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Your Humble Serpent: “Book Snake” and “Book Worm” are unsung Reading Room companions

By Io Montecillo

A small book worm, assisted by a book support, and a large book snake; both assist Io Montecillo, by gently holding open small and large books.  Photo by Pete Smith.
A small book worm, assisted by a book support, and a large book snake; both assist Io Montecillo, by gently holding open small and large books. Photo by Pete Smith.

Though seldom spoken of, the “book snake” has been a staple for patrons in the Ransom Center’s reading room for many years, while its smaller cousin, the “book worm” has appeared more recently. The story behind these creatures, often seen draped over the sides of books or nestled between the covers, is little known to those not involved in book conservation.

Book snakes and worms, along with book cradles, are used to safely support books and other collection materials while they remain open. The added support of a cradle keeps a book from lying flat on a surface, thereby maintaining the integrity of the spine. Book snakes and worms keep pages open, minimizing contact with oils found on hands and fingertips. These measures extend the life of books and preserve them for future use.

While similar in purpose, the distinction between book snakes and worms lies in their size and structure.  In the past, the Ransom Center’s book snakes and worms were more commonly weighted with lead shot. The difficulty of obtaining loose shot, however, compelled Ransom Center conservators to seek alternative materials.

Mindell Dubansky, a preservation librarian and book conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, proposed using chain-stuffed book snakes. Mary Baughman, a Ransom Center conservator, fashioned a prototype with a dense chain that was strong but no bulkier than an equal weight of shot, and at a reduced production cost. The reading room staff approved Baughman’s design for use.

Samantha Cabrera constructing “book snakes” with chain links. Photo by Mary Baughman.
Samantha Cabrera constructing “book snakes” with chain links. Photo by Mary Baughman.

Now, the Ransom Center’s book snakes are made by hand sewing 12-inch lengths of chain onto a piece of polyester batting. The batting is then sewn around the chain with thread. The padded chain is then placed into an ultra-suede cover, and the open end of the cover is sewn shut. The finished snake weighs about one pound.

The structure of the Center’s book worms, on the other hand, differs from that of their larger counterparts. Because the worms are more suitable for use with smaller volumes, a dense chain is unnecessary.  Instead, book worms are made from four lengths of drapery-weight cord that are tied into a 12-inch long bundle using sturdy book-binding thread. Each bundle is encapsulated in a polyethylene sleeve secured with a basting stitch using sewing thread. The bundles are then placed into a ultra-suede covers, and the open end of the covers are sewn shut. The finished book worm weighs about one ounce.

When not retrieving books from the stacks for library patrons, reading room staff are able to assist in the construction of the snakes and worms because of the simplified construction method.

Read more about conservation at the Ransom Center.

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