Communion Of Dreams

Turn over an old leaf.

As a book & document conservator, I’ve had the good fortune to see, handle, and work on some really interesting historical artifacts. Just the other day a client came to me for an assessment of a ratty old paperback book which had been in her mother’s underwear drawer for the better part of the last fifty years. Don’t think it sounds particularly special or interesting? Well, if it’s the right kind of paperback … yeah, there’s a *very* good chance that the book she brought me would be just the fifth known copy of that very important first edition. I recommended that she deal with a qualified rare book appraiser, though everything about the book — the paper quality and age, the sewing structure and condition, the amount of dust and dirt it had collected, even the smell of the thing — all fit perfectly into what I would expect of a book printed in that time and that place and then used and loved for a century or so, then put away and essentially forgotten for another century.

So, yeah, I do get to see, handle, and work on some pretty cool stuff, some of which I have documented here and over on my professional site.

But there is one thing which is so iconic, which so perfectly focuses on a critical moment in history, that when I was first asked to work on it more than 20 years ago I knew that my talents and training had been accepted by the then-director of Special Collections at the University of Missouri – Columbia.  This item:



I would expect that anyone who would find themselves reading my blog would already know the history and importance of the Gutenberg Bible, but just in case here’s the intro for the Wikipedia entry:

The Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible or the B42) was the first major book printed in the West using movable type. It marked the start of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and the age of the printed book in the West. Widely praised for its high aesthetic and artistic qualities,[1] the book has an iconic status. Written in Latin, the Gutenberg Bible is an edition of the Vulgate, printed by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, Germany, in the 1450s. Forty-eight copies, or substantial portions of copies, survive, and they are considered to be among the most valuable books in the world, even though no complete copy has been sold since 1978.

The title page from this presentation case explains a bit more why it is just a ‘leaf’ from one of the Bibles:



Basically, someone took a partial copy of one of the known authentic Bibles, separated it into individual leaves, mounted those into this presentation case, then sold those to collectors and institutions which wanted to have their own sample of the Bible. Each one is now worth on the order of $50,000.

Now, you might notice (if you dig around into the data on these images) that these are recent pictures all taken with my smartphone (and no flash). That’s because a week or so ago I brought the leaf home from Special Collections for some additional work. No big deal, honestly, just a little cleaning and a minor bit of repair. Here’s what the leaf looked like before (front and back):


Front of page before treatment.


Back of page before treatment.


And here’s what it looked like after:


Front of page after treatment.


Back of page after treatment.


Yeah, not a huge difference. But if you look closely, particularly on the lower fore-edge corner, you can see that it is notably cleaner. And there’s also an almost invisible repair in that area on the back of the page where a slight fold was weakening the corner. So I reinforced it with a bit of handmade kozo paper (from the UICB – where I trained as a conservator), and a little bit of wheatpaste. Here’s a detail of the repair in process, before the excess was trimmed off:


And here it is complete:


Almost, but not quite, invisible. That’s in keeping with current conservation practices, where you don’t want a repair to be a distraction, but you do want it to be evident to the trained eye, so they know the ‘honest’ history of the item and whether it has been treated/repaired.

To be perfectly honest in another way, working on this leaf was just completely straight-forward. Cleaning and simple kozo repairs are about the  simplest conservation tasks performed, and in no way are a challenge to my abilities.

And yet …

And yet, because of what that leaf is, what it represents, I kept it locked away in the safe until I could devote a full afternoon of work to taking care of it. Until I had completely gone through a ritual cleaning of my bindery space. Until I was at the very ‘top of my game’ in terms of focus and attention. Until I was absolutely certain that I could do the tasks required with my full and total respect. Call it Zen & the Art of Conservation if you want. Or just call it a recognition that I am only one set of hands in a long chain who for a moment (once again) had a responsibility to both the future and the past.

The leaf has already been returned to the care of Special Collections.


Jim Downey

PS: Tucked in the back of presentation case was this document from the first treatment I performed. Thought I’d share it as well, just for grins.


20 Comments so far
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[…] relatively rare books published before 1501 (in this case, just a quarter century or so after the Gutenberg Bible).  Even more noteworthy, this book is still in its original binding. And that binding is in […]

Pingback by Original 1480 binding. | Communion Of Dreams

Thanks for this very interesting post. I can`t even begin to imagine the huge task of restoring and taking such good care of old books, like this. I find it intriguing, and have the utmost respect for those who take such good care of such a big piece of history – wether it is one sheet of it, or the whole book. Also interesting to see how even the most minute details are so important to the big picture.

Comment by Den Lykkelige Amateur

Thanks for your comment! There are a number of other book conservation posts here which you may also enjoy, the most recent being

Comment by James Downey

Very interesting! I used to have a picture framing studio and on several occasions had individuals bring me sheets from old bibles that they had bought on line, the best was from one that was printed “illegally” in 1610, prior to the 1611 KJV. Thank you for sharing!

Comment by trekkingchrist

And thank you for taking the time to comment!

Comment by James Downey

Reblogged this on olufajy's Blog.

Comment by olufajy

I work at a university special collections and Archives and we have a gutenberg bible leaf as well! Awesome piece of history.

Comment by myway2express

Yeah, it really is. And thanks for the job you do, helping to preserve our heritage.

Comment by James Downey

Wow! What a massive honour to get to restore a page from a Gutenberg bible. I’d be petrified to even touch it!
Glad to see you did a very good job.

Comment by Simon


Comment by James Downey

Very cool post! Being a writer, I’m a huge book nerd. With technology moving as fast as it does, your job is even more important than ever to preserve historical pieces such as this. Do you ever imagine a day when we will no longer be allowed to print books? I do enjoy my Kindle but I abhor the thought of not having the option to purchase a hard copy if I so choose. Let’s hope that day never comes! Cheers!

Comment by DL Salazar

Yeah, as an author myself (check the ‘Blogroll’), I understand the concern. There have been some 30,000 Kindle downloads of my novel, but just a few hundred paperback copies sold – which I think is more of an indication about the nature of self-publishing than it is of what people prefer, though there’s a lot to be said for the benefits of electronic books.

Comment by James Downey

Reblogged this on ViolentAngelWriting and commented:
Ever imagine a day when there won’t be anymore actual books but only digital copies??

Comment by DL Salazar

Reblogged this on raresivanoiu94.

Comment by raresivanoiu94

Reblogged this on My Blog.

Comment by dumpy78

What a beautiful book and what marvellous work you do! Have you ever encountered any other leaves?

Comment by wildtohold

Thanks! And no, I haven’t seen any other leaves in my conservation practice.

Comment by James Downey

This was great!

Comment by Stuart M. Perkins

[…] I truly love, take pride in, and sharing some aspects of my work now and again gives me joy. Several times I’ve posted a number of images along with a description of the work, and there are other such […]

Pingback by Preserving the very worst. | Communion Of Dreams

[…] previously mentioned that I do document conservation, such as a single leaf of the Gutenberg Bible. That item is paper, but one of the materials commonly used historically for important documents […]

Pingback by Here’s the skinny. | Communion Of Dreams

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