known also as the Douay-Rheims version. The specific copy of this Bible held in ND Special Collections has further significance to the campus. Locally referred to as “The Badin Bible,” the three volumes comprising this copy were given to Father Stephen Badin (1768-1853) by Bishop John Carroll (1735-1815), the first bishop appointed in the U.S. Father Badin founded a school and church for the Potawatomi Indians, the site of which is now part of Notre Dame’s campus. He also purchased land and gifted it to the Diocese of Vincennes; this land was the parcel upon which the Notre Dame campus was built. ND’s copy of this Bible contains a handwritten dedication to Badin and the ex libris bookplate of Stephen T. Badin.

A book that has survived the ravages of time might be a good candidate to be considered rare. For printed books in the western world, a book printed in 1493 and sitting on a shelf today is old—but is it rare? If it has intrinsic importance and if demand outstrips supply, then it most likely is rare. Take RBSC’s copy of the Liber cronicarum by the Nuremberg doctor and scholar, Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), an incunable—a book printed during the first fifty years of printing in the West (1450-1500)—is a landmark in book design and the history of printing. More commonly known in English as the Nuremberg Chronicle because of its magnificent 2-page woodcut of the city of Nuremberg, this book integrates over 1800 images with the printed text, using the images to explain or clarify the content. The Chronicle also contains woodcuts that provide the first images ever printed of some of Germany’s cities. Though over 1200 copies are known to exist today in libraries throughout the world, the demand for this phenomenal book remains high.

Often, books that are first editions are assumed to be rare books because they are thought to be more valuable. Sometimes that is true, but most books only come out in one edition, making them by default first editions. In the case of books that come out in multiple editions, there are instances when the first edition can add value to the book. For example, Moby Dick by the American author Herman Melville (1819-1891) was published first in October 1851 in London by Richard Bentley as a three-volume set in an edition of 500 copies. 200 copies were bound in spectacular fashion, with seafoam green cloth covers and cream cloth spines adorned with a whale in gilt. Today, locating a copy in this original binding is almost impossible; the supply practically does not exist, yet there is demand for this elegant book. The first American edition was printed a month later by Harper and Brothers. This edition corrected the changes in language and spelling and restored passages that had been excised by Bentley in the London edition, making the first American edition of extreme importance for the history of this book.

An edition of a book—the set of copies of a book printed from the same setting of type—other than the first edition may have important value for researchers as well. In 1580, Discorso sopra il giuoco del calcio fiorentino by the Florentine Giovanni de Bardi (1534-1612) was first published. The text was edited three times with the new editions printed in 1615, 1673, and 1688; the last printing of the text was in 1766. Discorso was the first book that described calcio, an early form of football that originated in sixteenth-century Italy; it detailed the rules, how the game was played, and what players were expected to wear. The first three editions contained no more than one plate; however, a fourth edition appeared in 1688. Retitled Memorie del calcio Fiorentino Tratte da diverse Scrittute, this edition had been published to coincide with the marriage of Ferdinand de Medici and Violante Beatrice of Bavaria. Memorie contains additional engraved plates, the original Discorso, a lengthy essay on calcio’s antecedants, a poem in Greek on the sport, and notices and records of the games played. The second edition also contains a description of the calcio match played at the wedding. Part of the Joyce Sports Research Collection, both the 1615 printing of Discorso and the 1688 Memorie provide researchers with valuable resources for studying the sport, printing history, and cultural history.

Books that are found in special collections might also be part of a collection that, as a whole, has intrinsic value even if some of the books within that collection are quite common. Many special collections libraries will collect the works of a particular author or field of study. ND Special Collections has a number of these including the Edmund Burke Collection, the Zahm Dante Collection, and the Edward Lee Greene Collection. The core of the Burke Collection is comprised of the personal library of William B. Todd, author of the authoritative descriptive bibliography of Burke’s works. Included are early editions of Burke and his contemporaries including Thomas Paine. Addition volumes have been added to the original collection to comprise a substantial research collection.

Similar to the Burke Collection is the Zahm Dante Collection of over 3,500 volumes that include incunables, sixteenth-century editions, and important modern works that demonstrate the popularity and impact Dante had on contemporary culture. Represented in this collection are works of fundamental importance in the Dante bibliography, including the 1481 edition of Cristoforo Landino’s commentary and the 1502 Aldine printing of Dante’s Comedia as well as the modern adaptation of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso by Sandow Birk, which translates the text into contemporary, American English and sets the three works in urban America. The Zahm Dante Collection forms part of the Italian Literature Collection, the most significant Italian literature collection in the United States, containing the works of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Baldassare, Castiglione, Ariosto, Bembo, and Tasso.

Another prominent collection is the Edward Lee Greene Collection related to natural science. This collection is formed from the personal library of Edward Lee Greene (1843-1915), an early botanist who researched and wrote about western American flora. His collection contains significant works from the sixteenth century, including the Herbarum uiuae eicones ad naturae imitationem (1532) by Otto Brunfels (1488-1534), who is regarded as one of the founders of botany. The collection also boasts Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754), a stunning two-volume work with hand-colored plates. This book is of fundamental importance; it is the first publication devoted to the flora and fauna of North America. Along with the Greene Collection, ND Special Collections has holdings of over 4,000 works related to the history of science. Among these works are Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium celestium (1543), Galileo’s Dialogo (1632), and Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (1687).

