Step-by-Step, the Conservation Process

Introduction step 1 of 25

In the Fall of 2010, a team of conservators was tasked with documenting the current condition of the Jefferson Bible, formulating a conservation plan that identified issues, and carrying out an ethical and appropriate conservation treatment to ensure the book can be viewed and enjoyed by future generations.

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Documentation step 2 of 25

Before any conservation treatment took place, the team carried out extensive documentation of the Jefferson Bible. This included microscopic analysis, photographic documentation, written documentation, and historical research. The team uncovered as much information as possible about the way Jefferson created the volume, as well as how the bookbinder took Jefferson's loose pieces of paper and constructed them into a book.

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Survey database step 3 of 25

The team also carried out an in depth conservation survey using a custom-made database. The survey included approximately 200 questions per page of the Jefferson Bible, resulting in 20,000 data points. Conservators worked in pairs at a microscope, examining each individual page and faithfully recording all information discovered.

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Micro-chemical testing step 4 of 25

Conservators performed micro-chemical testing to determine whether the iron content of Jefferson's handwriting ink would cause more discoloration and breakdown of the paper. A variety of solvent and water mixtures were tested to determine if the pages could be safely washed to remove the acidic by-products of degradation.

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Organic analysis step 5 of 25

Conservators took microscopic samples of the twelve different types of paper, ten different kinds of ink, and two different adhesives present on the volume's pages. The sample sizes, measured in units of one thousandth of a millimeter, ranged from 20 to 200 microns—they were so small, that they were nearly invisible without the aid of a microscope. These samples were analyzed by conservation scientists at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute for organic elements. Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) revealed that the adhesive Jefferson used to adhere the clippings to the pages contained both animal glue and starch paste, which is water soluble.

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Inorganic analysis step 6 of 25

Conservation scientists at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute analyzed the same samples with micro-X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to identify traces of inorganic elements, such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, aluminum, potassium, sulfur, copper, and iron. Knowing whether these elements are present in the papers and inks helped the conservators determine the rate of deterioration.

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Decision to carry out conservation treatment step 7 of 25

After analyzing all of the information collected, the conservators considered treatment options, and discussed the pros, cons and associated risks with the curators. Together, it was determined that the most significant conservation issue was the physical damage to Jefferson's pages caused by the bookbinding structure. The curator and conservation team formed a plan to disbind the book, separate the pages, stabilize the damage, and rebind the repaired pages in the original covers

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Facing the leather step 8 of 25

Janice Stagnitto Ellis, Senior Paper Conservator, was responsible for taking the book apart. She began the disbinding process by placing a protective layer on top of the leather in a process called "facing." Facing the leather helps keep it stable and intact while manipulating the object. The protective layer consisted of a piece of hand-made, 100% kozo tissue from Japan; this acid-free tissue has excellent aging properties. A conservation quality adhesive was previously applied to the tissue and was then reactivated with a solvent after the tissue was wrapped around the leather covers. The adhesive is easily reversible in a solvent so at any time the protective layer can be removed without leaving any residue on the leather covers.

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Removing the cover step 9 of 25

Janice then began the delicate process of removing the leather covers from the pages inside without harming either the leather cover or Jefferson's paper. Over the course of a day, she used a thin, flexible, extremely sharp knife to carefully separate the various paper linings the bookbinder had added to the spine of the book. These layers allowed the text block to separate from the covers without any cuts or nicks to either the leather or Jefferson's paper.

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Cleaning the spine step 10 of 25

After separating the text block from the covers, Janice cleaned the remainder of the paper spine linings from the Jefferson pages underneath. She used a poultice to soften the adhesive and then gently scraped off the linings with a dental pick.

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Removing the endbands step 11 of 25

Endbands are the small, decorative bands of thread seen at the top and bottom of the pages at the spine of the book. Historically, endbands were sewn into the pages of the book during the binding process. The Jefferson Bible has a two-color silk endband at both the top and bottom of the spine of the book. Janice carefully removed both endbands and tied new thread onto the ends of the original thread so that she could resew them in their original location after the pages were rebound.

