BPG Culturally Sensitive Treatment

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This page is an attempt to expand the Book and Paper Group Wiki to include tips and resources to make well-informed, culturally sensitive treatment decisions on book and paper collections. Further citations to useful articles or books, links to online resources, original content, images and pdfs, and conservation tips are welcome.

There are several pages on the AIC Wiki that contain overlapping, interrelated content. This page will focus on conservation ethics and the components of artifacts that should not be lost during treatment. Non-Western Bookbinding Structures and Their Conservation has a lot of information about binding structures from around the world. If a resource is useful in both pages, please include it in both or provide links back and forth. The AIC Wiki also has an overarching page on Conservation Ethics that may contain useful resources.

Wiki Contributors: Marieka Kaye, Katherine Kelly, María Helena Vargas, please add your name here

Copyright 2020. The Book and Paper Group Wiki is a publication of the Book and Paper Group of the American Institute for Conservation. It is published as a convenience for the members of the Book and Paper Group. Publication does not endorse nor recommend any treatments, methods, or techniques described herein. There is an ongoing project to update the BPG Wiki. We welcome contributions and feedback. If you would like to get involved in this effort, please contact the wiki team at [email protected].

Introduction to East Asian Book Conservation

There is a rich history in the West of collecting books from East Asia, predominantly from China, Korea, and Japan. Woodblock imprints started to arrive in significant numbers in the US during the second half of the 19th century, brought over by missionaries or as gifts from governments, scholars, and students of East Asia. The top 10 largest East Asian rare book collections in the United States are held at the following institutions:

  1. Library of Congress
  2. Harvard University
  3. University of California, Berkeley
  4. Columbia University
  5. Yale University
  6. University of Michigan
  7. University of Chicago
  8. Princeton University
  9. Cornell University
  10. Stanford University

Bibliography and philology is very interconnected between the three countries, therefore studying the history of the book across East Asia will assist a conservator in making the appropriate, culturally sensitive decisions when major intervention is required, such as re-binding, extensive paper repair, and new housing.

Jesse Munn’s important article in the Journal of the Institute of Conservation (2009) should be carefully studied by anyone working with East Asian collections. A direct link can be found here: Side‐Stitched Books of China, Korea and Japan in Western Collections. Her work emphasizes the importance of cultural sensitivity when approaching materials from different countries that appear similar on first glance but have varying characteristics that must be respected and preserved by the conservator.

The following additional information was collected during a course taken through the California Rare Book School, titled The History of the Book in East Asia. This course was held in 2014 at the University of California, Berkeley’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library, taught by Peter Zhou and Deborah Rudolph.

Characteristics of East Asian Books

East Asian books may be considered rare or remarkable for one or more of the following distinct elements:

  • Generally dated before 1796 – books dated prior to 1796 can no longer be legally obtained unless by auction or official permit to bring it out of its country of origin
  • Woodblock printing
  • Movable type printing – clay, wood, metal type
  • Manuscripts or hand-copied books
  • Important collectors’ stamps, annotations, color printing, seals

Characteristics particular to country of origin:

  • Korean: larger sizes and fonts, thicker and shinier cover, five stitches, Korean paper
  • Japanese: not as large as Korean but wider than Chinese, cover page with title label, fonts less varied and more rigid/mechanical
  • Chinese: four holes are standard but six holes were also used for more important books

Historically, local book collectors would purchase books and immediately replace the covers and cases. Rebinding volumes was very commonplace. Therefore, the number of chapters is important because when books were rebound, volume numbers changed but chapter numbers remained the same. It is also important to note that book dealers would sometimes remove content that might identify the date of an engraving, add forged (or real) ex libris seals, and add a different title. Other printers’ practices to watch out for include the production of pirated editions from print copies and passing off facsimiles as older editions.

Today the principals of book conservation in East Asian countries align with Western principals: preserve the original look and feel of the book, intervene as little as possible, and conduct treatments that may be reversed if needed in the future.

Important parts of a book that may not be original but were added by the collector and must remain in situ (particularly in Chinese bindings):

  • Title page: not many title pages remain because they were more prone to damage and subsequent loss, or were sold off by dealers
  • Preface and back matter: collectors frequently wrote about the book in the back
  • Table of contents
  • “Editorial principles” (fanli): “to the reader” section explaining why the book is organized a certain way
  • First page of text (juanduan): name of annotator and publisher may be included here, instead of the author
  • Last page of text (juanmo): states “The End”
  • Printer’s colophon: may include year, month, printer’s name, and “book forest” – the part of town where printers and publishers would be established

Placement of key elements of the book, important if considering collation:

  • Title: opening text/first chapter, end of text/last chapter, table of contents, preface, postscript, heart of the block (title abbrev.), title page, original printed title slip pasted to the front cover, printer’s colophon (except in Chinese books), on the housing (less reliable), on the tail edge (less reliable)
  • Author: opening text/first chapter, table of contents, preface, title page; if no author is found, the leaf may be missing, an alternate name was used, a pseudonoym was used, or it is falsely attributed
  • Publisher: printer’s colophon, title page, heart of the block (bottom), sometimes at a chapter opening
  • Date of engraving (different from date of printing): printer’s colophon, title page, sometimes preface
  • Date of printing: rarely included, sometimes handwritten
  • Engravers: heart of the block with character count, heart of the block with notation bu


