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

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.

Before and After: Mark Twain's Bible

This copy of the Bible belonged to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who carried the book with him during a trip to Constantinople in 1867 while he was writing "Innocents Abroad."
This copy of the Bible belonged to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who carried the book with him during a trip to Constantinople in 1867 while he was writing "Innocents Abroad."

While writing Innocents Abroad, Samuel Clemens (known more familiarly as Mark Twain) carried a Bible during a trip to Constantinople in 1867. The book is now part of the Ransom Center’s collections and can be seen in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, which runs through July 29.

The Bible recently underwent some work in the Ransom Center’s conservation lab. Learn about the steps taken to conserve and house this historical book.

Bugs, Mold, and Conservation

Mary Baughman uses tweezers to remove moth cocoons from a hat that is part of the Sir Donald Wolfit collection. The hat was used in productions of Shakespeare's plays in England, between 1937-1967. Photo by Pete Smith.
Mary Baughman uses tweezers to remove moth cocoons from a hat that is part of the Sir Donald Wolfit collection. The hat was used in productions of Shakespeare's plays in England, between 1937-1967. Photo by Pete Smith.

Mary Baughman, a Harry Ransom Center book conservator, hunts bugs. When she discovers them in materials at the Center, she destroys them, typically with a 72-hour stint in a freezer at 20 degrees centigrade or below. But don’t ask Baughman which of the cellulose-munching bugs she wishes didn’t exist at all. “That’s just silly,” she says. “There’s a place on this earth for all of them.” As long as that place isn’t the Ransom Center’s collection.

When boxes of materials first arrive at the Center, teams of conservators and archivists gather at tables in the quarantine room in the basement to inspect each folder, envelope, book, and slip of paper, looking for telltale signs of bugs—as well as for mold, another great enemy of archives. Finding and identifying the bugs in the works takes the thoroughness of a forensic pathologist and a familiarity with frass (insect excrement). Beetles leave behind a fine granular powder, while silverfish leave tiny black flecks. Big ragged bites from the paper, brown splatters of vomit, and shiny brown egg sacks are evidence of past or present roaches.

Despite possible encounters with wood-boring beetles and fungus and such, opening the boxes, even for longtime inspectors, is still as exciting as Christmas. Sure, considering the sheer volume of material inspected, some boxes yield the gift equivalent of socks or steak knives, but others bear unexpected treasures such as photographic negatives of Frida Kahlo or handwritten pages of notes by a little-known writer on her lengthy conversations with Diego Rivera.

Many materials arrive carefully packed and preserved, while others appear to have been swept pell-mell off a cluttered table directly into the box—chips of ceiling plaster, used tissues, and all.

Still, Baughman says very few materials arrive with full-blown infestations, recalling only two in the past ten years—a box from Puerto Rico that brought its entourage of termites with it and a collection of photographs from San Antonio that Baughman remembers as “pretty gnarly.”

The conservation department’s program to intercept insects before they enter the building has been around for more than 30 years, growing in part out of the discovery in the 1980s of drugstore beetles dining on several volumes of The Works of St. Augustine, printed in Venice in 1729. The initial treatment with moth balls—a standard of the times, but now obsolete—simply stunned the larvae, who recovered to eat again until finally meeting a chilly demise in a freezer.

The treatment of mold, a specialty of Olivia Primanis, the chief book conservator with the Center, has likewise changed tack over the years. “Previously, everyone tried to kill mold,” she says. But its ubiquity and tenacity proved that an impossible task. Now, mold is instead removed and contained—mainly by changing its environment by eliminating heat and, especially, humidity. But even when mold is removed—even if it could be killed—its properties, such as allergens and toxins, still remain. So moldy items are marked as such, to serve as a sort of disclaimer to patrons, who may then choose to wear a mask or even review moldy materials under a fume hood.

Olivia Primanis reduces mold contamination on a music score with a hepa filtered vacuum cleaner. Equipped with micro tools and adjustable suction, the cleaner is used in a fume hood to decrease exposure to the conservator and the Ransom Center's environment. Photo by Pete Smith.
Olivia Primanis reduces mold contamination on a music score with a hepa filtered vacuum cleaner. Equipped with micro tools and adjustable suction, the cleaner is used in a fume hood to decrease exposure to the conservator and the Ransom Center's environment. Photo by Pete Smith.

“Mold is harder to get rid of, but bugs are sneakier,” Baughman says. Case in point of this sly cunning: A Japanese book of law dating from the late nineteenth century with a tiny hole no bigger than a freckle in the spine. Open the book and the handiwork of a beetle larva is revealed, an inch-long tunnel snaking through the pages. But there will be no light at the end of this tunnel; the bug was stopped in its tracks via deep freeze.

