In restoring Elsevier’s 17th-century books, even the damage tells a story

Restoration expert Femke Prinsen shows how she repairs damaged books from Elsevier’s Heritage Collection

Book restorer Femke Prinsen puts the finishing touch on the Elzeviers' 1669 French Bible. Several illustrated pages were wrinkled, and the binding was so dried out the book had to undergo humidity treatment. (Photo: Sjors de Heuvel)The Elsevier Heritage Collection is the eye catcher of Elsevier's Amsterdam office. These 2,000 books, published by the House of Elzevier in the 16th through 18th centuries, are on display in acclimatized cases in the boardroom — a fitting place for such a collection since it is where our Board of Directors holds their meetings, and important guests are received.

Through a partnership with Leiden University, the collection is open to researchers, while Elsevier's employees draw inspiration from the past in their work today.

In past years, we have made great strides in preserving our books for future generations. One of these efforts is a restoration program – a necessity since the ages have not treated every book kindly. In this article, our book restoration expert shares her experience in working with the Elsevier Heritage Collection.

Femke Prinsen studied history at the University of Groningen but found her true calling when she specialized in book and paper conservation through a program offered by The Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency. For the past 3.5 years, Femke worked at the prestigious Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, where she restored over 800 books from former monastery libraries. She also performed risk assessments and assisted in several digitization projects.

Femke currently works as a self-employed book restorer, mainly for the Leiden University Library. Since December, she has been giving new life to books from the Elsevier Heritage Collection.

Behind the scenes in the restoration lab

Safely tucked away in the "bunkers" of the Leiden University Library, the restoration room resembles a chemistry lab. Bright lights illuminate a large table covered with damaged books, home-made glue mixtures, and a variety of interesting tools. Bricks coated with cardboard paper, g-clamps, and even a dentist's hook – "as a book restorer you need to keep your dentist close," Femke quips – are important tricks of the trade.

Femke Prinsen at the Herzog August Library in Germany The adjoining room contains a laboratory sink for chemical applications and even a mini studio for recording the restoration process. Prinsen has her own spot at the table, which she shares with several colleagues. She proudly shows a recently finished job on the Elsevier Heritage Collection: "This one was especially difficult. Whoever restored this in the past – assuming it was a man –  he didn't do such a great job!"

Considering the book is almost 400 years old, our copy of Johannes de Laet's Beschrijvinghe van West-Indien (Description of the West Indies, 1630) looks like new. This beautifully illustrated work contains some of the earliest descriptions of the people, animals and plants of the New World and was therefore selected as one of the first books to be restored. When we brought it to Leiden, the vellum (calfskin) binding between the spine and the front cover had split from the bottom until halfway the book, giving us a candid peek at the paper quires inside. Femke explains:

The person who restored it must have worked like a bookbinder. He separated the paper block from the binding, and reinforced the damaged spine by inserting large pieces of parchment. It might have looked like the book was restored for a while, but these additions – putting too much pressure on the spine – have actually caused the vellum to split.

De Laet's Description of the West-Indies (1630) before and after restoration (Photos: Femke Prinsen)

An example of the book's beautiful images: a map of Cuba and surrounding islands (Photo: Femke Prinsen)Whenever she starts working on a new book, Femke creates a specifically catered plan of action. While the aesthetic value and damage done by previous restorers are taken into account, it is most important to respect the history of the object. Unless it further damages the book, even a badly executed restoration attempt will be left intact. After all, this shows how previous owners have treated it in the past: a valuable lesson for restorers and historians alike.

In the case of the Elzeviers' book on the West Indies, the previous restorer's traces had to be removed in order to keep the book from falling apart. While we can still see the book was thoroughly loved in the past, it is now ready to find new readership in the future. Femke adds a telling remark:

Although it's easy for us to call the previous restoration attempt a stupid mistake from the past, it's very likely that people in the future will criticize my work as well. Ethics change with the times, and that makes this an ever evolving and unpredictable job.

Who said working with books was boring?

To view the Elsevier Heritage Collection

A glimpse of the Elsevier Heritage Collection in Elsevier's Amsterdam office (Photo: Giulio Menna) The Elsevier Heritage Collection, housed at Elsevier's headquarters in Amsterdam, is open to researchers by appointment. Contact Curator Sjors de Heuvel for more information.

You can also view the books online in the Elsevier Heritage Collection Catalogue.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Sjors de Heuvel (photo by Giulio Menna)Sjors de Heuvel (@sjorsdeheuvel) joined Elsevier in May 2013 after completing his degree in Book Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. As Curatorial Advisor to the Elsevier Heritage Collection, he is working on several projects related to Elsevier's cultural heritage. These include overseeing the restoration of damaged books, and a cataloging program providing researchers with easier access to the collection.

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