The Outhouse Bible and a Quest for Preservation
University Archives and Special Collections intern Hannah Coker talks about her rare book project involving a family Bible that was found - of all places - in an outhouse.
KENNESAW, Ga. (Apr 18, 2022) — It is interesting to think about how many undiscovered objects of history there are around us, just waiting to be discovered. My grandmother bestowed onto me a personal quest involving the history of my own family; and the mystery behind an abandoned Bible in my great grandparents’ mountain outhouse.
She discovered it in the 1960s or 1970s after she was married to my grandfather, as it was on the property of his parents' Blairsville home. She laughed when she was telling me about it because she went to use the bathroom and there was not any toilet paper, so as she was looking around, she saw the gilded images of Jesus staring back at her. She said she definitely did not use that as toilet paper (which someone else had, as pages are missing from the front of it) but she brought it back up to the house and asked if she could have it. Since then, it has been sitting on a dark shelf in her living room, hidden and unbeknownst to much of the family. It was only when I told her of my new interest in archival care and of my internship with the Archives and Rare Book Museum, that she pulled it off the shelf and has given it a renewed life and renewed meaning to my family’s history.
“Judging a Book by Its Cover”: The first Pass
To honor my grandmother and late grandfather, I wanted to use the resources available to me through this internship to try to preserve this piece of my family’s history. To begin the process, I filled out a worksheet called "Judging a Book by Its Cover" This sets me up to be able to efficiently analyze the volume as a whole, and then by its pieces, to have a detailed account of the appearance and the contents of this volume. Describing the type of binding and style of the pastedowns, measuring the size of the volume, writing down the information on any title pages or chapters/sections, any illustrations, signs of usage (wear, tears, stains, etc.), and any pieces of information inside the volume that requires more research. This type of analysis is very in-depth and more often than not isn’t something that needs to be as detailed as what I have done. This is simply because archivists are constantly trying to tackle years worth of backlog, and cannot spend long periods of time on one volume/item. However, this worksheet I have been provided most definitely lays the foundation for a detailed first pass.
What I gathered in this initial pass are things such as the binding is leather and shows the signs very commonly found in dry, weathered leather bindings (red rot, discoloring, etc.). It has beautiful marble pastedowns that were very commonly found in 19th- and 20th-century volumes, and its large and heavy physical build tells us at first glance that this wasn’t a book that was carried around; it was a family Bible that held sentiment in the home. This assumption is backed by the discovery of inserted pages with family names, births, marriages, and deaths. This Bible was used as a memento of this family, my family! Noting these pages of personal information on the worksheet for future genealogical research was important to me, as my grandparents didn’t recognize the names. So I wanted to try and use some of my time to trace them.
The boards were completely separated from the text block, which was caused by the missing spine. But even though the spine is missing, the pages are still fairly secure for their condition. And other than the occasional rips and foxing stains inside, this volume is in good condition for how it was stored and how old it is estimated to be (19th century). Although by archival standards, it is in poor condition and not something that would ever be considered for display or handling.
Condition Report and Surface Cleaning: Physical Analysis and Care
Once I’d taken a first pass through the Bible, I filled out a condition report. These reports help archivists and curators assess the physical condition of an item at any point in time. With this text, the most noticeable issue was red rot eating the leather binding, the lack of a spine and detached boards, and the foxing stains and discoloration on the boards and pages. As well as most pages have torn edges and surface dust and debris. Which led me to the next step of gloving up, masking up, and getting a soft goat-hair dusting brush and a foam book cradle to tackle the task of surface cleaning.
In the moment, after 1-2 hours of gently brushing dust and particles from over 1,000 pages, I was kind of glad that there was nothing more I could do for the Bible in terms of preservation or conservation. But thankfully this was also the time when flipping through every single page paid off. I was able to find a few hidden gems amongst the pages, that otherwise would have gone undiscovered. These objects are not of any immense value, but their value lies in their role in the story of the volume. A newspaper cutout of a butternut bread company logo, a 6x6 piece of brown fabric with some thread still visible on one side, a page out of a hymn book, and evidence of marginalia. These elements were fun to find, and it was even more fun to imagine who put them there and why!
Preservation Plan: Saving History for the Future
After cleaning and placing any items I found in an acid-free envelope to preserve, bookmarking any marginalia, and compiling any information I want to research later; I sat down with my condition report and “Judging a Book by Its Cover” report to create a Preservation Plan. This preservation plan needs to include macro and micro-environment instructions for care. Macro-environment preservation instructions are things like keeping the volume on a stable shelf so many inches off the ground, keeping away from windows with direct UV light, rooms with drastically changing temperatures and humidity levels, and monitoring the environment for rodents and insects. Micro-level preservation refers to more targeted preservation measures, such as keeping the item in a phase box, surface cleaning it to prevent decay, tying the volume with linen to keep boards together, and digitizing select pages. There are many more environmental and item-level treatments rare volumes, manuscripts, and paper-based items need; however, for this volume and its value and use, it needs basic preservation care. Because I am only doing basic preservation, the reality is that this Bible might not last as long as a volume kept in an archival repository with temperature and humidity controls. So, I wanted to scan and download, and even print out, select images of important content in the Bible. The University Archives and Special Collections unit here at KSU owns an overhead book scanner called the ‘BookEye’. It scans high-quality images of rare materials and allows user to edit these scans in a software called Opus Free Flow. I was grateful to be allowed to use this machine and software to gain experience for any future projects I might have!
Research and My Thoughts
Lastly, I took the list of things I wanted to research; names, places, publishers, period book history/preferences, etc., and tried to find as much as I could. I was the most excited to research the names of the people inserted into the Bible, as the lack of knowledge my grandmother had about them and the idea that they could be my ancestors, made this information very important to me. I was able to find all the people listed in census records on Ancestry.com. They are from the town my grandparents are from, which was an exciting revelation as it meant they could actually be related to me. However, because of the nature of my internship, I wasn’t able to spend much time on genealogy research. So, I haven’t traced them all the way down to a relative I recognize, but now that I have the information I do, I can always do this research on my own. Genealogy research is something I truly enjoy doing, it combines my love of history and research into one and I like the idea that simple research can change the way you view an object, or people/events connected to them.
Historical research and the preservation of history is such a fun and fulfilling practice. I learned to rethink the way I value books. Antique or vintage items are not necessarily rare, and rare books are not always hundreds of years old. In the purest sense, a rare book is one where demand exceeds supply. Value, however, is not just monetary. This family Bible may not fetch a high market price, but its value to me and my family, and our history, far outweighs any potential profit (or lack thereof) that anyone else assigns to it. Even if you discover something that may not be valuable to others, the item is deserving of love and care if it has value to you.