Important aspects of the leaf layout (see illustration for detail on terminology):

  • Not all books have an upper register
  • The margin at the head is larger than the margin at the foot
  • The center of the sheet contains a guide as to where to fold the sheet with an “elephant trunk” at the top and a “fish tail” at the bottom

Treatment of Religious Texts

The chapter on Parchment discusses culturally sensitive treatment of Qur'ans (Korans) and Torahs.


East Asian Bibliography

References (in English) to assist in culturally sensitive treatments on East Asian library collection materials:

Atwood, Catherine. 1987. "Japanese Folded Sheet Books: Construction, Materials and Conservation." The Paper Conservator 11 (1): 10-21. Accessed March 23, 2017.

Barrett, Timothy. 1984. Japanese Papermaking: Traditions, Tools, and Techniques. Boston: Weatherhill.

Chia, Lucille. 2002. Printing For Profit: The Commercial Publishers of Jianyang, Fujian (11th-17th centuries). Harvard-Yenching Institute monograph series, 56. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center for Harvard-Yenching Institute: distributed by Harvard University Press.

Edgren, J.S. 2013. “The History of the Book in China.” Michael F. Suarez, S.J., and H.R. Woodhausen (eds.). The Book: A Global History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 571-592.

Engelhardt, Richard A. and Pamela Rumball Rogers. 2009. Hoi An Protocols For Best Conservation Practice in Asia: Professional Guidelines for Assuring and Preserving the Authenticity of Heritage Sites in the Context of the Cultures of Asia. Bangkok: UNESCO Bangkok, Regional Unit for Culture in Asia and the Pacific. Accessed March 23, 2017.

Helliwell, David (trans. & ed.). 1998. “The Repair and Binding of Old Chinese Books Translated and Adapted for Western Conservators (from a manual of traditional restoration techniques by Xiao Zhentang and Ding Yu).” The East Asian Library Journal 8 (Spring): 27-149.

Hioki, Kazuko. 2009. "Japanese Printed Books of the Edo Period (1603–1867): History and Characteristics of Block‐Printed Books.Journal of the Institute of Conservation 32 (1): 79-101. Accessed March 23, 2017.

Ikegami, Kojiro. 1986. Japanese Bookbinding: Instructions from a Master Craftsman. Boston: Weatherhill.

Korbel, Barbara, and Janice Katz. 2005. "Binding Beauty: Conserving a Collection of Japanese Printed Books.Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 31 (2): 16-105. Accessed March 23, 2017.

Koretsky, Elaine. 2009. Killing Green: An Account of Hand Papermaking in China. Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press.

Kornicki, Peter. 2013. “The History of the Book in Korea.” Michael F. Suarez, S.J., and H.R. Woodhausen (eds.). The Book: A Global History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 605-621.

Lee, Aimee. 2012. Hanji Unfurled: One Journey into Korean Papermaking. Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press.

Lee, V. C. 1929. "A Sketch of the Evolution of Chinese Book-Binding." Library Science Quarterly 3: 539-550.

Li, Mingjie and Jinfang Niu. 2010. “A Preservation Framework for Chinese Ancient Books.Journal of Documentation 66 (2): 259-278.

Liu, Jiazhen. 1999. “Preservation of Library Materials in China: Problems and Solutions.Asian Libraries 8 (12): 480-483. Accessed March 23, 2017.

Marshall, Heather. 2016 (Oct. 17). “From West to East: Conservation of the Chinese novel ‘Dream of the Red Chamber.'British Library Collection Care Blog. Accessed March 23, 2017.

Martinique, Edward. 1973. "The Binding and Preservation of Chinese Double-Leaved Books.The Library Quarterly 43 (3): 227-236. Accessed March 23, 2017.

Martinique, Edward. 1983. Chinese Traditional Bookbinding: A Study of Its Evolution and Techniques. San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center.

McKillop, Beth. 2013. “The History of the Book in Japan.” Michael F. Suarez, S.J., and H.R. Woodhausen (eds.). The Book: A Global History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 593-604.

Ming, Lin and Qiu Weiqing. 2014. “Traditional Chinese Book and Document Preservation: Brief History and Essential Techniques and Their Contemporary Applications.Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture 43 (4): 142-161. Accessed March 23, 2017.

Munn, Jesse. 2009. "Side‐Stitched Books of China, Korea and Japan in Western Collections.Journal of the Institute of Conservation 32 (1): 103-127. Accessed March 23, 2017.

Song, Minah. 2009. "The History and Characteristics of Traditional Korean Books and Bookbinding.Journal of the Institute of Conservation 32 (1): 53-78. Accessed March 23, 2017.

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