Caring for Yale Library’s Books

Book and Manuscript Conservator Laura OBrien-Miller working in the Gates Conservation Laboratory

Books have been a part of Yale University since the earliest days of its founding, starting with the donation of books by a group of ten ministers who gathered in 1700 to establish the college that would become the University. Today there are almost 15 million printed books and electronic volumes held in 15 separate libraries, including Sterling Memorial Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Gates Conservation Laboratory

Caring for the physical printed books and bound manuscripts is the primary responsibility of book conservators and technicians working in the Library’s Gates (Stephen F. ’68) Conservation Laboratory, pictured below. The laboratory’s book conservation efforts range from treating bound medieval manuscripts to circulating printed books. Staff must develop expertise in paper and parchment conservation to address issues with the texts and master traditional bookbinding techniques to conserve bindings and covers. They must also understand the history of books and the materials used over the centuries to make books.

The Gates Conservation Laboratory opened in Fall 2015 and offers over 8000 sq. ft. of purpose-designed space.

Special Collections

This publisher’s cloth case binding is a rare edition of Herman Melville’s The Whale, also known as Moby Dick. The damage to the spine was the result of chemical cross-linking or brittleness, and mechanical damage from use and consultation. Using toned new materials and a great deal of skill, our rare book conservator was able to structurally and visually repair the binding. She also documented her work with digital images and a written report.

Before Treatment

After Treatment

Circulating Collections

Conservation Technician Jake Shonborn using a book measuring device to determine dimensions for a housing

Circulating books from general collections of the Library are repaired through in-house treatment or rebinding through a commercial service. Materials with unusual physical features, significant bookplates, or inscriptions are prioritized for in-house treatment. Books with extensive damage to leaves, bindings, or sewing are also repaired in the Library’s lab. For books that are rebound offsite, our commercial binder adheres to preservation standards for binding structure and materials developed by the library preservation community.

Books commerically rebound in buckram fabric have increased durability

Traditional and Modern Techniques

The text block for a medieval book model being sewn onto supports using a sewing frame

Rare Book Conservator Paula Zyats delicately reattaches tiny areas of lifting pigment with the aid of a stereomicroscope.

The book conservator’s work often combines the use of centuries-old bookbinding techniques and traditional tools, like sewing frames, used to reconstruct broken text blocks, with specialized modern equipment like stereomicroscopes and digital displays. This equipment aids in new scientific research, and also helps them with intricate treatments, like consolidating areas of flaking inks and pigments on the leaves of medieval manuscripts, as seen below. Book Conservator Paula Zyats delicately reattaches areas of loose paint in a medieval missal, a liturgical manuscript used for conducting Roman Catholic mass. She uses a fine-tipped brush to insert a tiny amount of adhesive underneath each area of loose paint.

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