Repairing Democracy

Amongst the books treated during the conservation project were two volumes from a set of four of A. Tocqueville’s De la Démocratie en Amérique, volumes 3 and 4. The books were bound in half leather bindings with hollow backs and marbled paper sides as is typical in the 19th century, but the leather and tooling were different in volumes 3 and 4 and they were also more damaged. Each of the books had both boards detached and most of the spines missing, and the original plan was to re-attach the boards and make new leather spines. It was only after the two books were brought to the conservation studio for treatment that an envelope with fragments of the two detached spines was found in the library and they could be reunited with the books.

The repair of the books was very similar to the treatment described in the previous conservation blog: ‘The slot machine: Reuniting boards with books’. The remains of split paper hollows were removed and both spines were lined with aerocotton which strengthens the spine and to which the boards can be attached. To make sure the fabric was firmly fixed to the spine and not relying only on adhesive, the lining was sewn through to the outer quires as well and the books were ready for board attachment. In this case the lining extensions were pasted to the outside of boards, underneath the leather cover, and left to dry before making a tube hollow for each of the books. The spines were now ready for covering. When pieced together, the original spines were nearly complete with only very small fragments missing. This meant that only small portions of the any new spine covering material would be seen and that toned Japanese paper would be sufficient the cover the tube hollow and book joints. Once the original spines were pasted back, the books were finished and ready to join the others on the shelf.


— Katarina Powell, Conservator, Oxford Conservation Consortium

The Slot Machine: Reuniting Boards with Books

As books are handled and opened over time, one of the most common types of damage that occurs is that the joints break and the boards become detached. During our project conserving the John Stuart Mill collection, we therefore had the task of reattaching the boards of many books – such as this one, volume 10 of Jonathan Swift’s Collected Works:

Swift, The Works, Vol. 10 before treatment

There are multiple ways that conservators can reattach the boards of books, and each time we choose the option that best suits the needs of the particular object. A particularly strong and durable board reattachment technique is called ‘board slotting’, which was developed by Christopher Clarkson during his time working in the conservation department of the Bodleian Libraries. It involves using a specialised machine to cut a slot along the spine-edge of the boards, and then inserting textile flanges into the slots in order to reattach the boards to the text block. It is particularly suitable for books with ‘tube hollows’ – that is, where the leather is not directly adhered to the book’s spine, but instead to a tube of paper that has been glued to the spine beforehand.

Opening of a book with a tube hollow – note the way the leather moves away from the spine of the book as it opens.

Board slotting was judged to be the best option for a number of the books in the collection. First, the hollow of the book is split to allow access to the spine. The spine is then prepared by cleaning away the old linings and glue, and replacing them with layers of strong, flexible, archival materials: namely, Japanese paper and aerocotton. A spine-piece of toned aerocotton is then prepared and glued to the first lining to form extended ‘flanges’ of textile on either side of the spine. This recreates the hollow of the original structure while also forming the basis for the board reattachment.

OCC conservator Lisa Handke slotting a board using the Jeff Peachey board slotting machine.

The board slotting is done using a machine adapted by American conservator Jeff Peachey. The textile flanges are then cut to size and inserted into the slots with some adhesive, reuniting the boards in their proper place.

A textile flange trimmed to the right length, ready to be inserted into the slot.

The original spine can then be adhered back in place, giving a neat finish to the conservation treatment.

Swift, The Works, Vol. 10 after treatment

— Jess Hyslop, Conservator, Oxford Conservation Consortium

Conserving the Collection: An Introduction

Alongside the digitisation of the marginalia, the collection is also being conserved so as to preserve the physical objects for posterity. A knock on effect of digitisation projects is the increased interest in the objects themselves, and there are a number of treatment approaches that can strengthen the often fragile volumes. In conservation, we are not trying to make the object look ‘new’, but rather to use techniques that preserve as much of the original material as possible while still restoring a functionality to the volume. Often the books will look very much the same on the outside, but they won’t fall apart when you open them.

