Leather bound books on library shelving showing considerable deterioration with discoloration, roughness and separation.

Leather Bindings: Mapping Spatial Data

By Brianna Chatmon ~

A book with an illustraton of a group of animals approaching a house with a Christmas tree, mended with duct tape in four places on the spine and edges.
Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, 1968

I wasn’t surprised when I learned that some of the world’s oldest leather-bound manuscripts housed at The Nag Hammadi Library and commonly referred to as the 13 codices, are bound in leather. Or that they remain in very good condition although they were written between the third and fourth century.  Many libraries around the world have historic leather-bound volumes in good condition, including many here at the National Library of Medicine.  However, a lot of newer leather shows signs of significant decay.  This didn’t surprise me either. My own favorite childhood book, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree published in 1968, is bound in leather and is sitting on my bookshelf patched with duct tape to keep it from falling apart.

My much-loved Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree is an example of the kind of materials that are at the center of the annual American Library Association National Preservation Week. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the week which raises awareness of the importance of preservation and disaster preparedness for libraries and archives and also aims to inspire actions to preserve personal, family, and community collections.

Save Your Stuff and Pass It On! Preservation week April 25-May 1, 2021.

As an Associate Fellow at the National Library of Medicine this year I’ve been excited to work with the senior conservator, Holly Herro, in the History of Medicine Division in support of an ongoing collaborative preservation research project between NLM, Smithsonian Institution and Penn State University on exploring the changes in leather found in library collections throughout different stages of the leather tanning process.

For me, journeying through the history of book binding with leather is complex but fascinating. The complexity stems from the multitude of techniques practiced and revised through leather bookbinding history and the fascination stems from how creative early bookbinders were with their resources and how it influenced generations of bookbinders that would come.

The puzzling phenomenon in the book binding community of the rapid decay of relatively modern (19th century) leather bound books is pushing this research forward on several fronts. Scientists, book conservators, and tanners from around the world are pulling together to figure out this mystery. Some factors that may be the cause of this phenomenon are chemical composites, changing environments, biological differences, and how the manufacturing practices of bookbinding leathers have changed. Comparisons of the microbiome and fungal properties of leather bindings are being investigated from various eras of history and stages of the manufacturing process. At NLM we’re working to gather data generated from all these explorations together in a central place so that researchers can more easily access and share information.

My particular task uses a new georeferenced database, built with the publicly available SRA (Sequence Read Archive) repository developed by the National Center for Bioinformatics (NCBI) at NLM, to capture DNA sequencing information in order to explore where the leather from individual collection items came from, was processed, and has been treated. Our leather database is still under construction and with support from Steve Sherry, acting director of NCBI, and a team of SRA staff, I am exploring data collection and data storage options in order to provide a demo of how users, both remotely and on premises, can retrieve, analyze, and contribute to datasets of interest.

We are also evaluating data visualization tools to determine which will be the best fit with our database and our users. At this point, we have narrowed our selection down to three. Using previously collected genomic data to test out the capabilities of each tool, we are exploring Power Bi, Tableau, and ArcGIS. For example, we experimented with creating a global map of animal breed and geographic origins in Power Bi, a Microsoft tool, using a test subset of the genomic data previously collected.  Power Bi proved to be quick and efficient with the data set upload.

A map of th world cenered on the Atlantic Ocean with multicolored circles in the US and Netherlands indicating materials from 8 countries.
A test Power Bi Map of animal breeds and locations from which they originated

Tableau is another tool we are exploring. It is considered the most diverse and capable data visualization tool on the market and we are looking forward to exploring its capabilities with maps.  And finally, We are also looking at ArcGIS, a high powered spatial mapping tool. Each data visualization tool offers outstanding capabilities and makes selecting the best one difficult. In a second post later this summer, I will share the journey I undertook to compare and evaluate each data visualization tool that we explored and explain the decisions that were made to select the best tool for our purpose.

This investigation of leather bindings kicked off a little over 5 years ago and has grown tremendously. With continued research and the development of the georeferenced leather database, the possibilities are limitless. For now, the focus is building the database and making sure it is functional and user friendly. We hope that with the launch of this database researchers globally will contribute their findings of genomic data collected from leather bindings, helping better access to open data for those in this field. With these contributions leather users in multiple conservation disciplines as well as leather manufacturers will have access to this information in one place.

A shelf of books from the 1800s some with original leather bindings, others rebound in heavy, stiff cloth.
Leather from the early nineteenth century will often last longer than leather from the late nineteenth century. Many books from the later period have been rebound in unsympathetic materials such as buckram, coarse linen or other cloth stiffened with gum or paste.

This project has introduced me to a world that I previously knew very little about.  With each step I am learning more and more about book conservation and how pivotal it is in preserving the past so that it can live in the future. I hope those who are reading will follow me on this journey as we dig deeper into how the data visualization tools were evaluated and selected to be used within the georeferenced leather database.

A young black woman posed informally by a stone wall.Brianna Chatmon is a 2020-2021 National Library of Medicine Associate Fellow.

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