Studying an Old Book in Poor Condition - Essay Prowess

Studying an Old Book in Poor Condition


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Studying an Old Book in Poor Condition

Studying an Old Book in Poor Condition

            Anthropological research sometimes requires the handling and studying of antiquarian books, which often are in not the best condition and must be handled delicately. The problem question here is: what is the best way to study an old book that is in poor condition?

            The item in question is a book published in 1856, Southern Pacific Railroad on the 32nd Parallel by A.B. Gray, “for the Texas Western R.R. Company,” printed in Cincinnati, Ohio. The significance of this artifact is that helps a researcher understand the business and expansion of the American railroad system in the 19th Century, as private companies and the government made efforts to connect the states and cities in North America for commerce, trade and leisure travel. From an anthropological lens, the railroad industry touches on aspects of American manifest destiny, the importing of ethnic labor from Chinese and European immigrants, the conflicts with Native Americans to have the railroad go across land held by the Indians, the building of towns and commerce along railroad tracks, the movement of oil from one city to another, giving rise to industry. The railroad is a culture driving force in itself, ripe for anthropological study.

            First, how to deal with a book a century and a half old and suspect to gentle handling. The book is cloth with cardboard ends and sewn signatures bound into a glued spine. The spine, however, is coming unglued and is cracked, making some of the pages a bit loose and in danger of falling out. The clothbound cover does not have a dust jacket, as hardback books back then did not include dust jackets the way they do today. The ends of the boards are bent inward and appear to have suffered water damage. The interior pages are on thick paper and the type is handset from letterpress plates. These pages are yellowed, brittle and some also have water damage marks, making the pages crinkled and hard. The interior maps are loose and also have waster damage and yellowed paper. The book itself emits an odor of mustiness and paper decay, as expected from such an item.

            Research shows that odorous books can he a health hazard and can stink up a room, releasing volatile organic compounds (Strlič, Matija, et al), so it might be best to keep the item sealed in a plastic container when handling it (Buchbauer, G., et al). There is a science to the proper handling of antiquarian volumes, called “degradomics,” for proper care to make sure the book does not fall completely apart (Strlič, Matija, et al). The skin oils from fingers, as well as bacteria and sweat, when handling the paper can also cause damage, so special care use such as gloves and using tweezers to turn pages is recommended (Barański). While this book does not appear to need such focused attention, it most likely will some day, and a researcher should be mindful for those who will need it in a decades to come. The copyright issue of citing passages in a published paper is not a concern because this volume and its texts are old enough to be in the public domain (Breyer). The methodology for handling this item is the same as any ancient artifact: a care for the antediluvian and a respect for the past.

            One method of examining the physical nature of the book would be to use x-ray diffraction, which breaks down the crystalline pattern of an object. 95% all solid matter is crystalline in nature, and by using x-ray technology, patterns of composition can be determined. In the case of this book object, x-ray diffraction can identify the type of paper and ink it is made up, as well as what chemicals and organic compounds are playing a part in the book’s decomposition. For instance, the water damaged paper and the musty smell can be contributed to mold living in the object; diffraction can identify the mold and help determine how best to either fix the object to put a stop to further decomposition. Books and papers that do not have publication date and place information can be tested to determine the approximate date and region of manufacture, by using a particle beam accelerator  (Koda). However, such equipment is cumbersome and requires a large team and thus can be expensive. The use of an electron microscope is less costly and more feasible, although the artifact will invariably be altered because a small sample needs to be extracted to study (Koda). Less intrusive methods are the use of optical microscopes and magnifying glasses, which would be best suited for this particular object since it is not too old, its manufacture date and place is known, and the damage to the paper is not extensive. The optical microscope can yield a better view of the wood fibers in the paper as well as quality of ink in the letter pressing.

            The anticipated conclusions are (1) the book will hold up for handling but care must be taken not to damage it any further; (2) the book will afford needed and valuable information about the history of American rail roads and (3) the book will give insight into the social and cultural milieu of the people and business around the railroad system.

Works Cited

Barański, Andrzej. “Ageing kinetics of cellulose and paper.” Restaurator 23.2 (2002): 77-88.

Breyer, Stephen. “The uneasy case for copyright: A study of copyright in books, photocopies,      and computer programs.” Harvard Law Review (1970): 281-351.

Buchbauer, G., et al. “On the odor of old books.” Journal of pulp and paper science 21.11            (1995): J398-J400.

Gray, A.B. Southern Pacific Railroad on the 32ns Parallel. Cincinnati: Wrightson & Co., 1856.

Koda, Paul. “Scientific equipment for the examination of rare books, manuscripts and      documents.” Library Trends (Summer) 1987: 38-51.

Strlič, Matija, et al. “Material degradomics: on the smell of old books.” Analytical chemistry        81.20 (2009): 8617-8622.