Met by Accident: A Beaten Book

Today’s guest post is written by Julia Miller, a book conservator who studies, writes, lectures, and instructs about historical binding structures. In collaboration with the Guild of Bookworkers New York Chapter, Ms. Miller will speak at The New York Academy of Medicine on June 27th at 6pm, “Meeting by Accident,” about types of bookbinding and delve into the what, why, and how questions concerning historical bindings. 

When I wrote my second book Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings, I drew on interesting bookbindings encountered in recent years. I wish my book had been published a bit later than it was, just so I could include the book I describe to you here.

Fig. 1

Spine, upper cover, and lower text edge of the Guthrie book. All photographs courtesy of Randel Stegmeyer.

Not long after Meeting by Accident was published, I found a book that immediately intrigued me because it carried an interesting, and to me, unusual direction to the binder: “The Binder is desired to beat the Book before he places the Maps.” It appears on page 10 following the Preface in William Guthrie’s A New Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar; and Present State of the Several Kingdoms of the World. (The Thirteenth Edition, Corrected. London, Printed for Charles Dilly, in the Poultry; and G.G.J. and J. Robinson, in Pater-noster Row. 1792.)[1]. Beating book sections to flatten them prior to sewing was a common binding practice at one time but fell out of use and out of our collective memory; the mention of this old practice in the binders’ direction reminds us. The flatness of the text leaves (and the near-absence of “bite” to the printed text) indicates the binder of this volume followed the direction to beat the book.

Fig. 4

Detail director to binder in William Guthrie’s A New Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar; and Present State of the Several Kingdoms of the World.


The book measures 22 H x 13.8 W x 8 T in centimeters. It is worn, with losses to the brown sheepskin cover, and much repaired. The detached boards were oversewn to reattach them to the text block, and the spine rebacked with a strip of tawed skin. There is evidence of sewing in two- or three-on style [for a primer on three-on sewing click here] and later oversewing to secure loosened sections. The text block shows heavy use and damage: finger dirt, stains, and damaged edges.

Why is this book of reference interesting to the history of hand bookbinding? In 2013, conservator and bookbinder Jeffrey S. Peachey published his ground-breaking examination of beating books, “Beating, Rolling, and Pressing: The Compression of Signatures in Bookbinding Prior to Sewing” in Volume I of Suave Mechanicals – Essays on the History of Bookbinding.[2] His essay is an exercise in detection and is fascinating to read. Jeff discusses the history, tools, and methods of flattening book leaves, noting that it is sometimes impossible to tell if sections of a given book were beaten in the traditional way, or if sections were rolled or pressed instead. Guthrie’s book, at least the thirteenth edition, carries the type of evidence we need, in the wording of the direction to the binder, to establish that this is probably a beaten book. Peachey mentioned in a recent email that he has seen similar directions in other 17th and 18th century books.

Fig. 5

Fore edge of Guthrie book.

A comparison study of other copies from this thirteenth edition of Guthrie, and earlier/later editions, looking for the same binders’ direction and evidence of beating, plus searching out other imprints carrying similar directions to the binder, would be a valuable and interesting research project; and I hope one of you reading this post will undertake it!

[1] The Academy Library has the 1794 edition.
[2] Ed. Julia Miller. 317-382. Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press, 2013.


Caring for a Collection of Seventeenth Century Ivory Manikins

By Scott W. Devine, Head of Preservation

The Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory recently completed the rehousing of a fascinating collection of seventeenth century ivory manikins (small sculptures which open to reveal details of human anatomy). As with most items that are treated in the conservation lab, recent consultation and study of the collection by a researcher provided the starting point for conservation assessment and a review of the current housing.


Each manikin includes delicately carved features and is often attached to a support of carved wood. Finely detailed pillows are a common feature on items in the collection. Webster Anatomical Manikin Collection #27.


In most female manikins, the abdominal wall removes to reveal tiny painted organs and a small fetus connected by a linen cord. Webster Anatomical Manikin Collection #27.

