Category Archives: Blog

MOOCs for Book Conservators

As many aspiring conservators know, the path the attending a graduate level art conservation program is long and treacherous. In the US specifically, the bar is set especially high, and college education in general has fallen under scrutiny for its high cost and unbalanced return on investment. Without getting too political, I have been really excited about the rise of MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) that provide free educational courses on a dizzying array of subjects to the public for free. All someone needs is a computer, internet access and the necessary motivation in order to receive instruction from top university professors around the world.


Even more exciting is the fact that there are classes dedicated specifically to book history, book making, and even conservation. From my experience the best site offering book related MOOCs is EdX. They have a fantastic series simply entitled “The Book” that delves deep into many subjects surrounding the codex. Coursera also offers some classes, but they seem to come and go. I have taken fascinating courses from both sites that are offered by renowned institutions such as Cambridge and Standford.

Digging Deeper, offered directly from Stanford, was the first MOOC I ever took. I highly suggest it for anyone interested in Medieval history or early book production. The class brings in an international team of scholars from Cambridge and beyond to really “dig deep” into the Medieval manuscripts and show how a budding scholar should approach these tomes. I loved learning about the processing of materials needed to make these books and about how scholars describe and view these incredible books. It is an ideal place to start for anyone looking to get into book related MOOCs.


I was ecstatic when I found Science in Art: Chemistry in Art Materials and Conservation offered through EdX. Finally a free class that delved into the mysterious chemistry behind conservation. As an art history major, I naturally steered clear of chemistry classes during my undergrad. I had to join the ranks of aspiring pharmacists and nurses at my local community college to earn the credits to apply for my preferred Art Conservation program. This MOOC offered a bridge between organic chemistry class and the conservation treatments I have carried out at the Charleston Library Society. While not as well done as Digging Deeper, it none-the-less offered invaluable information for the emerging conservator.

Below I will try and keep up with a list of MOOCs offered around the web. I will offer comments on each as I work my way through them, but until then I cannot guarantee their quality. If you have taken any of these MOOC classes I would love to hear your review in the comment section. Happy learning!





Book Word of the Day: Uncial

While reading “Books will Speak Plain” by Julia Miller I came across a new book word I was familiar with, but could not remember. The word is used on page 46 to describe a type of script learned by scribes in England from books imported from Italy. The word Uncial is defined as:

  1. of or written in a majuscule script with rounded unjoined letters that is found in European manuscripts of the 4th–8th centuries and from which modern capital letters are derived.


As a side note, I also had to look up the word “majuscule” which is a formal way to say upper case (maybe an opposite of the word minuscule?)

Its look brings one’s mind immediately to think of Medieval manuscript writing and illumination. The curving, single stroke style was developed because it took advantage of the smooth writing surface offered by parchment as opposed to the harsher writing surfaces of wood, stone, or papyrus.

I will have to keep an eye out for uncial script whenever I come across some 5th century books in Europe.

Timeline of Book History

Before the Common Era

– Egyptian first dynasty
3100: Earliest papyrus rolls found in Egypt [1]
– Egyptian Fifth Dynasty
2494-2345: First known inscribed papyrus roll [1]
2025-1700: Egyptian Book of the Dead [1]
800: Wooden and Ivory tablets used by the Neo-Hittites and gathered by cord, metal or leather [1]
500: Papyrus roll used in Greece, used for literary works [1]
332: Alexander the Great conquers Egypt, introduces papyrus rolls to Greece [1]
300-400: Dead Sea Scrolls, think leather sewn together [1]
295: Founding of the Library at Alexandria [2]
200: Technology and craft knowledge to create simple or elaborate bindings existed in Egypt, but no examples survive [1]
100: The development of vegetable fiber paper in China [2]
100: Roman Conquest of Egypt, papyrus rolls used in Roman Italy [1]