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Separating pages step 12 of 25

Jefferson glued his clippings onto folios of paper, which are sheets of paper folded in half to create two leaves, or four pages. The bookbinder's sewing thread runs inside the center fold of each folio. To take the Jefferson Bible apart, Janice gently opened the book to the center of each folio, snipped the sewing thread, and separated the pages from the binding. The thread has been preserved as part of the artifact's historical record.

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Housing the individual folios step 13 of 25

Each of the 43 folios was then placed inside its own specially created protective enclosure. The enclosure was placed inside a folder. Any specimens found tucked inside the pages, such as book marks, glass shards, clipping fragments or stray hairs, were placed in labeled polyethylene bags and housed inside the folder with the page where they were found. All treatment documentation associated with the folio, including a treatment workflow checklist, was placed in window pockets on the outside of the folder.

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Removing the stubs step 14 of 25

Jefferson's bookbinder alternately glued one or two 1 cm wide folded paper "stubs" onto the centerfold of each folio. The stubs added thickness to the spine side of the pages to compensate for the added thickness in the middle where Jefferson had glued the clippings. The stubs were causing damage to Jefferson's pages when the book was opened. Ninety-eight percent of Jefferson's pages had either torn or cracked where they came into contact with the stubs as the book was opened. The conservators removed the stubs by applying a water-based poultice to them, which softened the adhesive, and gently separating the stubs from the Jefferson pages using a micro-spatula. The stubs were labeled and placed in protective enclosures as part of the artifact's historical record. Watermarks on the stubs indicate that this paper was made by P.A. Mesier between the years 1817-1822.

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Surface cleaning step 15 of 25

Next, conservators tested the paper's ability to withstand removal of residual surface dirt and dust left on the pages. By viewing the paper under a microscope, they observed the stability of the paper fibers as they brushed the surface with a soft, goat hair-brush. After being assured the action was safe for the object, conservators cleaned the surface of all of the folios with a soft brush. Throughout the entire conservation treatment, all extraneous material found between the pages was meticulously labeled and preserved as part of the artifact's historical record.

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Curatorial decision making step 16 of 25

Curators and conservators worked together to examine every instance of damage on each page and discussed where and how mends were to be made. This discriminating approach ensured that all evidence of Jefferson's hand and use were preserved. Using photographs of the disbound pages, the curator-conservator team indicated where, and what type of repairs were to be made. These photographs became the treatment authorization forms and were signed by the curator to signify that the indicated conservation treatment was approved. The goal was to stabilize all historical evidence, and not to make the artifact appear changed or new in any way.

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Mending tissues step 17 of 25

A variety of Japanese tissue-weight papers with slightly different thicknesses were chosen for repairing the tears and cracks on the pages of the Jefferson Bible. All of the mending tissues were hand-made from 100% kozo fibers, an acid-free material with excellent aging properties, and were toned with acrylic paint applied with an airbrush. Each conservator was provided with a kit containing a wide selection of repair papers to ensure that the perfect weight, shade and opacity repair paper was available to match that particular area of Jefferson's paper.

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Mending tears step 18 of 25

Using surgical tools, artist paint brushes and kabuki powder brushes, all the tears and cracks in Jefferson's paper were mended with Japanese tissue and conservation quality adhesive. All repairs were made with reversible adhesives. Any areas of the paper that showed a dangerous weakness were gently supported with Japanese paper to prevent the damage from escalating.

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Trimming mends/Quality Control under microscope step 19 of 25

Conservators trimmed the mending tissue away from the edges using a scalpel while viewing the artifact with a microscope. This assured the object maintained its original irregular edges without any accidental loss of Jefferson's paper. A microscope was also used to check each mend for quality control and allowed conservators a chance to remove any stray fibers or dust that might have become trapped underneath the mending tissue.