History of Ivory Manikins

The renewed interest in human anatomy following the publication by Andreas Vesalius of De humani corporis fabrica in 1543 resulted in a growing demand for écorché drawings which depicted anatomical cross sections of the human body. In addition to drawings, sculptors in France, Italy and Germany began to specialize in detailed cross sections of specific organs which could be used for anatomical study. Out of this tradition of producing three-dimensional study models, either molded from wax or sculpted from wood or ivory, grew the art of carving ivory manikins:

Quite apart from the écorché figures, the ivory eyes, ears and skeletons, yet another product of the carver’s skill was produced in considerable numbers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was a small manikin of a man or a woman measuring from 12 to 24 centimeters in length with the anterior thoracic and abdominal wall removable to reveal the viscera. By far the greater number of these lie supine on a stand or in a fitted case and are carved in ivory; some stand on a small pedestal. Although they do occur in pairs, male and female, it is more common for single female figures to be found and in almost every case the figure is represented in an advanced state of pregnancy; the foetus being attached to the uterus by a red cord or else loose within the cavity.[1]

The term manikin is preferred as it denotes a figure with articulated limbs, the moveable arms being essential for allowing the removal of the abdominal wall.

The New York Academy of Medicine Library holds seven manikins, including a rare male and female pair. The manikins do not contain physical markings to indicate artist or date of creation. We do know that one of the largest producers of ivory manikins was Stephan Zick (1639-1715) of Nürnberg and that the Zick workshop produced possibly more manikins than any other workshop in Germany.[2]

Significance and Use

Unlike the detailed écorché figures designed for study purposes, it is unlikely that the manikins were used for teaching or instruction. The lack of detail on the internal organs would limit their function in this capacity. Le Roy Crummer (1872-1934) describes a female patient who remembers learning about pregnancy in 1865 with the aid of an ivory manikin, although such instruction does not seem to be the intended use of the manikins.[3] It is possible that the manikins were considered objects of curiosity, collector’s items that perhaps represented a growing interest in women’s health and the physiology of pregnancy. It is also conceivable that the manikins were given as gifts to newly married couples as good luck tokens intended to signify a future of healthy childbirth. Regardless of the original purpose, as art form the manikins represent an intriguing merger of Baroque art and science.

Designing a New Enclosure

Maintaining complex three-dimensional moveable objects such as the manikins is similar to the work required to preserve rare books in good working condition. In both cases, proper storage and housing are critical for long term preservation.  Enclosures designed for the delicate manikins must account for many moving parts, including fragile ivory fingers and tiny internal organs. The previous temporary housing consisted of wrapping the manikins in acid-free tissue and tying labels to each manikin, stacking them in a Coroplast® polypropylene box.  While this solution protected the manikins during storage, it did not allow for easy viewing and required a complex unwrapping and re-wrapping procedure to access each manikin.


The previous temporary housing did not facilitate easy access and introduced the possibility of damaging the delicate manikins during the unwrapping process.

The new enclosure takes into consideration the needs of each manikin by creating a small custom designed tray with two types of polyethylene foam to make sure that each manikin fits securely inside each tray: dense Ethafoam® provides basic support and is lined with softer Volara® foam in areas where the foam directly touches the manikin. The trays are fitted with handles of linen tape that allow the tray to be removed from a larger housing without touching the manikin. The trays are designed to fit into pre-made archival boxes purchased from Gaylord Brothers. The pre-made boxes were retrofitted with Ethafoam® supports lined with Volara® foam. The addition of the Ethafoam® allows the boxes to be easily transported from the environmentally controlled stacks to the Rare Book Room, minimizing vibration and movement within the box.


Yungjin Shin, Collections Care Assistant, designed the interior of the storage boxes, taking advantage of the box depth to fit as many trays in each box as possible. In this case, the manikin’s tortoise shell bed and pillow rest in a tray above the actual manikin, pictured in the next image. Webster Anatomical Manikin Collection #23.


Chloe Williams, 2017 Pre-Program Intern, designed customized trays for each manikin, taking into consideration the contours of each object. Webster Anatomical Manikin Collection #23.

As an additional support, each tray includes a custom fitted pillow of Tyvek® filled with polyester batting that rests on top of each manikin. The pillows further minimize shifting within the box without introducing a rigid support that could damage the fragile ivory features of each manikin. Typical of most artifact housings, each box is labeled with a photograph of the contents so that there is no confusion about which manikin is inside.


Boxes labeled with photographs allow for easy identification of contents without having to check inventory numbers or search for less obvious identification marks.

Gloves are used when the manikins need to be handled to reveal the intricate internal organs. In situations where the manikin needs to be removed from the tray, the placement of supports within each tray is intentional and designed to encourage the use of two hands when removing the manikin.


The use of gloves when handling the manikins protects the item and allows for better control when handling the smooth ivory surface.

Working with this extraordinary collection has allowed the conservation staff to refine our skills in objects housing and to begin designing similar projects to preserve the rich collection of artifacts that complement the Academy Library’s rare book collection.

