How Are Old Books Brought Back to Life?

How Are Old Books Brought Back to Life?

The science, skill and passion of a community of professionals who have dedicated their lives to saving centuries-old books and preserving historical knowledge for future generations, was the centre of a fascinating discussion led by experts at the ‘Tales from the East’ Exhibition organised by the Sharjah Book Authority (SBA).

The panel discussion titled ‘The Life of Manuscripts’ was led by Dr. Bassam Daghistani, Head of Maintenance, Treatment and Restoration of the Manuscript Section at Juma Al Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage; and Hugo Wetscherek, owner of Austria-based Antiquariat Inlibris, who took their audiences on a behind-the-scenes journey of what exactly goes into repairing and restoring priceless ancient texts spanning different eras.

Breathing new life into old, battered books
“How do we perform the complex work of manuscript restoration at the Juma Al Majid Centre?”, questioned Dr. Bassam, following up with an elaborate and interesting answer. The panel’s audience learned about the fine details in the steps his team of restorers follows to breathe life back into old, battered books, manuscripts, and other printed materials the centre receives.

From sterilising the pages of a book to remove fungi and other harmful microorganisms that live off the starch and sugars held by the paper, to dry cleaning, removing acidity by restoring the book’s pH levels, and finally, re-moisturising the restored book before storing them in temperature- and weather-controlled storage areas to ensure that the restored book can enjoy a hospitable environment for a long period of time, Dr. Bassam shared a detailed account, adding that the techniques used at the centre have been transformed and fine-tuned overtime to make them more accurate and eco-friendly.

“We have replaced the chemical compounds we used for the sterilisation process with other eco-friendly materials like nitrogen, which we pass through a specialied device inside an airtight metal compartment custom-built for this process”, he further explained.

Dr. Bassam showed examples of extremely damaged old books from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries that his centre has completely restored. “Bringing back the elasticity of a book  by treating it with the right level of humidity is a central part of the restoration process – especially for books that belong to the aforementioned era. Otherwise the pages become brittle like think wafers and break because of the type of material that was used to produce paper during these centuries, which witnessed a big boom in book production.”

He concluded his presentation saying, “manual restoration requires a high degree of skills. These days, a greater degree of automation is being introduced to the job, but even machine restoration requires the right device for a 100 percent perfect outcome. When the right materials are chosen, the longevity of a restored book or manuscript can be extended to 200+ years.” 

Hugo Wetscherek, who leads one of the world’s largest business in buying and selling antiquarian collections, expressed his excitement about their new representation in Sharjah. He said: “We have exhibited in Hong Kong, New York City and other cultural capitals around the globe. Here in Sharjah, we feel at home. This is why we opened shop in this culture-loving emirate and we are here to stay.” 

The SBA exhibition, which is displaying a unique collection of rare books, manuscripts, maps, globes, and other artifacts collectively worth more than AED 60 million, concludes at midnight on May 3.

Edward Frank

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