At this moment the Penn Libraries are embarking on a search for a senior conservator and eagerly anticipating the September opening of a new, 3,500-square-foot conservation lab in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. It’s a good time for a story about what conservation can do.
For some students, a 600-year-old manuscript works its magic on their imagination and curiosity even if they can’t read what’s written on its pages. But, not surprisingly, being able to make out even a few lines of text takes students to another level, slowing them down to experience script and page layout for themselves. So opportunities to read open up more pedagogical possibilities for faculty. Students with skills in Latin or Italian have an abundance of choices among the manuscripts of the Kislak Center. Students with skills in French or German have a respectable array from which to choose. But for students whose needs would be best met by early English manuscripts, we have only a precious handful — five manuscripts.
Middle English manuscripts are now extremely difficult to acquire, and we are fortunate to have these five manuscripts from acquisitions of the 1940s and early 1950s. But they had hard lives before coming to the library, all but one having been rebound by owners of past centuries, often trimmed to fit into not particularly durable new bindings, and at the library the manuscripts continue to work hard for students, faculty, and library staff.
Thanks to a gift from long-time Libraries friend Bruce McKittrick and the work of Richard Homer, a conservator at Philadelphia’s Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA), one of these manuscripts is newly useful for research and teaching. It has a solid new binding that better reflects the probable weight and shape of the manuscript’s original binding and that provides stability, flexibility, and protection for the manuscript inside. Continue reading