[1] K.F. Russell. Ivory Anatomical Manikins. Medical History 1972; 16(2): 131-142.
[2] Eugene von Philippovich. Elfenbein. Munich: Klinkhardt und Biermann, 1981.
[3] Le Roy Crummer. Visceral Manikins in Carved Ivory.  American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 1927; 13: 26-29.

Preservation Week: Health Pamphlet Rehousing Project Moves Forward with Support from the National Endowment for the Humanities

By Yungjin Shin, Collections Care Assistant

To celebrate Preservation Week, sponsored by the ALA’s Association of Library Collections and Technical Services, we would like to highlight our work with our Health Pamphlet Collection.

One of the major preservation projects at the Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory is the Health Pamphlet Rehousing Project, which is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The Health Pamphlet Collection includes approximately 50,000 health-related pamphlets dating from the 19th to the early 20th century.

The current process involves multiple steps: pulling the pamphlet boxes from the stacks — cleaning the pamphlets and assessing them for future treatment — transferring the pamphlets to envelopes with custom fitted supports — updating the bibliographic information in the online catalog — building custom designed storage boxes — labeling the envelopes and boxes— rearranging as needed —and re-shelving to the new location.

Here is a behind-the-scenes video that shows the overall process, start to finish.


The project is currently scheduled to be completed in January 2018.

Preservation week

Today is #GivingTuesday

After Black Friday and Cyber Monday, two whirlwind days for getting deals, #GivingTuesday is a day for giving back.  Through this campaign, millions of people have come together to support and champion the organizations and causes they value. On this day, please consider donating to the New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Open to the public since 1878, the library is home to a collection that spans 12 centuries of learning.  It is a place where world-renowned historians and students alike come to learn, to be inspired, and to form the foundation of knowledge that opens the door to a future discovery.  With your generous contribution, we can foster this discovery for years to come.


As we look to the future, please enjoy this look back at the past year through the eyes of our library staff.

“From Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, the African American physician leading the Mississippi Health Project during the Great Depression; Mexican physicians marching on the street for reform in the 1960s; to the doctors and nurses at the Lincoln Hospital creating a model for medical activism in the 1970s; this year’s “Changemakers” series was an important reminder that creating social and political change requires energy, engagement, and commitment, at any time in history.”  –Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

archivespanel“On October 26th, the Academy Library convened  ‘Archives, Advocacy and Change:  Tales from Four New York City Collections.’  I moderated a lively conversation with all-star panelists Jenna Freedman (Barnard College), Steven Fullwood (In the Life Archive), Timothy Johnson (Tamiment Library, New York University) and Rich Wandel (The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center).  The discussion hit on a lot of fascinating issues, including how archivists shape the historical record with the selection and acquisition choices they make, issues of privilege, and access for communities.”  –Anne Garner, Curator

edwardjenner“I was excited to learn in 2016 that the Library holds autograph letters from Edward Jenner in which he discusses the smallpox vaccine that he helped pioneer. These fascinating letters are available to the public for consultation. They demonstrate how strongly Jenner believed that inoculation with cowpox would protect people from the scourge of smallpox.”  –Rebecca Filner, Head of Cataloging

“As a new staff member, I really enjoyed the Rare Book Room tour that Arlene Shaner gave me during my first few weeks at the Academy. I got to see some absolutely incredible items and learned so much about the building’s history. As a little aside, these tours are free and open to the public! They happen from 12-1 on the first Monday of each month.”  –Audrey Lorberfeld, Digital Technical Assistant

pendleton_bugsandnuts_1924_cover_watermark“Most of my works has a lot to do with satisfaction—satisfactions from cleaning dusted books, from placing crumbled health pamphlets into clean, acid-free envelopes, from making fitted enclosures for damaged books, from putting torn pieces together, and so much more. But all of these satisfactions is ultimately coming from that I’m contributing in preservation of the library materials to be more accessible and usable for the future! One of the most memorable item I worked through in Health Pamphlet Rehousing Project this year is this “Bugs and Nuts” pamphlet by Andrew Lenis Pendleton, with so many absurd and eerie illustrations.”  –Yungjin Shin, Collections Care Assistant


color-our-collections“A recent highlight for me would be our first #ColorOurCollections week, held February 1-5, 2016. Over 200 libraries, archives, and cultural institutions around the world participated by creating collections-based coloring sheets and sharing them freely online. It was exciting to connect with other institutions and new followers, and it was especially rewarding to share our collection and see people engage with it in new and creative ways. I can’t wait for the next #ColorOurCollections, coming up on February 6-10, 2017!”  –Rebecca Pou, Archivist




