Head of Preservation Services Puts Wesleyan’s Books in a Bind

Michaelle Biddle, head of Preservation Services, uses a special tool to preserve a book in the Preservation Services in Olin Library. Biddle and her student technicians make page mends, reback books and remove mold from pages.
Posted 09/09/05
Q: When were you hired at Wesleyan and what was your job title then?

A: I was hired in 1983 as the assistant to the librarian. Initially, I was the clerk of the works for the $10 million library addition that was added in the mid-1980s. In 1988 I was asked to develop a preservation program for the library’s circulating collections. Now my job title is head of Preservation Services.

Q: What do you do?

A: I am responsible for developing and managing the library’s Preservation Services, with includes the book conservation lab. We are currently exploring ways in which the Material Processing Marking unit might cost effectively extend the life of new materials before being put on the shelves.

Q: What types of publications need preservation treatment?

A: In 1990 I surveyed the circulating collection. This revealed that 50 percent was in need of some type of repair and that 20 percent was on brittle paper. Because so many items need repair we only review items that have circulated or been used in one of the libraries.

Q: Are books that need treatment always old?

A: No. In the last 10 years publishers’ bindings have precipitously declined in quality. We have to repair more and more “new” books though the 19th century collection is in the poorest condition. We did not have air conditioning in Olin until 1985. Before that time the stacks would reach 120 degrees in the summer – essentially cooking the books.

Q: Tell me about the process of preserving a book.

A: We have a small book conservation lab in the connector between the Public Affairs Center and Olin. It is furnished with a hood where we take care of books with mold, various presses, a job backer, a board shear and many, many specialized binding and conservation tools, cloths and papers. We rarely rebind a book but do a wide range of repairs – page mends, rebacking, guarding and cleaning. Book conservation is a specialized field but any 12th century monk or Gutenberg would be quite familiar with what we do.

Q: What are some recent examples of materials that you have preserved?

A: Most of the student book repair technicians are preparing more than 30 folio sized volumes of The Graphic, a popular 19th century English periodical, for rebinding. It was originally half bound in leather which has rotted. The covers have come off the text block. The pages are getting torn and the sewing is coming undone as a result. The students are mending the tears, and the sewing of the text block, removing the old spine lining and relining the spines before the volumes will be sent to the library commercial bindery. When we work on large format books the lab is very crowded.

One student is working on an 1854 edition of Types of Mankind by Nott and Glidden for Special Collections. We had a lovely plate that had been found on the floor of the Olin but no book. It took some sleuthing to find the correct book, and when we did find the book it needed to be partially resewn and rebacked.

I am currently working on sewing and rebinding a 1925 book of German etchings for the Print Reference Collection, as well.

Q: What happens to these materials? Can people check them out, or are they kept in special collections?

A: The majority of the materials we work on are for the circulating collections so they can be checked out but some materials are in Special Collections in Olin and must be used there.

Q: What is your personal interest in these historical materials? Are you a history buff?

A: I read a couple of books a week – primarily on history, book or art history though I do love a good mystery.

Q: I understand you recently returned from a voluntary six-week archeological dig in Petra, Jordan? Why did you decide to do this?

A: Volunteering on an archaeological dig is a way of gaining a thorough understanding of what has gone on in the past at a specific place. Petra is an amazingly complex, very large archaeological site and it takes a long time to explore. I volunteered for the 21st season of the American Expedition to Petra because it is led by Dr. Philip C. Hammond, an authority on the Nabateans, the people who built and lived in Petra.

Q: Did you make any big discoveries?

A: This season we were working to establish the northern perimeter of a plaza that had been found in 2002. It is behind the Temple of the Winged Lions, the most important Nabatean temple in Petra. The Temple was built in 27 A.D. and destroyed in the massive 363 A.D. earthquake. I discovered some beads, coins, a lamp and many, many pieces of pottery. Everywhere you walk there is evidence of human habitation. And the country is spectacularly beautiful.

Q: What are your degrees in?

A: My bachelor’s degree is in Middle Eastern anthropology and history from the University of Texas.  I apprenticed with Roger deCoverly, chief binder of the London School of Printing, and over the years have studied with other book conservators, primarily in Italy. I also have a master’s of library science from the University of Rhode Island and a certificate in archival management from The National Archives.

Q: What do you do in your spare time?

A: Refinishing woodwork is my current hobby. My husband, David, and I bought a house built in 1867 for $1. So far we’ve spent five years taking it apart, moving it nine miles from Easthampton to Hatfield, Massachusetts, rebuilding and restoring it. There are acres of woodwork that need to be refinished. I also create books. I am currently working on one about shoes found in the desert.

Q: What is your involvement with Middletown Alpha Delta Phi Society?

A: The Alpha Delta Phi Society is located at 185 High Street. We sponsor free events for the community including literary, film and poetry series, and a coffee-house series. We also have the oldest, continuously-operating eating club on campus, the Star & Crescent. I am the society’s volunteer archivist and last year I published a booklet on the first century and a half of their history titled Halls, Houses and Eating Clubs of the Middletown Chapter Alpha Delta Phi Society. In May 2006 we will be celebrating Alpha Delt’s sesquicentennial.

Q: Tell me about your family.

A: My husband, David, who attended Wesleyan, is Chairman of the Board of a bio-diesel coop in western Massachusetts. They turn used vegetable oil into fuel for diesel trucks and cars. After the dig in Petra, David joined me for a tour of Jordan. His fluency in Arabic facilitates touring in the Middle East. My son, Christopher, is in his final year of a computer engineering degree at Kettering University in Michigan.

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor