The University Record, January 30, 1995

Artisan preserves state’s valuable historical documents

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Restoring and preserving Michigan’s history—that’s what James Craven does each day as document restorer for the Michigan Historical Collections at Bentley Historical Library.

Relying on skills learned during a career spanning more than 40 years at the U-M Bindery and the Bentley Library, Craven undertook the challenge of repairing the bindings and neutralizing acid in the pages of two of the state’s most enduring documents.

While both documents—the very first Michigan Constitution of 1835 (Michigan was admitted to the United States in 1837), and the other from 1850—had been restored in 1914, they suffered badly from a variety of environmental conditions and wear.

Over time, the leather coverings had deteriorated. The bindings broke. The 1835 copy was in the worst condition.

Before beginning any of the work, Craven and his assistants neutralized the acid in the pages of both volumes by spraying on a penetrating magnesium-based commercial product called Wei T’o. (Wei T’o is the Chinese god who protects documents from the ravages of age, insects and vandals.)

The 1835 Constitution required a total restoration of the binding. The pages were mounted on new guards (paper extending beyond the original page) and the book was entirely re-sewed. New gilding was applied to the new guards, a painstaking procedure requiring tools like an egg separator and an electric mixer. Craven beats egg whites and a pinch of sugar into a sticky substance to help the gold adhere to the page edges.

He found new Niger goatskin leather identical to the original and used it for both internal and external hinges. Next he refurbished the leather for both volumes with dye and a 60/40 mix of Neat’s foot oil and anhydrous lanolin.

While these volumes have been returned to the State Archives in Lansing, Craven continues to save Michigan’s history through his work at the Bentley Library. Bentley houses more than 4,500 archival collections measuring 25,000 linear feet, with 40,000 printed works, more than 1.5 million photographs, and more than 50 million manuscript items, all covering the state’s history from its territorial period.

Collections represent each of Michigan’s 83 counties and consist of papers and other materials donated by individuals and organizations. From the papers of 27 governors to prominent Michigan cereal magnates C.E. Post and John Harvey Kellogg, the collections also include material from the Detroit Urban League, Taxpayers United, churches, businesses, political parties and immigrant groups, as well as individuals.

The Bentley Historical Library, ranked among the finest state historical collections in the United States, is open Monday–Friday, 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m., year-round and 9 a.m.–12:30 p.m. Saturdays, September–April. For information, call 764-3482.