Restoring old and damaged books requires not just skill, but also expensive technology and insight, say experts
In December last year, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, with the help of Roja Muthiah Research Library in the city brought out two sparkling hardback volumes of mathematician Ramanujam's notebooks — the original of which was laminated and preserved in the University of Madras.
“Nobody had seen the original for close to fifty years,” says G. Sundar, Director, Roja Muthiah Research Library. The journey of the mathematician's notebook reflects both the best and the worst things that could happen to a rare book.
The first edition was published by TIFR back in 1957. They reproduced the original notebooks by photocopying the pages in black and white.
“Since technology like contrast balance was not available then, the result, though the best that could have been achieved at that time, was not satisfactory. When we were approached by TIFR to publish the second edition of the notebooks, we worked with the original laminated manuscript for two weeks, and microfilmed and digitised it. We were able to reproduce Ramanujam's writings as they are found in the original,” he adds. However, not all rare works get a new lease of life. With no set standards for conservation of books, and no agency to hold anyone accountable for faulty conservation, degeneration is almost always staring at the face of an old book.
One first needs to understand the distinction between conservation and restoration says, Mr. Sundar. “While conservation implies that there is intervention and the original form is changed, restoration aims to bring the book back to its original form. Conservation requires human resource, skill and availability of raw material, and restoration requires expensive technology.”
Conservation being not just science, but also an art, Mr. Sundar and Dr. Perumal, Conservator and Librarian, Saraswati Mahal Library, say that the most important aspect is to be sensitive to the article that is being restored. While methods such as Japanese tissue mending and encapsulation are recommended, lamination, to them, is a bad word. “It is like striking the death knell because the process is not reversible,” says Sundar.
“At the Sanskrit Department of the University of Madras, Marina campus, nearly 22 books were conserved using commercial lamination, and the pages were stuck to each other. I have restored two books for them,” says Mr. Renganathan, Managing Director, Photolam Systems Pvt. Ltd, who has done conservation work for several libraries, publications and state archives.
The Tamil Nadu Archives which is one of the largest repositories of rare books and manuscripts in South Asia, in its website, mentions that lamination is one of the conservation methods it uses. Authorities at the archives were unavailable for comment. “When you use a faulty method, if reflects on the item, say ten years down the line,” says Mr. Sundar.
There are two basic ethics of conservation, says Dr. Perumal. “One is that the process should be reversible and secondly, it should not affect the character of the book. Years later, if a better process of conservation is invented, you must be able to undo the old method.”
The challenge they say also lies in retaining the character of the book. “There was a lot of debate when we were restoring the notebooks of Ramanujam. We got mathematicians to read the original text and they found mistakes in it. But we said that if that is what Ramanujam wrote, that is what should go in the book,” he says.
Another major concern is the storage of conserved books. “Storage of conserved books is crucial. You need to keep environmental factors (heat, light, humidity) in mind once the book is conserved. Since Ramanujam's notebooks were stored near a coastal area, the paper got damaged. We once received a manuscript that was held together by metal holders and pins and since paper is acidic, the metal caused significant damage to it,” says Mr. Sundar.
The monsoons, Dr. Perumal asserts is when books need maximum attention. “We need to be most careful during the monsoons as books absorb moisture and fungus starts to grow. The air around the book needs to be refreshed at least once a month and the pages need to be turned on a regular basis,” says Dr. Perumal.
“We have very few conservators, and not many people take it up as a career because the remuneration is not great. Less than two percent of libraries in the country take up conservation work,” says Mr. Sundar.
When conserved well, the life of books may extend by 50 to 100 hundred years depending on the condition of the book before restoration. When it comes to conservation, it is like following the rule of the road, says Sundar. “When you have to preserve something for posterity, you have a responsibility towards it.”