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The Collation

How (not) to mend a tear

Going through a box of early 19th-century playbills recently, I was puzzled to see something paper-clipped to an area of loss on the right-hand edge of a bill, as if someone had attached a little note to it:

Playbill with folded slip of paper folded over one side and held by a paperclip

Playbill for the evening of September 11, 1834, at the Haymarket Theatre, London.

  1. Onionskin paper was once plentiful in offices. Thin, strong, and heavily textured, it’s ideal for making multiple typewritten carbon copies. It also holds a crease beautifully; try to find some the next time you want to make light-weight translucent origami.
  2. Pressure-sensitive adhesive tape is notoriously damaging and difficult to remove, even if the right solvent mixture can be found. Over time, the adhesive sinks in and causes serious staining all the way through the paper.
  3. For the differences between wove paper and laid paper, see last month’s Learning to “read” old paper post.
  4. Traditional Japanese paper is hand-made from pulp derived from the inner layer of certain plant barks. The paper’s long fibers make it particularly well-suited for a number of paper conservation techniques.


This is a lovely repair job, but as as someone unfamiliar with the protocols of book/document conservation, I am curious about the decision-making process that goes into replacing missing parts, as opposed to simply repairing tears. I ask because I was recently working with some 14th-15thC documents in the UK’s National Archives, a number of which were missing pieces that may or may not have been important pointers to how they were originally used. I was reminded of a discussion on a late 14thC parliamentary petition that had a hole and tear along the top edge, generally overlooked in the focus on its content. The historian Clementine Oliver has argued the hole is evidence that this petition was not only presented in parliament but was also nailed up in a public place, possibly the Cross at St Paul’s. If true, this would have something interesting and important to tell us about public political discourse in late medieval London. That is a very different type of document, I know (and perhaps the difference between a printed text and a hand-written one is a big factor in how they are treated), but I’d be interested to know, are repairs sometimes *not* done to printed documents in order to preserve the integrity of their physical history (circulation etc.)?

Bavardess — August 1, 2012

The decision-making process about what to mend and how far to go is a great topic, so thanks for the questions! I’ll start looking for examples that can go into a follow-up post. You’re right that repairs are sometimes not done, but whether the item is hand-written or printed doesn’t enter into it except when weighing rarity: a manuscript is always unique, while (in theory, at least) there could be hundreds or thousands of surviving examples of a particular printed sheet.

We take each treatment on a case-by-case basis, and generally err on the side of less intervention. For example, the Folger’s Curator of Manuscripts recently came across an early modern letter with a hole and a tear very much like you described. It was decided to repair the tear (to keep it from getting worse) but to keep the hole as-is because it was stable and, more importantly, because it was evidence that the letter had once been filed, in the early modern sense of the word (recall the OED definition of file: A string or wire, on which papers and documents are strung for preservation and reference. In recent use extended to various other appliances for holding papers so that they can be easily referred to).

Erin Blake — August 5, 2012

amazing post. i am a paper conservator and what i am curious about is why did you decide to “lightly sanding the edges of the area of loss, thinning them slightly”? that is altering the original artifact. also, why use heated blotters to press? how do u heat them and what is the purpose of this?
p.s. apologies if i come across as rude, i am just extremely curious and mean no offense.

nupur — November 10, 2018

Glad to know that you found the post interesting!

I asked Renate Mesmer, Head of Conservation, about the technical aspects of your question. She said that lightly sanding the edges of the area of the loss, thinning them a bit, was done in order to make a smooth transition between the original material and the repair material. Keeping the overlapping part a similar thickness to the rest of the paper makes that area less hard and more flexible. Warm blotters were used because they absorb the moisture faster, preventing the paper fibers from swelling as much. The blotters were heated with an electric heating pad.

As for the ethics of altering the original artifact by thinning the edges, you’re correct that this is something curators and conservators think about when making treatment decisions. Because we judged that this playbill is valuable to researchers and the public primarily as a playbill (rather than as part of the history of papermaking, for example) we opted for a treatment that would minimally disrupt the original material while still making it stable enough for researchers to handle, and aesthetically unified enough not to distract too much from the verbal content when exhibited.

Sometimes we do opt not to alter the artifact at all. Instead we simply preserve it by keeping it in a cool, dry, dark environment when it is not being consulted by scholars. It might help to give a hypothetical example: the Folger has a study set of 50 different blank sheets of European paper dating from the 16th through the 19th century (see the Collation post Learning to “read” old paper for more information). If, hypothetically, one of these sheets of paper had the same kind of tear and loss as this playbill, we would probably opt not to mend it. That artifact’s main value is as an untouched sheet of paper from the early modern period. The tear might get a bit worse through handling (so it would be handled as little as possible), and the loss would be visually distracting when looking at the sheet of paper, but people would be able to study the fiber content and structure of the original without any contamination from later intervention.

I hope this information helps, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk some more about the different issues that are taken into consideration when caring for collection material.

Erin Blake — November 16, 2018