Common Era

85: Roman poet referred to a multi-leaved leather or parchment copy of Homer as a curiosity compared with the familiar book scroll [1]
100: Rise of the Codex. Began use by early Christians, found in Roman Egypt [1]
300: Roman jurist Ulpian describes a “book” as a scroll and a codex as something different but may be included in the definition of a book [1]
-395: Rise of the Byzantine Empire
3rd or 4th Century: Glaizier Codex first example of Coptic illumination
400: Various forms of scrolls, tablets, parchment notebooks, and multi-quire codices coexisted at this time [1]
400: Oldest surviving “fine bindings” such as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus (no covers) [1]
450: Nag Hammadi Codices [1]

610: Paper making is introduced to Japan from China [2]
700: Paper size is developed in asia [2]
750-800: Paper making reaches Central Asia and Middle East [2]
868: Diamond Sutra is published in China. It is the earliest example of wood block printing [2]
1000: Book rolls and parchment sheets are widely replaced by the codex [1]
-1453: Fall of the Byzantine Empire [1]
1500: Coptic bound codices are established as a common form of binding [1]
15th and 16th Century: Examples of Ethiopian Coptic style bindings exist [1]
1798: Cyperus Papyrus plant is extinct in the marshes of lower Egypt [1]
1800s: Excavation of carbonized papyrus scrolls from Herculaneum [1]
1910: Discovery of the Hamuli Bindings. Largest cache of Coptic bindings from a single source. 60 parchment manuscripts found in southern Fayum region of Egypt [1]
1930: Papyrus codex of Manichaean texts were discovered in Fayum [1]
1945: Nag Hammadi Codices are discovered in the Nag Hammadi region of Egypt [1]
1947: Dead Sea Scrolls are found at the Wadi Qumran site in Israel [1]
1953: Hinged, inscribed ivory and wooden tablets found at Nimrud [1]
1960: Cyperus Papyrus is reintroduced into the Nile delta [1]
1966: Florence Flood and the rise of professional book conservation [1]
1986: Multi-leaved wooden tablets found at the Dekhleh Oasis in Upper Egypt [1]

* This is intended as a personal reference to become familiar with book history. It will be periodically updated, changed, and cited as my own knowledge grows.


[1] Miller, Julia. Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. Ann Arbor, MI: Legacy, 2010. Print.


  • conservation of Nag Hammandi manuscripts
  • over conservation of Hamuli manuscripts
  • Edfu bindings

Housing: Problems and Solutions

When it comes to preserving historic artifacts decisions about environment and housing can be the most beneficial or harmful ones a caretaker has to make. With books, keeping them in a cool and within a stable temperature range without significant swings in humidity levels is best. A shelf that is out of direct sunlight in a house with central heating and air is sufficient. At the Library Society we have a temperature controlled vault that takes care of security and environmental concerns.


Environmental Controls

When a book has serious issues with stability and deterioration it is necessary to protect it beyond just the surrounding environment. The most ideal solution is to create a custom enclosure such as a clam shell box or wrapping. For years the library has wrapped damaged special collections books in acid free paper to protect them. This provides a safe barrier that contains the book and protects it from further wear. It seems like a great solution that takes the long term preservation of the book into account. But, there is a major problem with this solution and it has to do with a conservators arch-nemesis, tape.


A paper wrapper that has multiple layers of tape


It turned out that if the wrapping was removed and carelessly replaced, bits of the tape would lay against the surface of the book and stick to the covers. I had several books come across my bench with new and irreversible tape damage. Finally, enough was enough. I spoke with members of the staff, encouraging them to educate researchers and patrons about the issue and worked to develop an alternative to end the problem more effectively. A partial solution was found so that once a book had undergone stabilization and didn’t need to be fully wrapped, a tape-less Mylar wrapper could be used and the paper wrapper placed safely in the recycle.

This only works for books that are stable enough to forego the full paper wrapper, but it has the advantage of protecting the book around the sewing structure and boards, being able to actually see the book on the shelf, and no tape! The process was seamless and we simply replace the current paper wrappers with Mylar as we work on them. Its not a 100% fix, but it is a step in the right direction! I would be curious if any other libraries or archives have had similar problems and discovered more creative solutions.


A happy Mylar wrapped book surrounded by those in paper wrappers


Paper Conservation Materials

This post will focus on the materials needed to preform basic paper conservation projects. Most of the information here was gained while working with Etherington Conservation in Greensboro, NC.


