CHENNAI: Books are tangible evidence of our past with important culture and history within its covers. However, with time and age, the book deteriorates; the binding rots, and the paper becomes weak, tears and discolours.
Therefore, it’s vital to conserve our literary heritage from the morbidity of time, and as P Renganathan says, books are the most important tools for preservation of human history for future generations. The Chennai-based book restorer has worked to preserve important printed materials for several libraries in Chennai and also across the country, and is well-known within the restoration community.
For Renganathan, it started in 1995, while laminating a student’s certificate. The corners got burnt due to the machine overheating. “I still feel bad about it. It got totally spoilt. I finally threw away the machine,” he recalls.
This incident prompted him to research and develop a hand-lamination method. Over the next five years, he consulted with librarians, archivists, museum curators and others who have old rare documents, to understand the precautions they take and methods they use to preserve documents.
“I researched the physical and chemical properties of paper, and also worked to solve the shortcomings of existing lamination and conservation systems,” he explains. This eventually led his research into document restoration.
His first restoration work was in 1998 at Periyar Thidal, Chennai, to preserve their Viduthalai newspaper editions dating back to 1890. “After that, there was no looking back. The Kerala-based newspaper Malayala Manorama gave us our first major project — restoring over 8 lakh newspapers from 1880 till date!” he smiles.
Restoration is an extremely time-consuming and labour-intensive process. Most books are brittle or brought in in very bad conditions, and sometimes with lost pages. A book takes anywhere between 10-15 days, sometimes even a whole month, to restore; the process involves cleaning, bleaching, lamination and binding. “The biggest threat to books in libraries is insects. The books need to be fumigated before the binding,” he explains.
Through his research, Renganathan concluded that ordinary plastics, like PVC, tend to actually harm paper. “Due to moisture and atmospheric conditions, PVC generates acidic fumes which eat the paper — documents become yellow after lamination. Low grade plastics should not be used!” he advises.
Due to his aversion towards machine-laminations, he has developed four hand-lamination methods, all patented. His laminations are reversible, unlike machine lamination.
“Polyester lamination method is the best, with polyester film having a high melting temperature of 250 degrees and is fire retardant. The technique is fast too; it allows 400 sheets to be laminated per day. Compared to other plastics, this is the most environmentally safe and can last as long as 500 years. It’s non-tearable as well,” he adds.
Renganathan works closely with several libraries in Chennai like the Madras Literary society, Connemara library and CLRI library, to name a few. He recalls the project he did for MLS — around 200 ancient maps of the Ganges canal — some of which were 12’ by 12’! “The maps were as brittle as papad, initially. It took us four days to restore each map. We were satisfied with the project, ultimately, though it was tedious,” he recalls.
A recent project was the restoration of a book by Aristotle in 1665. “It had fungal growth on it. I did the restoration work for free,” he smiles.
Though they have a protocol of book restoration, challenges come their way. For instance, the Sanskrit department of Madras University. “The department used the old lamination process of using plastic that has melting temperature of 40 degrees. It had melted all the pages, and they were stuck to each other. Through the government museum, we took that book, tested the film. We used ammonium acetate to separate the pages, and recovered the book,” he explains.
Renganathan advises libraries to store books and newspapers by hanging them, as opposed to stacking, which prevents pressure on the bottom-most paper or book. He also conducts workshops and classes across the country for archivists, librarians, other conservationists and even students. “It started as a research, and ended up becoming my profession. If books are saved, so can the heritage of knowledge from the past, for the future!” he avers.
● Libraries of IIT, University of Madras, CLRI
● Newspapers such as Maathrubhoomi, Kerala Gomathi, Dinamalar
● Registers of the temples under Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam that has details about the jewels — when it was made, how much it weighs, persons who checked the weight and quality, etc
● Technical handbooks of drawings for the original broadcasting electrical equipment, for All India
● 18th century documents for Delhi State archives
● Nearly 2,000 books for the Sanskrit College
● Cloth lamination technique — done using a cloth a starch or CMC, which can be reversed by immersing in hot water.
● Tissue paper lamination (similar to above). Tissue paper imported from Germany. The has rectified the ink smudging problem,
● Lamino encapsulation, which can be done by anyone. Lamination covers are available as individual pieces, and the pages can be inserted and taped to seal. If needed to be reversed, it can be cut and document retrieved.
- Pages are sorted based on page numbers or dates
- Cleaning accumulated dust and bleaching to improve yellowing
- Kept in a chamber box — for de-acidification and fumigation. This is done using a vapour-based process — ammonia vapour reacts with acid in the paper and forms a salt, which is deposited on the top.
- Cleaning to removes salts and dead insects.
- Lamination based on type of document
- Binding and storage
To get in touch with P Renganathan, visit www.photolam.com