This was originally a multi-part post which has been combined for easier reading.
Between now and June 18th, your humble Special Collections Librarian, Christine Megowan, will be blogging from the library at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, where I’m spending two weeks working with the library staff to help preserve their rare book collections. I’m incredibly honored to be asked to visit TBC, and hope you’ll enjoy reading about my experiences there.
The Beijing Center was founded in 1998 to help visitors from the United States and around the globe to learn about and experience Chinese culture, and hosts a variety of study abroad programs in Chinese studies.
I arrived in Beijing at the start of a holiday weekend in honor of the Dragon Boat Festival, and so my first few days were spent sightseeing at the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Houhai (one of Beijing’s historic neighborhoods), and the Great Wall. On Tuesday morning though, it was time to get to work.
In addition to a general collection of books published after 1949, TBC’s library has two rare book collections: one consisting of books on China published from the early 19th century up to 1949, and the other containing accounts of how the West learned of China, dating from as early as 1588 up to the late 19th century.
Before looking at individual items, I wanted to get a feel for the health of the collection as a whole, so I spent much of my first day just looking around the library. My goal was to come up with a basic preservation plan, identifying potential risks to the collection, suggesting solutions, and setting priorities for implementation.
What I found is that the TBC staff are already doing many good things to safeguard their collections, like monitoring temperature and using humidifiers to prevent materials from drying out in Beijing’s dry Summer heat. Unfortunately, the air conditioning in TBC’s library isn’t quite up to the task of keeping the room down to the ideal temperature of 70 degrees (Fahrenheit) or lower.
Without a lot of expensive new equipment, there’s not much they can do to change the temperature of the library as a whole, but it may be possible to isolate the most valuable items in the collection and move them a smaller storage room or to fireproof cabinets to make sure that the environment stays stable and cool.
The other big danger facing TBC’s rare book collections is light. The Beijing Center’s library is a beautiful space with tastefully decorated reading areas bathed in natural light. From a preservation standpoint, however, natural light is the very worst kind of light. All wavelengths of light, visible or invisible, cause library materials to deteriorate, and sunlight contains the entire spectrum, from ultraviolet to infrared.
Ultraviolet light, which has the shortest wavelength and therefore the most energy, is the most damaging to library materials. Inside the display cases that house the library’s oldest and most valuable items, including a 1616 printing of the diary of Matteo Ricci, and a hand-calligraphed silk scroll from the Forbidden City, are fluorescent lights, which give off UV radiation in addition to visible light.
Fortunately, this problem can be fixed more easily than the temperature. After some discussion, we made plans to replace the old fluorescent bulbs with new LED light fixtures, which don’t produce UV radiation, use less energy, and create less heat, helping to keep the temperatures inside the display cases down. We also looked at installing UV filtering on the library’s windows, and on the glass of the display cases.
Over the next few days, I’ll start looking at ways of protecting individual items in the library’s collections, so check back soon for more posts from Beijing!
It’s been a busy few days here in Beijing. After spending my first day looking at the collection as a whole, I started teaching the library staff here to make custom, made-to-measure, acid-free boxes for the fragile or damaged books in their collection.
When it comes to rare books, it’s almost always better to focus on preventing further damage than to send a book in for repair. Even the plainest bindings can hold physical evidence of where that book has been, who was using it, and how.
One of the best ways to prevent damage to a book, apart from careful handling, is to make a box for it. A box will hold pieces of a book together if they’ve started to come apart, prevent fragile bindings from rubbing against other books on the shelf, or protect other books from bindings that may have sharp metallic decorations (like our 1575 bible, which you can make an appointment to see in LMU’s Archives & Special Collections). Certain kinds of box, when properly constructed, can even act as a buffer against frequent changes in temperature and humidity.
At LMU (and now, at The Beijing Center), we use two main types of box for our rare books. For smaller books, we use what’s called a phase box, which was originally designed as the first step in getting a book ready for repair, but is now often used as the only conservation treatment a book will receive. There are many different ways of making phase boxes, but the one we use has four flaps that wrap around the book. This type of box is easy to make from lightweight board, holds damaged books together, and gives them some protection from bumps and abrasions.
For bigger books that need a little bit of extra support, we make a sturdier clamshell box out of corrugated cardboard. Both kinds of box are made from archival-quality acid-free board, and are designed to fit each book exactly, to within 1mm. A well made box should fit snugly enough that a book does not have room to move around inside the box, but not so tightly that the book is being crushed by it.
