Preserving the manuscript

This post was created by Reba Fishman Snyder, Paper Conservator.

In 2011 the manuscript of A Christmas Carol received extensive treatment by conservators at the Morgan's Thaw Conservation Center.

Before any treatment was begun, the ink, paper, and binding were carefully examined, documented, photographed, and tested to ensure that the conservation treatment could be carried out safely. First the manuscript was disbound, a painstaking process to remove the pages from their original binding. Once removed, each sheet was submerged in a shallow bath of water and alcohol solution. In Dickens's time, paper was made from cotton or linen rags which created a strong, stable sheet of paper. Immersion of such papers in water does not damage the paper fibers.

The bath of water and alcohol dissolved the adhesive that had been used, probably some time between 1910 and 1920, to attach barely visible, fine silk gauze to the blank sides of each sheet of the manuscript. The silk was carefully removed by lifting it away from the paper. "Silking" was once a popular technique for strengthening or reinforcing paper, but it has fallen out of favor and use. Over time, the silk tends to become brittle and loses its effectiveness. Once de-silked, each sheet was submerged in a shallow bath of calcium carbonate-enriched deionized water and alcohol, and lightly brushed to remove any residual adhesive. A second bath completed the washing process. Washing in deionized water enriched with calcium carbonate neutralizes soluble acids and adhesives. This is essential because Dickens, like most writers of his time, used black iron-gall ink that, to the advantage of later generations of readers, was water-resistant and adhered permanently to the surface of the paper. This ink is, however, acidic, and after many years, can cause some paper to deteriorate drastically. As in Dickens's manuscript, the rich black tone of this ink changes, over time, to dark brown.

After washing, each sheet of the manuscript was air-dried, and then, after humidification, the sheets were placed between blotters under weight for several days to gently flatten. When completely dry, the sheets were examined closely, and any small tears or weakened parts were mended using thin Japanese tissue and diluted wheat-starch paste. Happily, the conservators determined that the manuscript was in remarkably good condition, with little evidence of corrosion from the ink or degradation from the silking, thanks, in large part, to the high-quality paper that Dickens had used. The newly conserved pages are now considerably closer to their original color and flexibility.

Blog category: 

Thaw Conservation Center

The Thaw Conservation Center at The Morgan Library & Museum, a world-class laboratory for the conservation of works on paper and parchment—drawings, prints, photographs, illuminated manuscripts, rare books, fine bindings, and literary, historical, and music manuscripts—as well as a place for conservation studies, opened in February 2002.
Read more »