By YVONNE FRENCH
Cartloads of books that originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson are being treated efficiently in the Library's Conservation Lab to prepare for the exhibition "Thomas Jefferson."
On Aug. 24, 1814, the Library's core collection of 3,000 volumes was destroyed when the British burned the Capitol, where the Library was housed. On Jan. 30, 1815, Congress approved the purchase of Thomas Jefferson's personal library of 6,487 books for $23,950. On Christmas Eve 1851, another fire destroyed two-thirds of the collection. Many of the volumes have since been replaced, but some are still missing. As part of the Library's Bicentennial celebration, a worldwide search is under way to reconstruct Jefferson's library — the foundation of the Library of Congress.
Jerry Jones, owner and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, last year gave a gift of $1 million to the Library of Congress to support a project to rebuild Jefferson's personal library (see Information Bulletin, May 1999).
A team of book conservators in the Library's Conservation Division are using state-of-the-art conservation techniques to prepare the books for the upcoming exhibition. The group is about halfway through stabilizing some 2,500 volumes.
More extensive treatments for some of the books are planned following the exhibition, which is to include an enclosed library of books shelved as Jefferson might have kept them.
"This exhibition presents a unique opportunity for us to pool our efforts toward the common goal of preserving one of the Library's most important collections," said Conservation Division Chief Mark Roosa. "We've worked on items from the Jefferson Collection for many years. This is the first time that we have had a chance to look at it as a whole and assess its conservation needs."
The books fall in to five sometimes overlapping categories, according to an exhaustive November survey in which conservators went to the stacks and inspected each book individually.
- 483 books had been treated or are in perfect condition
- 396 need full treatment, including repairs to their pages or text blocks, or pages of the book, but will be handled after the exhibition
- 51 pamphlets are in need of full treatment, including repairs to both binding and text block
- 703 require leather consolidation and dyeing to make the rebinding match the original color
- 1,082 need boards, or covers, reattached, need spine repairs or replacements, or need repairs to the endcap, the top or bottom of the spine (see illustration below). It is on this last group that the book conservators are now focusing. Solutions include:
- Books with loose or detached boards, or covers, are repaired by rebacking, which involves removing the spine leather, lifting up part of the boards nearest the spine, and tucking in a new leather spine to hold the book together, then replacing the old spine on top. Smaller books are hinged the same way using strong, fibrous Japanese paper instead.
- Loose or missing spines are repaired using the same rebacking method described above. If the spine is missing, a new one is created for it using centuries-old hand-tooling methods.
- Partially detached or missing endcaps are replaced with a simple, efficient technique of partial rebacking used by the Library's Conservation lab since its inception in the 1970s. Debris from missing endcaps is surgically removed. Then new squares of dyed-to-match leather are painstakingly pared around the edges of the suede side until the leather has a paper-thin margin. These squares are then applied to rebuild the endcap so that they are perfectly flush with the original leather. For detached endcaps, the original piece is then reapplied to the new endcap.
During treatments in the 1930s, the Government Printing Office, then responsible for the Library's repairs, had used leather, about the same orange color as a baseball glove, to rebind broken books. But most of Jefferson's books have bindings of dark brown leather. While binders of that era were concerned with making a sturdy binding, today's conservators are also concerned with the artifactual integrity of the object, said Jefferson Collection Conservation Project Head Maria Nugent.
"We believe it is important to save as much as the original binding as possible because part of the history of the book can be learned from the binding," Ms. Nugent said.
Ms. French is a fellow of the Library's 1999-2000 Leadership Development Program on four-month assignment to the Conservation Division.