I have been tasked with outfitting the Library Society bindery to take on conservation projects. I am working with a sample budget of between $400-$800 to get the supplies that I need. The list below well focus on the cost and use of these materials. It does not include basic supplies which are already available in the binary and should not be considered a comprehensive list.

Jugs of Distilled Water: Ideally a conservation lab will feature a sink with a good filtration system, but for our purposes and on small projects, jugs of distilled water from Costco or your local grocery store works as a fine substitute.

Cost: $1.93/jug
Distilled Water

Washing Trays: These plastic bins will be used to wash documents, aqueous deacidification and create humidification chambers for relaxing documents. These are the same trays used to develop photographic film in a dark room.

You never want to use a tray that is too small for your object. To start things off in the binary, I am going to be purchasing a 16″x20″ tray.

Cost: $37.85
Washing Trays

Makeup Sponges: This is the simplest and cheapest piece of equipment used in paper conservation. These application sponges can be purchased at any pharmacy or grocery store and will effectively remove surface dirt from paper.

Cost: $7.65 for 100
Makeup Sponges

Magic Rub Block Eraser: This regular eraser can be safely used to surface clean dirt and pencil marks from paper, larger, vellum, or cloth. It is a basic essential for a conservation lab. These can also be grated and rubbed along a surface for an effective dry cleaning technique.

Cost: $1.27 each
Magic Rub Eraser

Fine Grater: This is a good example of how common tools are often utilized for conservation. We will use this grater to create crumbles from the magic rub erasers which can be rubbed over a document for dry cleaning. This technique is gentler on the paper than using the solid block.

Cost: $14.35
Fine Grater

Drying Rack: This can be purchased from most art supply stores or off Amazon any simple, but quality rack will do. You will need a safe and sturdy place to dry the work after cleaning baths or humidification.

Cost: $10.97
Drying Rack

Fiberglass Screening: This screening comes in inexpensive rolls from any home improvement store out online. It has many uses and will mostly act as a stiff barrier when transporting or drying washed materials. A cool trick is also to stretch the screening over a small bucket to work your paste into an even constancy.

Cost: 36″ x 84″ for $9.15
Fiberglass Screening

Fine Mist Spray Bottles: Spray bottles are used to apply various chemical mixtures and for light humidification. You can get conservation grade bottles from Talos, however I am going to experiment with some inexpensive (but highly rated!) options from Amazon.

Cost: 12 for $5.32
Spray Bottle

Hollytex (#3257):  An expensive, but absolutely essential material. I don’t know too much about it except that it works as an extremely effective and safe release layer when washing or pasting.

Cost: $6.05/yrd with purchase of 25+ yrds

Tech Wipe: Another essential, techwipe is used in laboratories and mechanical shops to clean up chemical spills. It is extremely absorbant and can work as a protective layer against moisture and for humidification.

Cost: 1800 12″ x 12″ sheets for $202.56
Tech Wipe

Plexiglass Sheet: A UV protected layer of plexiglass can be used in conjunction with your washing trays to create a humidification chamber or for light bleaching.

Cost: 24″ x 24″ sheet for $23.60

Droppers: These will be used to test the solubility of inks before any wet treatments are applied.

Cost: Pack of 100 for $5.99

Over All Total: $616.44 plus shipping

So I am very happy to have come in under budget with some room to purchase additional supplies. As the paper conservation lab grows we will be able to add purchases such as additional trays, a professional drying rack, and hopefully a filtration system.

Book Binding and Paper Conservation

I am starting this blog to record my projects and progress on the road towards becoming a book/paper conservator. I have accomplished so many things before now that I would love to include, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

Right now I work for the Charleston Library Society as an assistant book binder. The job is a dream come true and applies to conservation in a lot of ways. The best part is that the Library Society has paid for paper conservation training with Etherington Conservation. I will have more info on that in a future post. After the class I was determined to begin preparing (again) for a graduate degree in conservation. I will be enrolling in chemistry and studio art classes as well as studying for the GRE examination. It is a colossal task and I am simultaneously brimming with excitement and doubt.

This is what I want to do with my life and today is just one step of many towards achieving that goal.