“One thing I particularly enjoyed this year was developing an online store featuring images from our collections on a variety of products. It allowed me to delve into and share the collections in a new and often very quirky ways. A 1910 health pamphlet on a beer koozie, a 17th century microscopic slice of rock as your party clutch, a poster of vintage stethoscopes to adorn your walls, a refrigerator magnet with a an octopus, or beautifully calligraphic roman numerals from a 9th century Roman cookbook decorating a bookmark – these truly breathe new life into elements of the collection.”  –Emily Miranker, Team Administrator/Project Coordinator

“In sitting down to go through the William J. Morton Papers in connection with my residency as The Helfand Fellow, I was just stunned to find a 7-in thick stack of newspaper cuttings curated by Morton himself and preserved in their original order. The subject of my research is the history of the X-ray, and the difficulty is dealing with the voluminous print matter that appeared almost instantly. Yet Morton essentially curated some of that for me, by clipping articles that reflected his view of what was relevant to the New York metropolitan area and the networks of physicians and scientists in which he traveled. The collection is a gift for the historian, not just for its content, but because of its window into what one prominent NYC physician deemed worth noting about X-ray fever.”  –Daniel Goldberg, Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellow

columbia-dermatology“Dr. Paul Schneiderman brought his Columbia dermatology residents to visit the rare book room on August 26th so that we could explore the history of dermatology. Looking at highlights from the dermatology collection from the 16th through the 20th centuries gave the residents a chance to think about the many ways in which their specialty has changed over time, especially since dermatology relies so heavily on visual representation. We looked at hand colored engravings, chromolithographs, photographs and stereoscopic images and the residents and their mentor engaged in lively debates about whether the descriptions and images matched with current information about some of the diseases that were shown. Not only did the residents have the opportunity to see these wonderful materials, but I had the pleasure of learning more about how to interpret the images from them.”  –Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian

What’s Your Job? Interview with Book Conservator Christina Amato

By Christina Amato, Book and Paper Conservator, with Emily Moyer, Collections Care Assistant

The New York Academy of Medicine Library is well known for its world-class collections and serves patrons from all over the world. We strive to make our collections as visible and accessible as possible, and a lot of work goes on behind the scenes towards this end. The Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory fulfills one component of this equation, attending to the physical well-being of collections materials.

Christina Amato, cleaning old glue from the spine of a book.

Christina Amato, cleaning old glue from the spine of a book.

The Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory was created in 1982, and occupies a bright, well-equipped space overlooking Central Park. Currently, one full-time conservator and two part-time collections care assistants work to preserve the collection of over 550,000 volumes. Christina Amato has worked as a book conservator here for approximately three years. Recently, she sat down with Collections Care Assistant Emily Moyer to discuss her work.

EM: How did you get into the field of conservation?

CA: People come to the field from a variety of backgrounds, in part because conservation crosses many disciplines, including science, art history, and studio art. I come from an art background, having received my BA in studio art from Bard College. It was really through an interest in materials (specifically paper, leather, and vellum) that I became involved in bookbinding. I received a diploma in bookbinding from the North Bennet Street School in Boston, which led me to many wonderful internships in book conservation.

There are actually many different possible paths to a career in conservation. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) has compiled a guide to education and training in conservation.

E.M.: Why is conservation important?

Many books that come up to the conservation lab are too fragile to be handled by readers; our work makes these materials accessible. This is important not just for readers that come and use our collection in person, but also for preparation for digitization projects and exhibitions. Much of our work focuses on preventative care, which ensures that materials remain in good condition for current and future use. This can include rehousing (creating enclosures for materials), regulating and monitoring environmental conditions, and disaster planning and response.

E.M.: What are you working on now?

Currently I am working on a copy of The byrth of mankynde, otherwise named The womans booke, by Eucharius Rösslin, London, 1545.  The book arrived in the lab broken in half:

The byrth of mankynde, otherwise named The womans booke, before treatment.

The byrth of mankynde, otherwise named The womans booke, before treatment.

It had been subjected to several unsuccessful attempts to repair the damage over the years. Several layers of Japanese paper had been glued over the spine, and only a few small fragments of the original spine piece were left.

The byrth of mankynde, otherwise named The womans booke, before treatment.

The byrth of mankynde, otherwise named The womans booke, before treatment.

After disbanding, and mending paper tears and fragile edges throughout the text block, I carefully documented the original sewing pattern, so that I could resew it in the same way.

Next, I dyed leather to match the original binding, which I will use to recreate the spine. After it is complete, the book will receive a new, custom enclosure, and will be ready to be used again.

