The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 13, Number 1
Feb 1989


The Care of Fine Books, by Jane Greenfield. New York: Nick Lyons Books, 1988. (31 West 21 St., New York, NY 10010) 97 pp. (uncorrected proof)

Reviewed by Jan Dalrymple-Hollo

In December I visited the curator of the small, poorly funded regional museum in the Northeastern Mississippi town where I grew up. It was clear that I was the closest contact the museum had with a conservator, and after suggesting connections with the State Archives, among other things, I tried to think of an accurate and concise guide to the preservation of library materials that I could recommend. Later, I was delighted when I first glanced through The Care of Fine Books by Jane Greenfield, thinking I had found such a reference.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed. In fairness, I must say that I read uncorrected galley proofs without the illustrations and possibly some late revisions. Yet, I kept asking myself, for whom is this book intended? I found it too simple and incomplete for professionals and too lacking in the fundamental principles of preservation to be a good orientation for the uninitiated.

In the first chapter, which covers the history of books and the nature of the materials out of which various types of books are made, I hoped to find an explanation of the difference between acidic paper and permanent/durable paper. William J. Barrow is mentioned, the concept of pH is cursorily described, and the requirements for the American National Standards Institute's standard on the Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials are listed, but nowhere is it mentioned that Barrow found alum-rosin sizing to be the chief culprit in acidic paper, and that paper today can be one hundred percent chemical wood pulp and still be classified as permanent/durable.

I found parts of the chapter on the Storage of Books useful. Several references such as The Museum Environment by Garry Thomson and Urban Entomology by Walter Ebeling are cited and measures for monitoring and limiting UV light, temperature and humidity are discussed. Disaster planning, important to any size collection, is covered and lists of emergency equipment and procedures are included. The subject is introduced haphazardly, however, under the heading "Flood." There is no overview explaining why planning to avert a major on minor disaster, and the strategies to handle one should it occur, are crucial to an effective preservation effort. This is unfortunate, since such planning is one of the most direct ways for a newcomer or small collector to become acquainted with the scope of preservation.

Mending is covered in the third chapter, entitled The Handling of Books, and it is in this area that I find this book's lack of a clear audience most troubling. For instance, most experienced book conservators have seen examples of fine books damaged from over-oiling. This procedure is of dubious value, and yet it seems to be tempting to collectors, who must find this kind of interaction with their books satisfying. Ms. Greenfield prefaces her discussion of the oiling of leather bindings by warning of its dangers, yet the procedure is described in detail and clearly recommended. Although the illustrations may prove otherwise, I have the impression that the reader is not seriously expected to make Japanese-tissue-and-paste mends solely on the instructions presented in this book. For instance, no instructions for the cooking of paste is given, nor is the reader cautioned to be judicious when using adhesives.

If I try to imagine a collector of fine books, directed to this book by its title, using it and practically nothing else as a guide to preservation, I find The Care of Fine Books lacking. How much more useful it would have been, to the collector, the field, and to fine books, had a more complete description of the guiding principles of our field been presented! The challenges of preserving our printed heritage are great, and they need the support of the general public. Without some sense of the philosophy behind preservation, collectors and curators of small and isolated collections may be lulled into believing they are meeting that challenge through half measures.

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