Sally Holloway

As a historian of romantic love, my research has focused primarily on the exchange of books as gifts, and their role in shaping the conception and expression of emotions. The second ETR session on ‘Restoration’ therefore provided an ideal setting to consider books from a new perspective, honing in on the binding, boards, ink, paper, and very fibres of each page.


The session began with a talk by Fred Beauman, Preservation Librarian in UCL Special Collections. Fred outlined how numerous librarians and collectors historically bleached out all foxing, marginalia, signs of ownership and use in historic books, in order to make them appear uniform. ‘Restoration’ of these books involved scraping off marks by hand, washing pages in a bath, or using chlorine bleach, invented in the late eighteenth century. If the bleach was not properly washed off, it would continue bleaching until the fibres of the page had rotted. Through these practices, many a reader’s emotional attachment, love, pride and care taken of their books has been all but erased from history.


The quest to make books appear uniform began to change with reformers such as William Morris (1834-96), founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris was passionate about early books, particularly the medieval presentation and text layout. Fred’s presentation illuminated how attitudes to conservation and restoration have changed over time. It prompted me to consider how these practices provoke different emotional responses. How does the materiality of books shape their emotional meaning? How do owners lay claim to their books emotionally? In which circumstances should changes be preserved or removed? How long are particular materials designed to last; how do these temporalities shape emotional investment in books as objects?

The emotions often sneak in to our discussion unnoticed, such as when Fred puts books ‘to sleep’ by closing, wrapping and storing them away. He describes books as ‘emotional artefacts’, outlining how trying to arrest decay and preserve them for the next generation is an ‘emotional practice’ for bibliophiles. In a similar vein, the medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel has recently described the ‘beauty’ of injured books, which have began to mould and been marked with inky fingerprints. Some participants commented on the ‘old book smell’ permeating the room, reminding us of the sensory dimensions of how we respond to books emotionally.

While the central tenet of Fred’s approach was ‘minimal intervention’, the textile artist Celia Pym took an altogether different view. Celia described repairing objects more in terms of ‘mending’, through restoring knitwear such as jumpers that would otherwise have no other life. At her ‘mending events’, people repeatedly asked Celia to help mend important items of clothing such as wedding dresses, jumpers and jeans. Damage to these items stemmed from heavy use, and the love invested in them. Celia emphasised the importance of physically handling objects in order to understand them, as the materials themselves provoked new thoughts and questions. She told the moving tale of a mother who sewed a comfort blanket into the pockets of her anxious daughter’s school clothes. Despite no longer being able to carry the blanket around with her, being able to feel the blanket in her pockets provided the little girl with a sense of reassurance. After being mended, the life-cycle of the object begins again, until the material gives around the edges of the repair, and it requires restoration once more.


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