Communion Of Dreams

Fun with old book forensics.

I’m currently working on a two-volume set of a 1641 book, and noticed something interesting which I thought I’d share.

It’s fairly common to find minor errors in page numeration in books from this time period, and normally I don’t pay them much attention. They’re usually just a transposed number or something simple like that, a simple error made by a type-setter in a hurry or suffering from a hangover. But when I have to take a book apart for resewing (and usually other minor repairs to allow that), I try to be careful to make sure that I am putting them back together in the proper order, and that means checking and double-checking the order of the signatures.

A printing convention from this time period was to note the sequence of each section with an alphabet code at the bottom of the printed pages. The first section would be “A”, the second “B” and so forth. Then they’d go from “Z” to “AA” (or sometimes “Aa”) for as many cycles through the alphabet as necessary. This made it easy to make sure that the sections were in order when a bookbinder got involved, since oftentimes several different printers would be involved in the creation of a book, each one responsible for producing a set number of different sections (say section A through section FF, with another printer doing GG through CCC, etc).

Anyway, take a look at these two images:

Sections ZZz and AAaa


The back page of ZZz and the front page of AAaa.

Note the page numbers jump from 828 on the back of ZZz to 889 on the front page of AAaa.

Now, look at these two images from the second volume of the book:

Sections Zzz and AAaa.


Back page of Zzz on top of the front of AAaa.

Note the page numbers jump from 816 on the back of Zzz to 807 on the front page of AAaa.

There are other minor errors in the printing (which I’ve noted, since the book is in Latin I can’t speak to the text), but it is very interesting to find this kind of numeration problem at exactly the same break in sections in both books. I certainly can’t prove it, but my guess is that two different printers had the responsibility for the sections leading up to ZZz/Zzz and those starting with AAaa, and someone screwed up in telling them what the proper numbering was supposed to be for the pages they were to do.

Kinda fun, eh?

Have a good Easter weekend.


Jim Downey

A chronicle of the repair of The Book of Chronicles

I’ve had the pleasure to work on a number of very significant items from public and private collections. Here’s the most recent one:


That’s the Liber chronicarum, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the most significant books in the history of printing. There’s a good basic description of why the book is important in the Wikipedia article, but suffice it to say that it was one of the first really successful integrations of both illustrations and type, and so a big step in printing technology. Here’s a good idea of what the illustrations look like:


This copy of the Liber chronicarum belongs to the University of Missouri system, and needed a little help, as you can see in these images:


Basically, the current binding, as nice as it is, was breaking along the hinge of the front cover. The rear cover was also showing signs of similar aging. This is a very common problem, particularly in large & heavy books. And my estimate is that the binding was probably 100+ years old, so showing a bit of age is understandable.

Typically, there are two basic repair options for dealing with such a problem. The first is to reinforce the hinge inside and out with Kozo dyed to match the leather. This is minimally invasive to the original binding. It’s a good repair for smaller books, but it doesn’t have a great deal of strength, and if a book is very heavy or is going to get a lot of use, doesn’t hold up as well as you would like. And to do it properly on this binding, it would have covered over a significant amount of the nice gold tooling.

The second common repair strategy is to “reback” the book in new leather. This includes removing the original spine, completely rebuilding the liners & hinges, putting new leather on the spine and then remounting the original spine onto the new structure. It’s a strong repair and  works well, but tends to be much more time consuming and apparent than the Kozo repair, changing the visual character of the book more.

After discussing the matter with the folks at MU Special Collections, we decided that I would attempt to do a Kozo repair, but one which had elements of the how the leather rebacking is normally done. This was something of an experiment, as is often the case in doing conservation work; you almost always have to blend techniques to meet the specific problems and needs of the item being treated.

I selected a very heavy Kozo paper and dyed it to match the leather. Then I carefully lifted up the leather along the spine, just enough to insert about a half inch of Kozo. Here’s how that looked:


Note that the pieces of Kozo are only between the heavy bands — those bands are part of the sewing structure, and I didn’t want to impinge on how it worked mechanically.

Then I lifted up the leather along the edge of the front cover, pasted out the length of the exposed interior, and brought the two together, inserting the Kozo tabs under the leather. Once that was all positioned, I wrapped it in wide elastic bands and added weight all along the joint:


Then I left it alone overnight to allow the adhesive to set properly. Leaving it alone is always the hardest part of this process, but you have to trust that you did it right, because if you try and look before the adhesive sets, it’s probable that you’ll cause the joint to be out of position.

Here’s what I found the next day:


That’s a nearly perfect joint. I was very pleased.

But I wasn’t finished yet. Now that the cover was properly aligned and partially attached, I needed to strengthen the joint from the inside of the cover.

I opened the book and removed the detached marbled endpaper:


Previously I had carefully used lifting knives to get under the cloth joint cover and lift up the marbled paste-down:


Now I peeled further back the marbled paste-down on the front cover, and applied a wide band of heavy undyed Kozo to function as an internal hinge:


Then I put fresh adhesive on the exposed paste-down marbled paper and put it back into position, thereby securing the joint:


Then I remounted the marbled endpaper with a narrow strip of Kozo on the back:


Lastly, I put down a narrow strip of dyed Kozo on the outside of the cover to mask the broken joint and protect it. This was largely cosmetic, but helped to give the book a finished appearance. After an application of leather preservative and a bit of buffing, the book was finished:


It’s a good repair. Eventually, the book will need to be rebacked in leather properly, but for now we’ve been able to stabilize the book and again make it available for classes and researchers at the University of Missouri.

What a fun project. I really do love doing what I do for a living, and I realize just how lucky I am to be able to say that.

Jim Downey

Why yes, as it happens I *am* still alive …

The past few months have been … eventful.

* * * * * * *

A couple of weeks ago I got back to work on St Cybi’s Well. Yeah, the break since I finished Chapter 14 was much needed, as I had hinted in my last cluster of blog posts at the end of May.

Why? What happened?

Well …

… in no particular order:

  • Discovery, and subsequent treatment, of a major cardiac health problem.
  • Completion of a full course of cardiac rehab.
  • A substantial change in our financial situation resulting from the sale of property we owned.
  • A bunch of resultant legal and investment research, planning, and changes which every adult should do but few of us ever get around to actually completing. Something about almost dying tends to focus the mind on such matters.
  • A couple of extended out-of-state trips.
  • My starting to train someone from the MU library staff in proper conservation techniques a couple of afternoons a week.
  • A complete new computer system & software upgrade, with all the fun of transferring archives and working files.

And then there’s all the usual business of living and working. Having a couple of months of my life sucked up by dealing with the cardiac problems & treatment meant a lot of changes and trade-offs … but it sure as hell beats being dead from a massive sudden heart attack.

* * * * * * *

So, a couple weeks ago I went through and re-read the entire text of SCW to date, then started working to pick up the story again and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Here’s an excerpt from the next section:

Darnell looked out Megan’s bedroom window, across the little lane into the large field beside the Tanat. The field, where so recently cattle peacefully grazed, was now a small village of tents and temporary structures. Most prominent among them was a large marquee someone had found and brought from a nearby town. Make-shift walls had been constructed of large plastic-wrapped round bales of hay from down the road, their tough skin making them weather and even somewhat fire-resistant. The marquee was the main recovery center, where people would be brought from the church after healing, allowed to emerge from the deep sleep at their own pace.

He turned and looked at his sister, who was sitting on the side of her bed. “There’s no reason for you to get up. We can handle it. Go back to sleep.”

There was a faint blue-white shimmer to her skin which never left her now. It wasn’t like she was glowing, exactly, but more like she had a permanent echo of the healing energy which she had used so much in the past couple of weeks. She shook her head. Darnell wasn’t sure whether it was in response to his comment, or just an effort to clear away cobwebs of sleep. “It’s better if it comes from me. I’m known as the Guardian of the Shrine. That carries some official weight with the Church.”

* * * * * * *

I got my garden in late this year. No surprise, given how things went with spring and the early summer. So my tomato plants were not as far along as they could have been when the first waves of heavy storms hit in June. Since then we’ve had fairly regular poundings of storms. And it looks like the tomatoes are almost at the end of their producing for this year — a full month or so early. But between what I harvested, and extra tomatoes picked up at the farmer’s market, I’ve put up about 60 pints of chopped tomatoes. Not quite as much as I would normally like to have, but not bad considering the situation.

And my habanero plants seem to be doing OK this year. Won’t be a bumper crop, but it ain’t nothing.

* * * * * * *

The past few months have been … eventful.

And a lot of things which normally get done, didn’t. Or were handled in a more superficial way than I would usually do.

But that’s OK.


Jim Downey

It’s October! That must mean it’s time for …

… more House Horrors!

OK, this time it’s not nearly as bad as it was last year. But nonetheless, I don’t think this is exactly what most people mean when they talk about having a “green roof“:


Yeah, probably a safe bet.

So, this is the small roof of an unused porch on the front west of our house, which is a “Notable Historic Structure“ built by the first dean of the MU medical school in 1883. We’re fairly sure that this porch used to be a separate entrance for the dean’s private office/surgery, which is now our living room. At some point the door was closed off and turned into window, so now the porch is purely decorative and out of the way. As such, it tends to not get a lot of attention … including, unfortunately, maintenance.

But I was doing some other work up on the roof, and noticed that this small porch was to a point where it really needed some work. Eventually we’ll replace the steps and perhaps the floor of the porch, but first we needed to do some roof repairs.

Originally, this porch just had a sheet metal roof, over 1″ thick decking. But when the sheet metal started leaking, applications of roofing tar were applied in an effort seal the leaks. And for more than 100 years, that’s the only attention that it got. With the result that there was dried (and cracking/leaking) tar almost an inch thick in place over the whole small roof (it’s about 4’x8′).

To repair it was straight-forward: remove the old dried tar, repair the sheet metal as necessary, and then put down an appropriate proper flat roof.

To see that process, follow me below the fold:

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Some conservation work on three 1611 volumes.