Leather dying in progress.

Leather dying in progress.

E.M.: What are some interesting things you’ve worked on at the Academy?

A favorite book that I worked on was a copy of The Physiology of Digestion by William Beaumont, published in Vermont in 1847. Very shortly after I finished working on it, I listened to an archived episode of the Radiolab program called Guts. Our historical collections librarian, Arlene Shaner, spoke of a small, purple, cloth-bound book about digestion; it only very slowly dawned on me that it was the very same book that was on my bench.

Before and after, The Physiology of Digestion, Beaumont, William. Vermont, 1847.

Before and after, William Beaumont’s The Physiology of Digestion, Vermont, 1847. Click to enlarge.

Another favorite was a small volume entitled Geburtshulfliche Taschen-Phantome by Koichi Shibata, published in Munchen in 1892. We were so charmed by this little obstetrics text that we recreated the movable paper baby for a public workshop.

Koichi Shibata, Geburtshulfliche Taschen-Phantome, after treatment (left). The moveable paper baby (right).

Koichi Shibata, Geburtshulfliche Taschen-Phantome, after treatment (left). The moveable paper baby (right).

E.M.: Why do you like working in conservation?

Working in conservation can be very satisfying; the outcome of our work is unusually tangible. Working to preserve materials for (and from!) future readers can be creatively challenging, and requires flexible thinking. I like that it is a profession that combines working with your hands with an intellectual component. And of course, it is very rewarding to take a book that is too fragile to be handled and render it usable again.

Back to School! Conservation of the Academy’s 19th- and 20th-Century Medical Student Notebooks

By Erin Albritton, Head of Conservation and Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Reference Librarian

A small sample of student notebooks from the library’s collection.

A small sample of student notebooks from the library’s collection.

The New York Academy of Medicine Library’s manuscript collections feature a number of notebooks kept by medical students while they studied to become physicians. These notebooks, which contain both class notes and clinical reports created by students as they followed professors on rounds, are fascinating repositories of information that enrich our understanding of medical education during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Title page from Marcus Lorenzo Taft’s Notes of a Course of Lectures on Surgery by Valentine Mott, M.D., 1842–44.

Title page from Marcus Lorenzo Taft’s Notes of a Course of Lectures on Surgery by Valentine Mott, M.D., 1842–44.

In January, the New York State Discretionary Grant Program for the Conservation and Preservation of Library Research Materials awarded the Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory funding to carry out conservation treatment on 42 notebooks from the collection, all of which were created by students studying at medical colleges in New York City between 1827 and 1909. Contract conservator Jayne Hillam completed the conservation portion of the grant project in June. Following cataloging updates, the materials will soon be available for use.

An abundance of published resources can be used to research the world of 19th– and early 20th-century medical education. Circulars, annual reports, and catalogs provide scholars with detailed information about admission requirements, programs of instruction, textbooks, schedules of clinical demonstrations, faculty and student rosters, and even the addresses of boarding houses where students lived. In addition, printed copies of inaugural and valedictory addresses delivered by faculty members to student audiences offer a record of what physicians and faculty members thought medical students should know about the world of medical practice. Missing from these printed sources, however, is an intimate sense of how students actually learned to be physicians—i.e., what they studied in their classes and on clinical rounds; how they recorded that information for their own personal use; and how their understanding of the subject matter may have changed over time.

The 42 student notebooks conserved under this grant help bridge that gap, providing a window into the evolution not only of medical education, but of American higher education in general, and offering detailed evidence of the curriculum taught to medical students as medicine evolved through the 19th century. These notebooks also tell us a great deal about the students themselves, showing how they mastered the subjects they studied, what they learned from observing clinical demonstrations, and what professorial advice they deemed worth transcribing.

Harold Mixsell’s notes and charming illustration about caffeine, from the pharmacology lectures delivered by Dr. Walter Bastedo at New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, 1907.

Harold Mixsell’s notes and charming illustration about caffeine, from the pharmacology lectures delivered by Dr. Walter Bastedo at New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, 1907.

A reminder about the proper method of examining patients with scarlet fever, from Harold Mixsell’s notes from medical clinics in 1908.

A reminder about the proper method of examining patients with scarlet fever, from Harold Mixsell’s notes from medical clinics in 1908.

In addition to their content, the notebooks in this collection (which include both ready-made blank books and more finely bound presentation pieces) are also a valuable source of information about binding structures. They were produced during a pivotal moment in American bookbinding history when the traditions of the hand binding period gave way to the Industrial Era. In this case, the physical objects provide researchers with a unique opportunity to explore how the mass production and availability of blank books in the 19th century might have influenced classroom learning and the transmission of knowledge.

