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Beating the effects of time and neglect on rare works

Restoring an old book takes time and money

A good part of the funds of Fapesp’s Infrastructure Program is going towards the restoration of rare works and other items that are important for the memory of the state and of the country, such as old photographs. With plenty of reason. This heritage, very rich in São Paulo, was seriously threatened. The problem lay not only in the action of time. There was a lack of proper policies for conservation.

It was not difficult to find books over 300 years old piled up carelessly, covered with dust and prey to the action of insects and fungus. The marks of neglect were clear. The works had loose covers, broken stitching, and dry and brittle pages. Photographs had deep marks, loss of clarity, and had turned yellow.

“Restoration is not an easy task”, says specialist Lucy Aparecida Luccas, who took part in several projects sponsored by Fapesp, including the one on the Law School of the University of São Paulo (USP). “It calls for specialized personnel, material that is almost always imported, and the work takes time”, she adds.

Putting the house in order
This is also expensive work. Restoring an old book costs, on average, R$ 4,000, depending of its size and state of conservation. It is therefore only worthwhile doing if the material is really rare and important. In addition, it is a job that can only be done after putting the house in order. If the restored book is not kept properly, the work is wasted.

Contrary to what it might seem, it is good for a book to be handled constantly. Turning the pages over oxygenates the material, prevents the accumulation of microorganisms that attack the paper, and helps prevent the pages from becoming dried out and brittle. A practical hint: leaf through the book quickly whenever you put it back onto the shelves.

Something else. An annual treatment against insects, for example, is very important. In addition, it makes that the books be picked up one by one and serves as a general revision of their state of conservation.

Pushing and pulling
Lucy has other advice to give. One of them is not to use paper clips as page markers, since the process of rusting stains and damages the paper. When taking a book off the shelf, do not pull it by the top of its spine, as this damages the binding. The right way is to push the books on the sides and pull out the book you want by the middle of its spine.

“The most common problem is the loss of paper, caused by the action of insects,or even by the hand of man” says the restorer. In olden days, it used to be a common habit to guillotine the margins of the pages of books and photographs, especially on the upper part. This led to the loss of important details, such as the page numbers and even the titles.

The restorers make as much use as possible of the original material. But this is not always possible. “To this day, I have never found an old book with the original cover”, says Lucy. The restorers’ way is to redo the binding, following the standards of the time the book was printed.

Special boxes
Normal practice is to give the book a new cover, made of parchment and tied with laces, to protect them from the heat. Rarer books are kept in special boxes, made of a special cardboard, with neutral pH. Several materials are used. For books printed up to the end of the 18th century, the linen-based paper used in those days has to be found.

The restoration of books and other documents is a relatively recent practice in Brazil. Its development has coincided with the beginning of Fapesp’s investments. Five years ago, claims Lucy, when she accepted the assignment of restoring the first books, at the request of USP’s Integrated System of Libraries, she had to travel to Italy to specialize in the subject.

“It is a tiring task, but very delicate” she says. In the Law Faculty, she dealt with books that had not come down from the shelves for more than 200 years. There were all kinds of filth, from dust to pigeon droppings. “You have to be very careful not to damage these works even more”, she explains. “But, in the end, the work has its reward. It is as if the book looks at us and says thank you.”