You might have read in my last blog post that the 1617 Andro Hart Psalm Book which was formerly my favourite possession, has been unceremoniously bumped from pole position in my list of absolute all-time top faves, and replaced by a much more recent volume with infinitely less claim on the attention of scholars.
This usurpation has no major significance because the Psalm Book was no longer my possession anyway. I donated it back in May 2017 to the Special Collections Department of St Andrews University Library, which had kindly agreed to conserve it and keep it safely for consultation and study.
Frances and I were recently invited back to see the book in its newly-conserved state. We went a couple of weeks ago and were welcomed to the Library by Gabriel Sewell, Head of Special Collections and Erica Kotze, Conservator. And there was the little book, sitting on a cushion beside its own specially-made protective box, looking healthy and safe and important and so much more comfortable than when stranded, broken-backed and forlorn, on the bookshelves in my study.
The conservation project was undertaken by Emma Fraser of the Book & Paper Studio in Dundee (https://www.facebook.com/bookandpaperstudio/). Emma had prepared a Powerpoint presentation showing all the stages of the project (you can see it here with her permission), which Erica took us through in detail.
In former times, the way to conserve an old book was to make it look as much as possible like it did when it was new. So, for example, if you go to the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and look at the only other known copy of Andro Hart’s 1617 printing of the Whole Booke of Psalmes, then what you see is a highly-polished, heavily-restored, stiffly-bound gem of a book, its page edges all neatly trimmed and re-gilded, lovely but inauthentic. These days book conservation is done with a light touch – it’s all about stabilisation, doing the minimum possible, minimising the risk of further deterioration, making repairs and restorations reversible, while at the same time ensuring that the book remains a practical object available (under controlled conditions) for handling and study.
That’s what Emma’s conservation project was all about. You can see from her presentation that it was a painstaking, time-consuming and delicate operation, employing specialist materials and a very high degree of skill. And the result? Well, it was a lovely little book before, and it’s even lovelier now. I couldn’t be more pleased with the prompt and dedicated work that Gabriel, Erica and Emma have lavished on it.