Three ready-made notebooks after conservation treatment.

Three ready-made notebooks after conservation treatment.

While most of these manuscripts were, quite clearly, student working copies (hastily written and illustrated, and characterized by a parsimonious use of paper), several were created as prize notebooks—the result of a 19th-century practice in which institutions and faculty members awarded cash prizes to students who demonstrated skill in note taking. As ideas about education evolved, the creation of prize notebooks came to be viewed more as a distraction than an enhancement to the learning process, and the competitions were eventually discontinued. That said, with their decorated bindings, artful title pages, expertly rendered calligraphy and hand-colored illustrations, the prize notebooks in the Academy’s collection are beautiful objects that amaze and delight any modern-day student note taker.

John Edwin Stillwell’s prize notebook of Dr. Fessenden Nott Otis’s lectures on venereal diseases, 1874–75.

John Edwin Stillwell’s prize notebook of Dr. Fessenden Nott Otis’s lectures on venereal diseases, 1874–75.

Stillwell’s prize notebook recording the gynecological clinics of Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, 1873–74.

Stillwell’s prize notebook recording the gynecological clinics of Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, 1873–74.

While the majority of notebooks in the collection have fared well since their creation, the 42 manuscripts selected for this grant all required some type of conservation treatment, ranging from simple cleaning to advanced paper and binding repair. Thanks to the generous financial support of the New York State Library’s Division of Library Development, these repairs are now complete and the notebooks can once again be referenced safely without fear of damage.

Before and after conservation treatment of a student notebook containing notes on internal medicine, 1873–74.

Before and after conservation treatment of a student notebook containing notes on internal medicine, 1873–74.

Making Collections Accessible: The New York Academy of Medicine Library’s Health Pamphlet Collection

By Katarzyna Bator, Collections Care Assistant, Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory

Every library is likely to find parts of its collection in need of protective enclosures and unique storage solutions. As part of our responsibility for the physical care of the collections at The New York Academy of Medicine, staff in the Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory routinely engages in large-scale rehousing projects. One such project currently underway is rehousing the library’s Health Pamphlet Collection. We estimate the project will take up to three years to complete.

The Health Pamphlet Collection consists of 19th– and early 20th-century health-related publications in many languages. It covers a wide range of topics, such as nutrition, proper hygiene, exercise, as well as medical innovations and research.

A damaged document box housing health pamphlets.

A damaged document box housing health pamphlets.

Approximately 50,000 health pamphlets are currently housed in acidic envelopes or plastic bags. These are in oversized boxes too big for the compact shelving unit on which they are stored. This limits accessibility, as the compact shelving cannot move properly, leaving little room for a librarian to retrieve each box from the shelf. In addition, each box is heavy and overstuffed with materials. This puts the pamphlets at risk of damage during storage and retrieval, and is problematic for staff who have to move and transport heavy boxes for patron use.

Previous storage space, with overstuffed document boxes.

Previous storage space, with overstuffed document boxes.

As part of the rehousing efforts for this collection, staff members place each pamphlet in an archival envelope with a 10-point folder stock insert for additional support, and then into a custom-made enclosure. The design of the enclosure is borrowed from the New-York Historical Society Library’s conservation laboratory. It is economic, sturdy, easy to make, and most importantly allows for safe and easy access to the collection.

Storage space with rehoused pamphlets

Storage space with rehoused pamphlets

The process of rehousing a collection involves more than simply making new enclosures and moving items to a new space. In order to make the Health Pamphlet Collection more accessible, staff members also dry clean each item with soot sponges—absorbent vulcanized rubber dirt erasers— and assess them for other conservation treatment needs, which they record in a spreadsheet to address as needed over time. In addition, a volunteer is creating an accurate inventory of all of the pamphlets to aid in future cataloging updates.

The Health Pamphlet Collection contains a wealth of information for researchers; through this project, conservation staff hopes to guarantee its accessibility to patrons both today and for generations to come.

Happy Preservation Week!

By Emily Moyer, Collections Care Assistant, Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory

PreservationWeek2015_logoSponsored by the American Library Association’s Association of Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS), Preservation Week aims to raise awareness of the importance of preservation and education in providing collections for future generations.

Every week is preservation week in the Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory at The New York Academy of Medicine. Preservation efforts include cleaning, stabilization, and rehousing; monitoring environmental conditions; education on the care and handling of materials; item-level treatments; and disaster preparedness. We work together to try to prevent future deterioration of materials and mitigate risks to the collection.