ND Special Collections has numerous other important literary and historical works including one of the most complete collections of the Nicaraguan writer, Ruben Dario, as well as extensive holdings of the works of Gabriela Mistral and Jorge Luis Borges. The collection of the American poet Robert Creeley (1926-2005) contains books not widely accessible to the public and the letters, reviews, and other pieces of ephemera the author placed inside his books, providing students and researchers a rare look into the poet’s private life.

In addition to building collections that center around authors and content, ND Special Collections also collects books that are about the book itself. These include books issued from fine presses and books that push the boundaries of our general understanding of a book. The revival of fine press books can be traced to William Morris (1834-1896) and the press he founded, the Kelmscott Press, which printed books from 1890 to 1896. Morris was one of the leaders in the Arts and Craft Movement which developed in Britain and spread internationally between the mid eighteenth century and the early twentieth century. In reaction to the ill effects industrialization and capitalism had on printed  books, Morris set forth to produce books that reclaimed the beauty and craftsmanship associated with the fifteenth century. He used only the finest materials–handmade paper, specially formulated ink, high-quality vellum–and the iron handpress to print limited editions of only a few hundred copies of the finest quality. Of the fifty-three works the press printed, the most celebrated and generally regarded as the finest work printed from a fine press is Morris’ The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Now Newly Imprinted (1896). In addition to this fine work, ND Special Collections holds eleven other works issued from the Kelmscott Press.

Morris inspired others to establish fine presses. This trend spread across Britain, Europe, the United States, and continues today. Established in 1920 by Harold Midgley Taylor and taken over in 1924 by Robert Gibbings, the Golden Cockerel Press produced worked printed to the highest of standards and was noted for its woodcuts designed by notable artists such as Eric Gill. As Morris’ Chaucer was the Kelmscott’s finest work, Eric Gill’s Four Gospels (1931), part of the ND Special Collections Gill Collection, was the Golden Cockerel Press’ finest. In addition to works published by the Kelmscott Press and Golden Cockerell Press, ND Special Collections has collections from other notable fine presses including the Cuala Press, Stanbrook Abbey Press, Overbrook Press, Perishable Press, and St. Dominick’s Press.

Related to fine presses that produced limited editions of printed books using techniques that industrial presses could not produce is the development of artists books. What defines artists books is still in flux. To a large extent, they represent a work that is inspired by the function or structure of a traditional book; in some cases, the works resemble the common book with pages bound together and encased in a cover; in other cases, artists books look more like a sculpture or other work of art with very few characteristics of a traditional book. Artists books is a growing collection area for ND Special Collections. Our most extensive collection are works of the Ediciones Vigía in Matanzas, Cuba, founded in 1985, featuring handcrafted books of writers, musicians, and composers including Gabriela Mistral, Bob Marley, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel García Márquez and designed by artists including Rolando Estévez. Artists books from the Ediciones Vigía are noted for their elaborate constructions with foldouts, jewelry, and shapes. Also in ND Special Collections is a collection of sixty-seven works from the Indiana University School of Fine Arts individual pieces from current books artists including Julie Chen, Karen Hamner, Jean-Pierre Hebert, Bill Kelly, among many others.

ND’s Conservation Lab Looks at our Pico: Is it human?

by Sue Donovan, Rare Books Conservator

The conservation lab, a unit within Hesburgh Libraries Preservation, has been part of a collaborative effort to determine if a book owned by the University since 1916 was bound in human skin. The book, a volume of the works of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a 15th-century humanist writer, contains newspaper clippings and handwritten affidavits attesting to the book’s past. These documents purport that the book was owned by Christopher Columbus and was bound in the skin of a Moorish chieftain, which had been obtained after the conversion of the Muslim population of Granada to Catholicism by the zealous Cardinal Cisneros in 1500. After contradictions were found in the provenance records, the conservation lab engaged in identifying the nature of the skin used for the binding.

Opera Joannis Pici Mirandule Comitis Concordie, by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Argentinus: diligenter impressit industrius Ioannes Prüs Ciuis Argentinus Anno salutis 1503 Die vero XV Marcij i.e., 15 March 1504).

In January of 2015 two samples were taken—one from the purported human skin binding and one as a control from a book with a similar binding and of the same time period and country of production as the Pico volume. Finding an area that was relatively untouched was important so that there would be no contamination from proteins and grime from centuries of handling and consultation. Accordingly, small samples were taken from underneath the paper pastedowns of each book, and they were sent to the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), where they were analyzed through protein mass spectrometry. Proteins are more stable than DNA, and because of the unique patterns and mutations that exist across species, they can be used to determine whether a binding has been made with pig, sheep, calfskin, or human skin.

In the meantime, Conservator Liz Dube and I took the volume to the photo macroscopy lab on campus to see if we could determine any information about the origin of the skin through the pore and follicle patterns, but we left just as perplexed—perhaps even more so!—than when we arrived.

Based upon in-house tests, it was uncertain whether the Pico book was bound in human skin. We turned next to our outside collaborators for their expertise. To find out what they uncovered, read John Nagy’s article, “The Truth Uncovered,” in the Spring 2016 issue of Notre Dame Magazine.

Thanks to George Rugg for his research on the provenance of the Pico volume, Donald Siegle of the NYC OCME for his correspondence regarding protein mass spectrometry, and John Nagy for his research into the personalities behind this book’s ownership and for bringing the information together in his article.


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