Poor handling of books in a library can cause a number of problems. Often spine pieces become detached when the book is continually pulled from the head edge, or when the covering material breaks and degrades. Missing spines can mean the loss of important information and makes the rest of the cover more vulnerable. Conservation can repair lost spine pieces and reattach fragments using toned materials, for example in this cloth bound volume:

Emerson, R. W., Essays (1841)


Spine of R. W. Emerson's Essays (1841) before undergoing conservation treatment


Spine of R W Emerson, Essays (1841) After undergoing conversation treatment

The structure of a book is a brilliant and enduring technique for collating and protecting the otherwise fragile pages of a text. Many of the ways in which books get damaged  have to do with the mechanics of use, for example, broken joints where the book is constantly opened and splits in the spine where the book has been forced at a particular point. For example, this item has both boards detached and a split down the spine:

Mandeville, B., The Fable of the Bees. Part II (1725)

Before treatment, with detached boards:

Mandeville, B., The Fable of The Bees with detached boards prior to conservation

During treatment:

Mandeville, B., The Fable of the Bees (1725) During treatment, transverse textile spine linings are adhered and linen braids to consolidate the sewing supports.

After treatment, with the original spine back in place and the boards reattached:

Mandeville, B., The Fable of the Bees (1725) After treatment, with the original spine back in place and the boards reattached.

In this example I adhered kozo-fibre paper and textile spine linings underneath the original spine. These held together the split in the textblock, and formed part of the board attachment on the book.

The conservation treatments are carried out at the Oxford Conservation Consortium, where our busy team work for the library and archive collections of 17 Oxford colleges. We are also the custodians of the Chantry Library, a collection of conservation literature open to the public. You can read more about the Chantry here.

Nikki Tomkins, Conservator, Oxford Conservation Consortium

Launching Mill Marginalia Online!

Welcome, all, to Mill Marginalia Online!  Our earlier in-process site will soon disappear, replaced by this new, functional iteration of our work (  Thanks to the indefatigable Tyler Grace and Nadia DelMedico, as well as to the eagle eyes of our advisory board members (with Anna Gibson and Phyllis Weliver deserving special acknowledgement), our private beta site has been tuned, expanded, and beautified into the public web presence you can now see and browse.  Although we foresee future refinements to the search function, marginalia categories, and methods of attribution, and we of course anticipate the addition of further data, we are proud to present the first 10,000 examples of marginalia from the John Stuart Mill Library.  Those who would like a bit of guidance in using the site are advised to consult the brief “How to Use This Site,” located in the About section.  Or you can just click your way in to a virtual visit, and get to know the Mills in a whole new way.

Albert D. Pionke, Project Director and Emma Annette Wilson, Co-Principal Investigator

Thankful for Beta Testing

With tryptophan receding, I am moved to give thanks to the technical staff at the University of Alabama Digital Humanities Center and to the members of the advisory board. As I write, a mostly functional version of the project database and user interface is being tested, and prospective static content for the final site peer-reviewed, all with an eye towards a public debut in spring 2018.

Although our original plans had called for an exclusively noSQL database, experience and the rapidly growing corpus of marginal marks and annotations have required us to modify our approach. The beta site employs a hybrid of a SQL and noSQL database, one that capitalizes upon the former’s speed in filtering and querying and the latter’s flexibility and ease of updating. Thus, a simple differentiation between verbal and nonverbal forms of marginalia is married to a Json field containing a readily expandable set of categories and subcategories that both allows for more precise identification of the myriad types of marginalia found in the Mill Library, and accommodates the discovery of new forms of marginalia as the data is collected. This hybrid approach should permit such additions without requiring updating the pre-existing dataset or large-scale data migrations.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, we would do well to recall what Mill himself advised, in his Introduction to the System of Logic (1843): “Until we know the particulars themselves, we cannot fix upon the most correct and compact mode of circumscribing them by a general description” (CW 7.3). Which is to say, time and beta testing will provide the evidence to test this refined technical approach. Enough now to appreciate those (including the indefatigable Tyler Grace) who have gotten us this far.

Albert D. Pionke, Project Director