This behind-the-scenes video shows a day in the conservation lab here at the Academy: creating slings for our 60,000+ health pamphlet collection, shrink wrapping brittle periodicals and books, mounting facsimile images for an exhibition, refoldering and dry cleaning pamphlets, mending a manuscript cookbook, and rebacking a 19th-century medical student notebook.

Happy Preservation Week!


What Lies Beneath: Semi-Limp Parchment Bindings in The Academy’s Rare Book Collection (Items of the Month)

By Erin Albritton, Head of Conservation, and Christina Amato, Book Conservator, Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory

In the summer of 2013, conservators in the Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory began investigating conservation treatment options for a 17th-century Parisian imprint. As part of this process, we undertook an examination of a significant portion of The Academy’s early modern parchment volumes and became fascinated with a particular binding style—known as a semi-limp parchment binding—that has received very little attention in the published literature. For April’s item of the month, we offer a sneak peak at some of these bindings and the features that make them unique.1

A group of semi-limp parchment bindings in The Academy’s rare book collection

A group of semi-limp parchment bindings in The Academy’s rare book collection

Parchment2 bindings can be grouped into three basic categories: limp, semi-limp, and stiff. As the name implies, limp bindings are supple structures characterized by the absence of boards beneath their simple covers. Stiff board bindings, on the other hand, live up to their name through the addition of two rigid pieces of board inserted at the front and back. Semi-limp bindings—the category on which we focus here—fall somewhere in between: supple, but due to the presence of flexible boards, not quite limp.3

The most common type of semi-limp binding represented in the The Academy’s collection has two flexible boards that “float,” unadhered, beneath its parchment cover (see picture below).

Floating boards within the detached parchment cover of a  17th-century Belgium binding. Tournai, 1668.

Floating boards within the detached parchment cover of a 17th-century Belgium binding. Tournai, 1668.

During our research, however, we were excited to discover a style of semi-limp parchment binding previously unknown to us—a structure distinguished by the fact that it has a single piece of thin moldable board (rather than two floating boards) inserted beneath its cover (see picture below). The board is wrapped around the whole textblock, the outer parchment cover is folded over it, and both are attached to the textblock at the head and tail via laced endband cores. For lack of any historical name, and to distinguish it from the floating boards binding mentioned above, we have called this structure a wrapped board binding.4

Wrapped board binding with inner paper board stiffener visible through damaged outer parchment cover. Lyon, 1641

Wrapped board binding with inner paper board stiffener visible through damaged outer parchment cover. Lyon, 1641

As illustrated in the photographs below, the two styles outwardly appear very similar and can be almost impossible to tell apart without access to and close examination of the inner joints and spine.

Left: Floating boards binding, Paris, 1645. Right: Wrapped board binding, Paris, 1628.

Left: Floating boards binding, Paris, 1645. Right: Wrapped board binding, Paris, 1628.

To learn more about these structures, we undertook a two-part survey of The Academy’s rare book collection. Part one was a big-picture analysis, in which we examined approximately 20,000 volumes and collected basic information about every parchment binding we found; part two involved a detailed look at the semi-limp structures we identified during part one.

The results of our survey indicate that semi-limp bindings were much more popular in Europe during the early modern period than we suspected. Indeed, given the proportion of scholarly literature devoted to limp parchment bindings and their profile within the pantheon of historical binding structures, we were surprised to count nearly four times as many semi-limp bindings (of both the floating boards and wrapped board varieties) as limp bindings in our collection—with 194 and 48 respectively. Within our survey sample, the wrapped board structure was relatively uncommon—appearing on only 28 (or 14 percent) of all semi-limp bindings—and its use seems to have been limited to France in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.5

Title page from a Parisian wrapped board binding, 1639.

Title page from a Parisian wrapped board binding, 1639.

Almost all of the semi-limp parchment bindings we surveyed were simple structures—small in size and unornamented, featuring a number of structural shortcuts (including abbreviated sewing patterns on only two or three supports; simple endbands with minimal tie-downs; and plain endsheets of very basic construction) typical of retail (or, perhaps, less expensive bespoke) bindings of the time. While evidence indicates that these bindings were probably intended to be permanent,6 they were cheaper and easier to make (and, therefore, also likely less expensive to buy) than leather bindings. Hence, it appears that both the floating boards and wrapped board bindings were, in all probability, part of a larger strategy within the early modern book industry aimed at binding more books for a bigger audience quickly without going broke.