Eliminating bugs in paper products may be a snap—especially in the Center’s walk-in freezer—but some materials, such as leather, ivory, and painted canvas or wood, can be damaged by freezing. Spraying with pesticides is not an option, as this can harm both collection materials and the scholars who stick their noses in them. Besides, treating with pesticides is seldom effective because bugs usually live within the materials, not on the surfaces.

Instead, materials that show signs of previous insect encampments may be placed under observation, like the painting on a wooden panel that Baughman has sealed in a double-sided Plexiglas frame so she can spot the possible emergence of adult beetles. And if the beetles do surface? Then what? The object might earn a four-month stretch in an oxygen-free environment.
And afterwards, you can trust that Baughman and the other conservators will still be keeping an eye on it.

This article, written by Suzy Banks, originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Ransom Edition.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Book Conservator Mary Baughman teaches intern Hsiang-Shun Huang how to build a housing that will keep shelved books safe. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Book Conservator Mary Baughman teaches intern Hsiang-Shun Huang how to build a housing that will keep shelved books safe. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Sonja Reid, Registrar with the Ransom Center’s exhibition services, adjusts the humidity of the case holding the Gutenberg Bible. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Sonja Reid, Registrar with the Ransom Center’s exhibition services, adjusts the humidity of the case holding the Gutenberg Bible. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Ransom Center staff oversee the installation of vinyl text for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” which opens Tuesday. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Ransom Center staff oversee the installation of vinyl text for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” which opens Tuesday. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, installs an item on loan from the Folger for the exhibition "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, installs an item on loan from the Folger for the exhibition "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Sonja Reid, registrar with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, and Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, install a bible that belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. The item, on loan from the Folger, will be on display when "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence" opens Tuesday. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Sonja Reid, registrar with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, and Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, install a bible that belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. The item, on loan from the Folger, will be on display when "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence" opens Tuesday. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Lindsay Barras, a volunteer in the conservation department, helps construct a “pizza box” to hold an oversized book that is being repaired in the book lab.  Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Lindsay Barras, a volunteer in the conservation department, helps construct a “pizza box” to hold an oversized book that is being repaired in the book lab. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Volunteer Michel McCabe-Hughes organizes slides in the photography collection. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Volunteer Michel McCabe-Hughes organizes slides in the photography collection. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Graduate intern Arcadia Falcone searches the souvenir program collection for items. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Graduate intern Arcadia Falcone searches the souvenir program collection for items. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Ransom Center staffers stuff member invitations for the upcoming exhibition
Ransom Center staffers stuff member invitations for the upcoming exhibition
Graduate student intern Kevin Auer applies a silicone gel to a medieval text to conserve the ink on the page.  Photo by Kelsey McKinney
Graduate student intern Kevin Auer applies a silicone gel to a medieval text to conserve the ink on the page. Photo by Kelsey McKinney
Senior book conservator Olivia Primanis demonstrates the elements of book structure with intern Hsiang-Shun Huang and volunteers Christopher Jones and Margaret Schafer so they can write a treatment report before repairing
Senior book conservator Olivia Primanis demonstrates the elements of book structure with intern Hsiang-Shun Huang and volunteers Christopher Jones and Margaret Schafer so they can write a treatment report before repairing

Before and After: "Ulysses" page proofs

Before: James Joyce's 'Ulysses,' 1922.
Before: James Joyce's 'Ulysses,' 1922.

When the page proofs for James Joyce’s novel Ulysses arrived in the Ransom Center’s conservation lab, the pages were torn, bound together with adhesive, and all but impossible to read. Conservators unbound the pages to reveal annotations by James Joyce, editor and publisher Sylvia Beach, and printer Maurice Darantiere.  Learn about the steps taken to conserve and house the pieces of this historical book.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Reading room page and undergraduate student Melissa Herman pages materials from the  stacks. Photo by Pete Smith.
Reading room page and undergraduate student Melissa Herman pages materials from the stacks. Photo by Pete Smith.
Chris Jones, a volunteer in the conservation department, works on the binding for 'El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Chris Jones, a volunteer in the conservation department, works on the binding for 'El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Conservation department volunteer Margaret Schafer works on repairing paper tears to an album belonging to Joseph Hergesheimer, an early 20th century novelist. Photo by Pete Smith.
Conservation department volunteer Margaret Schafer works on repairing paper tears to an album belonging to Joseph Hergesheimer, an early 20th century novelist. Photo by Pete Smith.

What was the repair process after removing weights from the "Gone With The Wind" burgundy gown?

The Ransom Center has begun conservation work on the gowns from Gone With The Wind, and readers can follow the progress of the project on the Center’s website. Cultural Compass solicited questions from readers, and staff will answer a few of those questions in the coming weeks on this blog. Below, Jill Morena, collection assistant for costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center, answers a question about the repair process after the conservation team removed weights from the burgundy ball gown.

