Recent Projects | