On the Mend: The Conservation Lab at BYU Repairs Curated Treasures

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If there were such things as book doctors, Christina Thomas would be a geriatrician.

As a conservator at the BYU Harold B. Lee Library, Christina’s patients are rare books, manuscripts, photos and other historic items brought to the conservation lab by special collection curators.

Armed with expertise in history, bookbinding and chemistry, Christina, along with the head conservator Christopher McAfee and a team of student employees, uses a variety of techniques to conserve and repair books, such as vacuuming mold spores, humidifying pictures to flatten them, washing pages in chemical solutions and encapsulating documents in mylar to make them safer to handle.

With each project, she uses period-appropriate repairs to conserve the history of the item as much as possible. She draws on her knowledge of historic binding structures and continues to study the topic so she can repair items in the way they were made.

“We’re making things look ‘as good as old’ as Chris likes to say. We’re trying to be very respectful of how it was made in the first place. We want to let it keep telling its story,” she says.

Christina often collaborates with the curators on how to display the item in the library.

“A part of preservation is making sure things are mounted in a way that gravity is not going to destroy them,” she says.

So how does one become an expert in historically-accurate glue and stitches? A healthy dose of career-exploration and trade school.

As a BYU student, Christina worked across the hall from the conservation lab in the book repair shop. Ironically, she one day wrote in her journal about her college job in a bit of resigned boredom, “Well, at least I won’t be doing this forever.”

After graduating with a degree in American Studies in 2004, Christina’s career options spanned a wide range — museum work, teaching English, even public folklore. Ultimately, she tapped into her repair experience, recognizing she wanted to work with her hands.

“I thought, ‘If I work in a museum or library, I want to be with the actual items. And I already have four years of book repair experience, so maybe I should use that to get into conservation.’”

In 2006, Christina moved to Boston to attend the North Bennet Street School and was one of 12 students in the bookbinding program. She was completely in her element, learning about historic bookbinding structures, as well as leather binding and repair. She spent most of her time working with her hands, loving the combination of craft and history. She completed internships at the Boston Public Library, Haverford College and the Church History Library where she deepened her expertise.

Telling Stories

Books tell two stories — the one found inside the pages and the one found in the pages’ stains and tears. When repairing a book, Christina finds herself wondering about the damage’s backstory.

“When I get into pulling apart a book and look more closely at what’s going on with the damage — like if there’s staining or water damage — I’m like, what happened? What spilled on this? What rainstorm did this get caught in? What flood happened? Several of them have previous repairs. When was this repair done? Who did it? Why is this repair failing?”

And then Christina gets to thinking about what repairs she’ll do today that someone else will update later with a more advanced technique.

“I often think about 20 or 50 years down the road when conservators are going to be like, ‘Why did she do this? Why did she use this glue?’”

Book of Mormon Stories

Book conservation has its own set of ethics that includes striking a balance between not masking the conservation work, but staying true to the original book style. So when repairing this first edition of the Book of Mormon owned by Oliver Cowdery’s father, William Cowdery, Christina and the conservation team worked to maintain the integrity of the book.

For example, they used cool deionized water to wash the pages to mitigate the water damage. Normally, they would have placed weights on the book to help the page dry flat; however, all original copies of the Book of Mormon have specific marks on the leather made from a weight set on the book during the sewing or cutting steps when the book was originally printed. To preserve that birthmark, the BYU conservators did not use their own weights.

“If we had pressed it slightly damp under weight, we would have pressed out those marks. That’s such a distinguishing factor of that book that it affected our treatment. We needed to preserve that telltale tag of that book,” Christina says.

They also mended torn pages with Japanese paper and patched the original cover — which was made with a cheaper sheep leather to save money in production costs — with a more durable dyed calf leather.

In the Hood

To the untrained eye, a moldy or water-stained book may look like a lost cause, but to a seasoned conservator, it’s just another problem to solve.

“I know how the book was put together in the first place. I know the possibilities of disbinding and putting it back together. That’s also how people who work on cars and houses think about their projects. They have a different perspective,” Christina says.

The book pictured here has mold on a few pages, so Christina places it inside the fume hood to remove the spores with a vacuum that has adjustable sucking strength.

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