Question: Can you explain the repair process; i.e., how did you go about re-stitching the casings for the weights?  (type of thread, hand- or machine-stitched?)  Does that type of “tampering” significantly affect the item’s value?  Or is the trade-off worth it in terms of the efforts to arrest further harm?

What kind of a background do conservators have to be competent in textile preservation such as this?

Answer: When a garment enters a museum or archive’s collection, the balance between preservation and access becomes an ongoing discussion. The garment has passed out of the private sphere and into a public institution, so questions of value shift from monetary and market value to cultural value and long-term preservation. It is the institution’s charge to preserve the garment for future generations and to make items available for public view. The institution must consider these two aims and continually make decisions that allow a garment to have a “second life.” The institution must make the preservation, condition, and longevity of the garment a top priority.

Conservator Cara Varnell’s remark, “this girl’s never dancing again,” alludes to the archival second life of the dress that Vivien Leigh once wore. It is no longer being worn or used, and yet the gown is not lifeless; it still retains traces of the former wearer in physical form on the fabric, indeed in the knowledge that Vivien Leigh, a celebrated actress, once wore the gown.

Removing original material from a museum or archival item is a choice that is not taken lightly, and it is often in the best interests of the item’s “well-being.” Weights were removed from the burgundy ball gown because the strain created by their heaviness caused small holes at the waistline and hemline. Packing and unpacking from storage containers also places strain on the garment. Removal of the weights decreases the likelihood of damage to the gown when it is handled, dressed, and displayed.

Removing the weights was a preservation-motivated task that is also reversible. Only the smallest amount of thread was removed, just enough to slip the weight out from the bottom of its cloth compartment. We kept the weights and documented exactly where and how they were removed. If for any reason in the future it is decided that the weights should be returned to their compartments, there is a clear map for doing so.

If stitches or sewing of any kind is needed for a conservation treatment on a historical garment, it is usually done by hand. Conservators learn a variety of stitches, and their choice of stitch and the type of thread depends upon the condition of the garment, its construction and fabric, and the intended goals of the treatment.

Conservators specialize in a variety of mediums, including books, paper, photographs, paintings, and textiles. Conservators must have a strong background in science and the humanities, fulfill many volunteer hours at archives or museums before they can apply to a graduate program, hold an advanced degree with courses in their area of specialization, and complete years of apprenticeship under an experienced mentor. For more information about conservators and their work, visit the website of The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), the professional organization for conservators in the United States.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

Gown of a different feather: Conservators investigate feathers on the burgundy gown from "Gone With The Wind"

The burgundy ball gown Scarlett wears to Ashley’s birthday party in Gone With The Wind is meant to be provocative (“not modest or matronly,” Rhett snarls) yet glamorous. But when the gown arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s, something wasn’t quite right.

“It looked more like a dance-hall girl, a cartoon character, as opposed to how beautiful this dress really was,” says Cara Varnell, an independent art conservator who is conserving the five Gone With The Wind dresses housed at the Ransom Center.

Varnell quickly realized that the discrepancy was due to unoriginal feathers that someone added to the dress at some point between the film’s production and the dress’s arrival at the Ransom Center. Varnell says that the film provides an essential clue verifying that someone did, in fact, add feathers: jewels decorating the feathers on Scarlett’s sleeve are visible in the film, but replacement feathers block these jewels today.

Several clues led Varnell to distinguish the original ostrich feathers from the unoriginal ostrich feathers. The biggest clue was that the original feathers curl at the ends but the replacements do not. Varnell discovered that threads attached to each feather’s shaft created a slight bend, curling the feather. A second clue was color: the original feathers are blue burgundy, whereas the replacement feathers are red burgundy. Texture was a third clue: the original feathers are thicker and fluffier than the replacements. Lastly, the sewing thread affixing the replacement feathers doesn’t match the thread used for the original feathers.

All of these unoriginal feathers raise the question: why were replacement feathers added in the first place? Since the elastic straps had stretched out over time, Varnell posits that someone added feathers because it seemed like the straps were missing more feathers than they actually were. Another possibility is that someone added feathers to cover up original feathers that weren’t “perky” anymore.

Upon examination, Varnell determined that one such feather lost its perk because it broke at the point where it was sewn to the gown. After six hours mending the feather with three layers of Japanese tissue, acrylic archival adhesive, and polyester filament, Varnell will be able to reattach the feather to the gown.

So far, Varnell has removed seven unoriginal feathers because they were damaging the gown. One of these feathers was covering a stitch placed much higher than it should have been, making the bustle almost asymmetrical. Once Varnell removed the feather, it was clear where the stitch should be placed instead to fix the bustle.

As they stabilize the gown, the conservation team is discussing future options, including the fate of the feathers.

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.