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Our initial findings indicate that, like their limp parchment cousins, semi-limp bindings played a significant role in bookbinding history. This role has been both underappreciated and underexamined in the scholarly literature, however, and much research remains to be done. Consequently, we encourage readers to take a look beneath the covers of the parchment bindings that line the shelves of their collections and start documenting what they see.7


1. For definitions of some of the bookbinding terms used in this post, see Roberts, Matt and Don Etherington. Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1982 (accessible online at or Carter, John and Nicholas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. 8th ed., New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004 (accessible online at

2. Parchment is any animal skin that has been limed, de-haired, dried under tension, and then scraped and thinned. Although definitive species identification is not possible without DNA analysis, most parchment-bound books are made from sheep, goat or calf skin.

3. From the early 16th century on, binders began replacing traditional wooden boards with a variety of different types of cheaper paper ones. Most parchment bindings with boards were made using these.

4. Although much has been written about limp parchment bindings, we have found very little scholarly literature about their semi-limp cousins. The one notable exception is Nicholas Pickwoad’s 1994 study of the Ramey collection—a group of 359 volumes at the Morgan Library, printed mostly in France between 1485 and 1601—in which he identifies (for the first and, as far as we can tell, only time in an English-language resource) 46 examples of the wrapped board structure we describe here. See Pickwoad, Nicholas. “The Interpretation of Bookbinding Structure: An Examination of Sixteenth-Century Bindings in the Ramey Collection in the Pierpont Morgan Library.” The Library 6th s., XVII, no. 3 (September 1995): 209-249.

5. In The Academy’s collection, the wrapped board binding appears most frequently on French imprints published in Paris between 1620 and 1649. Although floating boards bindings were produced in a variety of different countries throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, in The Academy’s collection they appear most often on Italian imprints published after 1640.

6. Unlike temporary bindings—which were made so that they could be removed and replaced with a more elaborate binding—these structures lack features (such as long sewing supports) that would have made rebinding easy, and are marked by others (such as trimmed and decorated textblock edges) that indicate permanence.

7. For those interested in learning more about this research project, a discussion of our survey results is anticipated to be published by The Legacy Press in 2016 as part of a collection of essays on the history of bookbinding titled Suave Mechanicals (Volume III).

Hoping for the Best, but Preparing for the Worst: A Disaster Preparedness Workshop

By Emily Moyer, Collections Care Assistant, The Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory

Puzzling over what to do with materials.  Alan Galicki supervises, far right.

Puzzling over what to do with materials. Alan Balicki supervises, far right.

On December 11, Alan Balicki, chief conservator at the New York Historical Society, came to NYAM’s Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory to lead an afternoon workshop about the importance of disaster planning, response, and recovery. The Conservation Lab recently rolled out a comprehensive Collections Disaster Plan detailing the proper protocols for dealing with disasters and Alan’s workshop was a great way to cap off this project.

Facilities staff experiment with draping techniques to protect against a leak.

Facilities staff experiment with draping techniques to protect against a leak.

The most common risk that libraries face is flooding due to pipe leaks or severe weather conditions. All the staff from Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health as well as several members from the Facilities Department had the opportunity to see what happens when materials get wet (all items used were set to be discarded). Center staff members were also able to engage in hands-on experimentation on how to dry different items based on their materiality and to ask questions in a non-disaster setting. Staff were encouraged to return to the lab the next day to see how the items had dried and engage in conversation about best practices.

Wet items everywhere!

Wet items everywhere!

VHS, film, and photographs.

VHS, film, and photographs.

We experimented with a variety of materials, including coated paper, leather covers, colored paper, shrink wrapped materials, photographs, audio-visual materials, and blueprints. Staff practiced interleaving soaked books, draping with plastic, and basic techniques for dealing with wet and fragile materials. Workshop participants dried materials using best practices (fanning and interleaving) as well as unorthodox methods (keeping the materials wet and closed) in order to compare the results. It was very instructive to witness how thoroughly books soaked up surrounding water, and how quickly coated paper began to “block,” or stick together, when wet. It was not surprising that some colored papers and Post-it notes bleed when wet, but seeing how quickly and dramatically they reacted to water was a good cautionary lesson. Conversely, it was encouraging to see how effectively shrink wrapping protected items from water.

Paper, cloth, and leather materials.

Paper, cloth, and leather materials.

Alan gave a thoughtful presentation on real-world dangers faced by libraries, and impressed the group with his capable and pragmatic approach to disaster planning. Thanks to everybody for a great learning experience, and especially to Alan for his time and expertise.