Behind the Scenes: Preservation at the SFPL

In celebration of National Preservation Week we invited Vanessa Hardy to write about her work in the library's Preservation Department. For several years she has been devoted to improving the condition of our materials, thus extending the life of the books, periodicals, and ephemera that our readers need for their research. Vanessa's focus is the conservation of the library's special collections: the Grabhorn Collection on the History of Printing & the Development of the Book, the Harrison Collection of Calligraphy & Lettering, the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, the Little Maga/Zine Collection, and the collections of the San Francisco History Center. Today we take you "Behind the Scenes" with Vanessa as she describes the conservation process for some of our French wit and humor books.

Calembourgs de Madame Angot (1800)
Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL

Among the items I have been working on recently, I have particularly enjoyed some little French books from the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor. They have mostly been in wrappers, dating from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, so they are quite fragile.

Calembourgs de Madame Angot (1800)
Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL

Sometimes the sewing is just a single stitch. I suppose they were issued this way by the publishers because they would either be read and tossed, or securely bound into a collection of similar works for long-term keeping.

This work was at one stage bound with other pamphlets.

You can see the remains of the sewing tapes.

And the curve of the spine echoes
the rounded back of the volume
from which this work was once a part.

Images: Michel Mourgues. Recüeil d'Apophtegmes [1694?]

Given the ephemeral nature of these items we are lucky to have so many in the original state. At the same time, they present quite a conservation challenge. Ideally, we would keep them as they are, despite the inadequate sewing and binding, because they speak so much of their time. Practically, if a patron handles them in their current state, they will be further damaged, perhaps irreparably.

We decide to compromise. Often the most fragile area is the spine of the wrapper, which tends to crack off. 

Images: Poggio Bracciolini. Les Facéties de Pogge (1878)
Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Hunor, SFPL

The torn spine and back cover of this book
have been removed in preparation for conservation.

Images: Maurice Sailland. Le Bonheur du Jour (1938)
Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL

The spine of the wrapper has been consolidated
onto Japanese tissue, and tissue has been laid
down on the spine of the book to strengthen it
 and support the sewing.

Then I hinge the consolidated wrapper back over the spine, attaching it at the joints, but leaving the wrapper free to flex as the book is opened. Some dry cleaning and paper repair, if necessary, then a card sling to protect the book in its envelope, and the work is done.

The wrapper's spine has been reattached
and it now flexes as the book is opened
to prevent further cracking or flaking.

The tissue attaching the wrapper
 has been dyed to match.

The card sling supports the book
when it is inserted into the envelope.
All conservation materials are acid-free.

Épigrammes Françaises [1911?]
Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL 

Behind the Scenes is an occasional series of blog posts featuring the work of the San Francisco Public Library staff.


  1. Wow! What an art. So interesting. Thanks.

    1. Thank you! If you're in the city please visit us up on the sixth floor.

  2. Neat! You don't happen to want an apprentice, do you?

    1. Thank you! While we do not have apprenticeships at the library, if you're interested in the book arts and conservation work you might try the San Francisco Center for the Book Arts as a starting point. See their website here:

      You may also want to take a look at Conservation Online for information on becoming a conservator, training programs and internships. Follow this link:


Post a Comment