Historical Conservation: Saving Our Heritage of Rare Books

by Jonathan Best

Loreto Apilado working on an antique map.

When we hear people speak of national heritage we usually think of venerable old buildings, artistic masterpieces by national artists or priceless ceramic or gold artifacts excavated from pre-colonial Philippine sites. What little government and institutional funding there is for historical preservation most often is spent on restoring ancestral homes, church facades and other public buildings or even historic districts. Several of Manila’s museums have spent the necessary tens of thousands of pesos to properly clean and restore valuable paintings. Antique dealers restore furniture, religious icons and decorative artifacts if they think they can make a profitable sale. However not enough has been allocated for the daunting task of preserving rare books, maps, prints, photographs and other paper heirlooms. This is sad considering that works on paper, more than any other cultural artifacts, tell the unique story of the Filipino people.

Old books record long forgotten histories, languages and lifestyles. Maps delineate the gradual historical documentation of all our seven thousand islands and the early names of our towns and cities. Personal letters and correspondence record the private lives of our forbears and their thoughts on life and love. By the mid-eighteenth century, photographs came along creating  a whole new medium for recording our most dramatic events and precious memories of family and loved ones. For a Filipino what could be more moving than holding the original copy of Jose Rizal’s “Ultimo Adios”, now in the National Library,  or a faded photograph of Andres Bonifacio or Apolinario Mabini. All of these items are preserved on delicate paper fiber.

Engraving of Filipino soldiers 1850s.

This year the Ortigas Foundation Library and Philippine Study Center in Pasig decided to establish a small paper conservation lab right on the library premises. Older institutions such as the National Library, National Historical Institute, Santo Tomas University, the Recoletos in Quezon City and the Archdiocese Archives in Intramuros have good facilities, but these are kept very busy with their own collections. With hundreds of old and rare books, and documents in need of immediate repair and consolidation we felt we needed our own workshop.  Now, when our valuable material needs repair or cleaning it never has to leave the premises, which is an important security consideration.

Internationally trained paper conservator Loreto Apilado, his wife Mildred and niece Michelle have started coming in two or three times a week to work on our collection.  Loreto has studied book conservation and handmade paper making in both the United States and Japan. The equipment for a conservation lab are actually quite simple. A clean, well lit, air conditioned room with a large work table and ample sink are the essential requirement. Surgical tools such as scalpels, tweezers and medical scissors are ideal for working with paper. Large sheets of clear Plexiglas and blotting paper are needed for drying and flattening old maps.

Century old photo of Datu Mandi from Mindanao.

As we expand, equipment for deacidification and simple fumigation for microscopic pests will be added. The greatest expense so far has been securing high quality handmade mulberry paper from abroad. This is essential for relining old books and making intricate repairs to pages. Some types of this sturdy paper are so transparent they can be pasted over damaged pages and become almost invisible. Expert paper conservators can literally reweave and rebond paper fibers where tears, abrasions, insect and water damage has practically destroyed printed pages, antique engravings or old maps.

The Ortigas Library has a specialized collection of over 16,000 cataloged items relating to Philippine history and culture, ranging in age from the seventeenth century to the present. Many of these books and maps are quite fragile and have become brittle over the decades. Naturally some are in need of serious restoration and above all proper housing. Removing old tape and unstable plastic covers, acidic card board backing and inappropriate odds and ends left in books is essential. Providing new acid free envelopes, slipcases and book boxes provides excellent protection for valuable documents for years to come.

The Philippine’s tropical climate and proximity to salty sea breezes is especially hard on paper. Mold and fungus thrive in the humid environment and fasteners such as staples, paper clips and even rubber bands rust and disintegrate in a matter of a few months. Organic glues and pastes used in traditional book bindings are a delicious treat for cockroaches, silverfish and many other pests. Harsh sunlight bleaches book jackets, color prints and photographs while the extreme heat gives rise to a destructive process recently described by paper conservators as “tropicalization”. The humid tropical heat literally burns paper up by activating the inert acids, salts, resins and other chemicals present in various types of fiber and mounting board.

In a cool stable climate acidic paper may take decades to turn yellow, then brown and eventually crumble, while in the tropics it can degenerate ten times faster. Air conditioning is an expensive godsend for collectors but even this invention can present serious problems if not properly monitored. Keeping temperatures stable, around 23 degrees centigrade and the humidity around 60% is ideal. It is very stressful for a book or other antiques if the temperature fluctuates radically from day to night or over weekends. Condensation can occur when warm air hits cool glazing on framed prints or maps or even within books. As one conservator in Singapore pointed out to me, condensation can cause book display cases and picture frames to become miniature terrariums, ideal for mold and fungus. Furthermore, absolutely never place book shelves below air-conditioning units; sooner or later they will leak or drip, quickly destroying any paper material  below.

Books and prints can be categorized either as works of art or utilitarian devices simply for storing information, sometimes both. Library curators and private collectors are faced with the difficult task of having to choose what to save first. At the Ortigas Library we have volumes of official government and ecclesiastical reports from the Spanish Era up the recent times. Some of the older ones only in their original paper bindings are falling apart. Most of these are of little interest esthetically aside from occasional photographs, but they contain massive amounts of important information. These books get a new, sturdy and inexpensive library binding that will extend their lives possibly another hundred years.

The finer books, which are not necessarily the older ones get special treatment. Our most important books, maps and photo albums are in original leather or cloth bindings, have exquisite illustrations, decorative cartouches and are beautifully designed.  Mr. Apilado and his wife Mildred carefully take this material and lovingly clean each page with special soft brushes, repair ripped or damaged pages, rebuild broken spines and clean and restore damaged and abraded covers. Sometimes they have to work with leather, cloth and various paper fibers. Each time they must scientifically analyze a books condition before proceeding with restoration. When the work is finished a detailed written report is made complete with before and after photographs. 

Restoration can sometimes be more expensive than the actual market value of a work. Librarians, curators and book collection managers have to carefully appraise not only monetary value but more importantly the cultural value and value to the institution. The Ortigas Foundation Library’s primary concern is preserving material  which can aid scholars studying Philippine history. Fortunately for our budget we are not too concerned with collecting signed first editions or original art work which private collectors or museums pay small fortunes to own. We, on the other hand, would love to complete our early sets of Philippine periodicals, government documents and accounts of the Philippine Revolution or World War ll. These can be hard to find but do not have a high “market value” simply because there is not a high demand for scholarly material.

Heritage conservation in a Philippine library setting can range from utilitarian binding of twentieth century government reports to painstakingly rebuilding worm eaten pages of a seventeenth century friar treatise on early Filipino languages. All of this material tells the story of the Philippines and should be of concern to both the government and the private sector. Given the vagaries of the tropical climate and simple human neglect, I would guess at present information is being lost at a much faster rate than it is being saved. The internet is a wonderful study tool but so far has not proven  itself in the area of longterm conservation. Electronic storage or digitalization is still in its infancy and has so far not provided anything as permanent or reliable as a simple book printed on paper.  After all, how many of us can still open our WordStar files or “floppy disks” of just a few years back?