After a few days of teaching how to measure, cut, fold, and assemble boxes, I was ready for some more sightseeing. On Saturday, I ventured out on my own via subway to visit the Summer Palace. Entering the subway station, I was both surprised and relieved to find that the ticket machines and nearly all of the signs had English translations. In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government went to great lengths to make sure that there were plenty of English signs in and around the city, and that the grammar and spelling on those signs were clear and correct.
The Summer Palace, located about 9 miles northwest of Beijing’s center, was originally constructed in 1750 and served as an imperial retreat until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. The original structures were burned during the Anglo-French allied invasion in 1860, but the palace was rebuilt in 1888 by the Empress Dowager Cixi. Three quarters of the palace’s 726.5 acres are occupied by a lake where visitors can hire boats. Three large hills dominate the rest of the park, with several paths winding through tranquil gardens, up steep slopes, and around temples, shrines, and pavilions. I climbed to the top of Longevity Hill to visit the Tower of Buddhist Incense, where I enjoyed a spectacular view of the lake below. After four or five hours of wandering and climbing though, my feet were telling me that it was time to return to my apartment on campus. As it turned out, it was a good thing I didn’t stay any later–a thunderstorm started suddenly when I was just one block from the shelter of the subway.
The next morning, I went out again, this time accompanied by one of the many American students spending their summer at TBC. Rather than visiting another historic monument (of which Beijing has several), we went back to the alleyways or Hutongs near Houhai Lake for a bit of shopping. I’d picked up just enough Mandarin during my trip to ask “How much is this?” (“Zhege duoshuo chan?”) and, if I listened very carefully and if the shopkeeper spoke very clearly, to understand the answer. We stopped at a tea shop and tasted different types of teas, and haggled with the shopkeepers over the price of a teapot. At the end of the day, we came back with our hands full of souvenirs, and ready to start another week.
As I’m composing this final post about my time in Beijing, I’m sitting on an airplane waiting to get back to Los Angeles. Although I’m looking forward to coming back home to my family and friends, this trip has been a memorable one, and an incredible learning experience.
My last few days at The Beijing Center’s library were spent talking about exhibits, and how to construct simple book supports from acid-free board, so that books can be displayed without straining or breaking their bindings. Opening a book out completely flat can damage its spine (which is why the photocopiers in the library have sloping edges, so that you don’t have to crush the book flat on the glass in order to make copies.) The older and more fragile the book, the narrower the angle at which it can be safely opened.
Unlike LMU’s rare books, which are housed in a high-security vault in the Hannon Library basement and only brought out when someone requests them in our reading room or when we include them in an exhibit, TBC’s entire rare book collection is shelved in locked, glass-fronted bookcases within the general library, so their entire collection is on display even when not in use. Most of the books are shelved normally in order to make the most of their limited space, but certain key items, as well as autographed copies of books in their general collection, are opened out on display.
While the constant exposure to UV light and air pollution is less than ideal (we looked into installing UV filtering film on the windows and display cases), the use of book supports can at least protect the bindings by holding the book open at a moderate angle, and by supporting the pages. Book supports can also be made that hold a book upright while closed, so the cover can be seen.
After working on book supports for a couple of days, I went out for one last sightseeing excursion, this time to the Olympic Stadium. Even three years after the games, the Olympic complex is still a thriving tourist attraction, with visitors from all over China (and beyond) coming to take photos or purchase souvenirs. Wandering along the main thoroughfare that lies between the Bird’s Nest and the Aquatics Cube, I saw teams of young children training on rollerblades, perhaps in the hopes of one day becoming Olympic skaters. A little further ahead, a group of three people were practicing a dance with fans. After a bit of haggling, I bought a set of postcards for the LMU library’s Postcard Collection, and then headed back to campus.
My last day at TBC was spent reviewing all of the material that we’d covered over the past two weeks, answering any last-minute questions, and saying some warm goodbyes. Then, in the morning, it was off to the airport and back home.
On my trip, I saw some incredible sights, learned a little bit about Chinese culture, sampled plenty of excellent Chinese food, and hopefully, left the folks at the Beijing Center’s library a little bit better informed about library preservation than when I’d arrived.
Thank you to Ms. Shan, TBC’s librarian, and Robin Wang, their library assistant (and my translator) for making me feel welcome when I was so far from home, and to Fr. Roberto Ribiero, Director of the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, for bringing me to Beijing in the first place!