I’ve been on vacation – a nice break, a chance to get away and enjoy the wilds of northern Michigan for a while, visit with some old friends. Here’s what I was busy working on just before I left:

Look what came back from the conservator last week! These three volumes were in a sad state before repair; now they can actually be opened safely and will be stable enough to use for years to come.  Take a peek at how they looked before:

And how they turned out:


There are more images, good explanation of the work, and some nice comments on the post worth seeing. Take a look.

It’s usually valuable (though not always pleasant) to get the perspective of others on your work. In this case, I feel flattered.

Break’s over — back to work. 🙂


Jim Downey

So I wander into this nuclear reactor . . .

I had reason to look up this item the other day, and was surprised that I hadn’t ever posted it to the blog. So, in honor of St Pat’s Day (well, OK, not really, but there is a connection…), here’s a little something from my old archives from a few years ago.


So I wander into this nuclear reactor . . .

This morning’s news that the NRC has declined to force nuclear power plants to take additional precautions to prevent the breach of a nuclear reactor’s core by attack with a jetliner comes as little surprise, given the Bush administration’s attitudes about actual security issues.

But, as always when I hear such news reports, I was taken back to a sunny spring morning some 30 years ago, when me and a couple of college buddies wandered into a nuclear reactor.

It was the weekend of St. Pats day, and we were at the University of Missouri – Rolla to party with a friend of ours who was an engineering student there.  I think it was Friday morning, and our friend had some classes he had to attend, so myself and my two friends decided to just explore the campus a bit (we all attended schools elsewhere).

I had considered Rolla for school myself a few years previously, when I had been thinking of going into physics (a dream derailed by poor higher-math skills).  So when we came across the research reactor building, I wanted to have a look.

We just wandered in.  No, seriously.  We just wandered into the building, through a couple of sets of doors, and soon found ourselves standing at a railing, looking down at the glowing blue core of the nuclear reactor.  In this day and age it is hard to imagine such a thing – and even at the time it seemed more than a little odd.

A few minutes after we came in, a nice fellow who fit the stereotype image of a science professor came over to us.  Short, grey, bearded, balding, wearing a white lab smock over his shirt and jeans.  He sort of looked us over, asked what we were up to . . . and then gave us an impromptu tour of the place (after tagging us with personal dosimeters).

It was fascinating, to me at least.  The reactor core at this facility sits at the bottom of a large swimming pool, about 20 feet down.  That provides all the necessary protection from the radiation generated from operation of the fission reactor (which doesn’t produce much power, and doesn’t use the sort of fuel used in nuclear weapons).  Herr Doktor explained all this to us non-scientists, and also explained the eerie blue glow coming off the reactor (which was then in operation).

It was a color like I’ve never seen before or since – a soft electric blue that was both intriguing and repulsive.  I knew what it was, having been interested in physics:  Cherenkov radiation, caused when the radioactive particles generated by the fission reactions are faster than the speed of light in the water.  But it’s the sort of thing that lasts in the memory, embedded there in a way not unlike a religious experience – hard to describe, or explain, or convince others of, yet extremely vivid for the one who experienced it.

Now, I’m not religious.  I’m an atheist, in fact.  I understand what that blue glow is – yet, whenever someone claims that they have had a religious experience, I can tie it to that same feeling I had on first seeing that other-worldly blue glow.

Well, anyway, I had to share that personal experience, and add a bit of perspective on the changes we’ve seen in terms of security over the last 30 years.

Jim Downey

Preserving the very worst.

In the 8 years of this blog, I’ve written about book conservation a fair amount. It is, after all, my profession. It’s something 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 photo essays on my business site.

Today I am going to do so again. But this time I am going to put all the images and technical description ‘below the fold’, as it were.


Because I don’t want to see them when I am casually scrolling through my blog.

Because it was probably the most difficult job I’ve ever worked on, in 23 years of private practice.

No, not technically. Emotionally.

Because this is the book: Adolf Hitler, bilder aus dem leben des führers (pictures from the life of the Führer).

Yeah, Nazi propaganda from 1936.

A couple of things I want to say. One, I’m not Jewish. Two, to the best of my knowledge, none of my family were ever put in a concentration camp. Three, I have nothing against Germany or the German people — in fact, I have an undergrad degree in German, can still speak/read it somewhat, was an exchange student there back in 1974, and have since enjoyed going back there as a tourist.

But Nazism, Nazi ideology, and Hitler all stir feelings of deep loathing in me. I can’t give an explanation of it beyond my belief that Hitler and what he wrought represent the very worst of human nature.

But while that is the case, I also believe that the horror which is/was Nazism cannot be easily dismissed as aberrant. If one of the most humane and enlightened societies known — one which gave birth to brilliant scientists, philosophers, and artists — can turn into the Third Reich, then any society can. That is a lesson which we cannot afford to forget. (Which is perhaps an odd thing for me to say, given my personal history.)

So I understand the importance of preserving the artifacts of that history. And so understanding, felt that it was my responsibility to use the skills I have acquired to that end, no matter how distasteful the task. It was my small tribute to all who resisted, who persevered, who fought.

Find the documentation of the work below:

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