Choirbooks, and much more, at the Spanish National Library

Passing through Madrid, a visit to the National Library of Spain cannot be missed. Although later than we were expected, a smiling and very zen Luís Crespo, restorer at the Library, receives us and guides us through a labyrinth of corridors to the

restoration studio. On the way we see countless books, CDs, bundles… a wealth of information of all ages and sizes: on paper, vinyl, parchment, and a thousand supports of all kinds.

BNE. Biblioteca Nacional de España

Left: box machine. Right: Aida Nunes, paper restorer at the Lisbon Museums (Portugal), next to Luís Crespo.

The restoration section is distributed in several departments: there is one room with the only purpose to elaborate boxes and special housings. These containers are a first and very effective protection layer for certain books and documents which have slight or medium damages. A low-cost preventive conservation measure for huge amounts of books, such as in the Library. There is only one person there, but that’s all it takes: a wonderful (and enormous) machine punches the boxes! You just put the cardboard and the measures, and the machine cuts the box.

In the workshops area there’s bustle of restorers: some are sewing books, some consolidate sheets… a non-stop!

BNE. Biblioteca Nacional de España

Left: Luís and Patricia Real, paper restorer at the IVC+R (Valencia, Spain), watching the hake, japanese brushes. Right: detail of a document under retoration process, on a Karibari (orange tone).

At the restoration labs there’s a combination of tradition and modernity: ancient techniques coexist, for an instance, with the low pressure bath table that looks like a NASA space machine (I must admit that this joking about it is only due to jealousy: I would love to have one at my studio!).
Among the traditional techniques a clear eastern influence shows: the brushes, the Karibari and also Luís’ T-shirt… guess who’s to blame for that influence?). The Karibari is a wooden panel covered with paper which is used to flatten and consolidate papers (that I’ll explain better in another post).

BNE. Biblioteca Nacional de España

Left: Luís with a choir book. Right: Detail of a parchment sheet with gilding and lapislazuli decoration.

Luís shows us some choir books on which he is working (exhibited now and until 18th january at the exhibition Cantorales. Libros de música litúrgica en la BNE) and we are privileged to see up close these bibliographic jewels of unrivaled artistic quality: their gilded capital letters and miniatures in lapislazuli leave us speechless. By the way, the word miniature comes from minium, the red lead pigment, and has nothing to do with its size… just look at how big is this book!

Large scale choirbook

Left: Corner of a large scale choirbook in which a piece of leather was added. Right: Insides of the book covers.

Since we are restorers we are non the less touched by the inside of the book covers, which reveal all the secrets, the steps followed by the bookbinder: technical details such as stitches, reinforcements, materials… it’s just like taking a trip over time. The books are so big that the skin of a lamb was too short, and the binder managed an addition of leather in the corner.

Arsenio, books restorer

Left: Arsenio Sánchez Hernampérez, restorer at the Library. Right: Manuscripted book with added reinforcements from several different ages.

Before we leave the library, Arsenio Sánchez -also restorer there-, shows us an already restored book, another manuscripted treasure, this one in paper. We have almost get used to such beauties, and what catches now our attention is the complexity of establishing a criteria for restoration, as the book is full of added reinforcements of all ages. Some are more likely to fit today’s standards, some less… Arsenio tells us that not any of them being actually detrimental to the work, they chose to respect them all, as they are all part of the history of the book (being this treatment a pure minimal intervention).

Although brief, the visit has filled our eyes with beauty, history, techniques, science… all of it guided by Luís and Arsenio, who are leader in paper restoration in Spain.

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