Author:
Steve Bell and Anna Brooks, Conservators, State Library of NSW

The Library’s talented team of book conservators including Steve Bell, Nicole Ellis and Guy Caron have recently completed treating the Incunabula collection of over 200 books. The collection consists of some of the world’s oldest and rarest printed books such as the Liber Chronicarum, known as the Nuremburg Chronicle, and the Geographia di Francesco Berlinghieri, printed in 1482, which was one of the first printed works based on Ptolemy’s Geographia.

Meaning ‘from the cradle’, the Latin term incunabula refers to books printed with movable metal typebetween 1456 and 1500. This new technology revolutionised book production, sharply increasing the variety of designs and the sheer volume of books published, and consequently transforming the business and influence of printing throughout Europe. These first printed books were designed to resemble earlier manuscripts, with numerous scribes employed to ‘illuminate’ the ornately printed initial letters. Additional illuminated pages were often inserted to enhance a book’s appeal as a luxury item.

One of the main challenges of treating the incunabula is that most of the bindings and their sewing structures are not original, having been repaired and rebound in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Now also part of the history of the item, often the newer binding can be at odds with the medieval sewing style, lacking flexibility and putting pressure on the spine and joints. Most of these books have also been trimmed on three sides to remove rough edges, often losing some of the print.

Courtesy of the State Library of NSW

In treating the collection, the team began by photographing and assessing the condition of the collection of 237 books. Treatments varied from paper repairs to more complex treatments of between 70 and 100+ hours, including extensive paper and leather repairs. Some books were resewn with new leather spines, in keeping with traditional medieval binding style. Individual archival clam-shell boxes were constructed for six of the most valuable items. Treating the incunabula was a rewarding project as it enabled research into the origins of these remarkable works as well as their provenance in public and private collections.