‘Minimal intervention’ equals ‘major attention’

Conservation of an Arabic mathematical manuscript for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership digitisation project

The ‘minimal intervention’ approach to conservation treatment is a frequent topic of discussion among conservators, but what exactly does it mean? Renowned book conservator Christopher Clarkson, in one of his most famous articles, says: ”‘Minimum intervention’ means minimum interference.” This, to me, is an excellent way of explaining it.

Conserving an item is a delicate process, requiring a balance between the act of repairing and the aim of preserving. Items of historical value, such as the Arabic manuscript discussed here, carry information that could be disturbed, or even erased, through overly invasive restoration treatments.

marzo_01British Library OMS/IO Islamic 1142, is a copy of a very important Arabic handbook of materia medica, originally written in al-Andalus (Iberian Peninsula) in 1248. According to the catalogue entry, the colophon records that this copy was completed ‘in the late morning of the second Friday of the third tenth of Sha‘bān, in the year 925 AH’ – equivalent to 26 August 1519 in the Christian calendar.

This item was scoped for phase 2 of the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership, Gulf History and Arabic Science digitisation project, and recently arrived in the BL’s conservation studio for condition assessment.

Digitisation involves a lot of intense handling, both before and during the imaging process, and this must be taken into consideration when carrying out a condition assessment and determining the level of risk to an object.

Condition of the manuscript

The book had been rebound, probably in the 19th century, in a western-style binding. We know that this manuscript was incorporated into the collection of the India Office in 1807, and the present binding, sewn on recessed cords and covered in half-leather with marbled paper sides, is typical of this period.

Unfortunately, due to the poor quality of the materials used in the new binding, and possibly to heavy use, the boards were detached and the spine covering was completely missing.

Intervention was necessary since, even if the sewing was still strong and holding all the pages together, the opening of the book was heavily compromised by the thick layers of glue and paper applied to line the spine, thus reducing the possibility of obtaining good-quality images of the written area during digitisation.

When western and eastern craftsmanship meet, the result is not always a happy marriage. Expectations and tastes of western bookbinders are not necessarily sympathetic with the nature and the materials of items originally made within a specific craftsmanship  environment. Islamic-style bindings are not only sewn most of the time differently to western books (unsupported sewing), but their use, and especially the opening angle when consulted, is also usually smaller. This manuscript had been re-sewn on five supports made of thin cord and a lot of animal glue had been applied onto the spine with the sole purpose of keeping a steady rounded shape spine, a typical feature of western books.

Furthermore, the book had been restored prior to the 19th-century rebinding. The original book had been trimmed, we do not know when, and the text area had been removed from the original pages and subsequently inlaid into frames made of new paper, resulting in a different thickness at the centre and the spine edge of the folios.

marzo_04In the image above, the text area shows clear insect damage that is not present in the margins made of the new paper.

marzo_05A small overlapping was needed to secure the two parts and glue had been applied between the text trimmings and the frames to adhere them together.

The quality of both papers is impressive; the new ‘frames’ are made of eastern paper that was produced in a variety of different colours ranging from bright pink to light green. The heavily burnished surface to create a shiny finish is another typical feature of eastern-made paper.

marzo_06How to approach such a complex historically layered object? What to retain and what to change of the binding to make the manuscript fit again for reader access and ensure its longevity?

Conservation treatment

Conserving is the ability to interfere as little as possible with the present status of an object, to retain all of the historical evidence and the information that its features carry, that are testimony to its history and to the way it was used. To talk about ‘original’ or ‘not original’ when analysing elements of an historic object can be misleading and dangerous; every single feature of the object is an important part of it that has historical value and carries some meaning.

We have already stated that the present structure was not very sympathetic to the previous one, but it is without a doubt part of the history of the book. It was thus decided to reuse the present boards and to change as little as possible of the present appearance of the book.

After the layers of paper and glue were cleaned from the spine, the marks of the original sewing stations appeared.

marzo_07The previous sewing was, as expected with Islamic-style bindings, unsupported and done through two sewing stations only, as shown in the previous image, where the arrows indicate the marks left by the thread of the previous sewing.

On the cleaned spine, a new lining of light linen fabric was adhered with wheat starch paste and further secured with longstitches of linen thread. The boards were reattached to the book by the extensions of the new spine lining, and a new piece of calf leather was used to replace the missing spine covering.

marzo_10The digitised manuscript is already accessible on the Qatar Digital Library portal but is also, thanks to the conservation work carried out, available for direct consultation in the British Library reading rooms.

Books are amazing artefacts, three-dimensional objects that carry much more information than the text they bear on their pages. Reading the physical features of bindings is like understanding another language and learning another part of the history of these objects, and it is the responsibility of the book conservator to make sure this information is not lost because of too-extensive and invasive restoration treatments.

Flavio Marzo ACR was born in a small village in the Italian Alps near Turin and now lives and works in London. He has a broad experience in the field of book conservation, having worked for prestigious libraries like the British Library, the Vatican Library and the libraries of Queens and Magdalene Colleges in Oxford. He has also been involved in various conservation projects in Italy, Greece and Egypt (Saint Catherine Monastery, Sinai, and the Coptic Monastery of the Syrians, Deir al-Surian, in Wadi al-Natrun). He has also taught conservation and run conservation workshops in Greece and Italy. He presently holds the position of Team Leader at the British Library, where he manages the conservation studio for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership digitisation project.

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