Tucked away in the basement of this building on the leafy campus of Johns Hopkins University, is the Department of Conservation & Preservation of the Sheridan Libraries. It was here that I went early this year to meet Jennifer Jarvis, a Book & Paper Conservator at the libraries, with a bundle of precious, but dilapidated, books under my arm. The books were so loved and much-used that they had come adrift from their spines and had been sticky taped together many times over. It was time to try and restore a little piece of the past.
The books come from a complete set of Charles Dickens, in a reprinting by the Collins Clear-Type Press, London, and Glasgow. Collins was one of a whole group of publishers—Everyman was another—that offered an affordable option for building a home library in the early 20th-century. There is no publication date on the Dickens set, but a site that documents 20th-Century Publishers Book Series puts it at around 1920. The books are small (6 x 4 that fits perfectly in the hand), cloth bound, with quirky Art Nouveau end pages, and text blocks so delicate that the pages seem to sigh when you turn them.
This Dickens series published by the Collins Library of Classics was a 21st birthday gift for my mother, Joan née Barker (Sarah’s great granddaughter) and you could tell which had been her favorites—David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend, and Great Expectations—because they were the the ones that were falling apart the most. The books are illustrated by the barrister-turned-artist, W.H.C. (William Henry Charles) Groome (1954-1913). My mother, being the somewhat headstrong maverick that she was, folded the illustrations in half lengthwise so that the artistic visualizations of someone else didn’t impede her own—they were her books to do with as she pleased, I suppose!
When my mother died in 2013, the books came to me, and I schlepped them back from Cape Town to America in my suitcase, carefully wrapped in various articles of clothing. Ever since, I’ve looked at the battered, patched-together spines with a pang, wondering when the time would come that I would be able to have them restored. This year was the time, when I learned about Jennifer Jarvis and the Department of Conservation & Preservation—and this was the week that I was able to go and collect them (along with Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard by Eleanor Farjeon, beloved since my childhood.)
Jennifer has coaxed the books back to life and made them whole without taking away one iota of their history—the end pages are preserved, the spines still have their cloth binding, the watermark on David Copperfield still keeps its hidden story. It feels like another reaching back into the past and bringing it into my present life.