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Scanning step 20 of 25

After treatment, each page was professionally photographed using a 50 megapixel Hasselblad camera, producing the first color images ever made of the complete artifact. These images, taken by National Museum of American History photographer Hugh Talman, are the ones available on this website and were also used by Smithsonian Books to publish a full color facsimile of the object.

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Folding pages/replacing stubs step 21 of 25

Prior to rebinding, Janice carefully refolded all of the pages back into their folio format. At the same time, she gently turned the Jefferson pages in her hands, as if turning leaves in a book, and verified that the repairs "moved" well and were supporting the mended tears completely. This also allowed her to check whether additional repairs or supports were needed. Two new 100% kozo Japanese paper stubs were added to each folio but were not glued. One was placed outside of the fold of Jefferson's page, and the other inside. They protect the Jefferson pages from the adhesive later applied in the rebinding process and cushion the paper from the sewing thread used in resewing. These new stubs, which were toned to match, are much thinner, softer and more flexible than the original stubs and will not cause the Jefferson Bible to tear as the original stubs had. Janice then stacked the folded pages, allowing them to regain their natural shape as a textblock. They remained stacked and under light weight for one week.

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Resewing step 22 of 25

The Jefferson Bible is forty three folios, each comprised of one sheet of paper. Because each folio is so thin, the original bookbinder chose to only partially sew on the folios, three at a time. This method made the sewing go more quickly, but is less secure because less thread is used. The original bookbinder glued the spine heavily to make it more secure. Janice opted instead to sew each folio on one at a time. The new sewing provides stability to Jefferson's bound pages without gluing them. No binding adhesive touches Jefferson's pages. Multiple Japanese paper linings were added to the spine of the sewn book. Linings control the shape of the spine as the book is opened. Some of the spine linings were left wider than the spine to form "tabs" on either side.

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Reattaching endbands step 23 of 25

When the silk endbands were removed from the original binding, new thread was tied to the end of each silk thread that once tied the endbands into the book. Janice threaded a sewing needle through each new thread, and used it to sew the original silk endbands back to the book in their original location.

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Cover to text attachment step 24 of 25

The original leather covering was supported on the inside of the spine with Japanese paper. The uppermost layer was tinted blue to help the next generation of conservators. Should future generations of conservators ever need to disbind the book again, the blue paper marks where their knife should aim. The marbled paper inside the front and back covers was lifted to expose the board beneath. To connect the sewn book to the leather covers, a reversible, conservation quality paste was applied to the spine of the re-sewn book. The book was then aligned inside the closed covers, and wrapped in an ace bandage until the paste on the spine dried. Then the tabs were pasted inside the front and back covers underneath the marbled paper, which was then pasted back down inside the covers. Finally, the protective facing was removed from the outside of the book.

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Post Conservation step 25 of 25

This post-conservation treatment photograph of Jefferson's bible shows how the repaired pages drape open easily, even though the binding and paper appear unchanged. This physical stabilization of the artifact allows it to be exhibited once again. For chemical stabilization and long term preservation, an anoxic storage environment was created for the Jefferson Bible. Oxygen causes oxidation reactions, which cause age-related paper darkening, fiber breakage, and brittleness. An oxygen free environment helps preserve artifacts by slowing acidic hydrolysis and eliminating oxidation reactions, helping to chemically stabilize it and prevent further damage to the Jefferson Bible.

Conservation Overview


Conservation Blog Post: Disbinding Blog Post

It is difficult to describe how one faces the prospect of taking apart a national treasure. Of course, in order to reach the level of craftsmanship required, there are years of education and practice required, but that doesn't begin to fully describe it.

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All About Stubs Video

Book conservators always want to know how a book was bound. Before you can even think about how to fix something, you first have to know how it was made.

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Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
"I am of a sect by myself, as far
as I know." — Thomas Jefferson, 1819


Separating pages
Removing the stubs

Purchase a Copy

The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition, is a full-color facsimile created from high-resolution digital photographs of recently conserved and rebound pages.

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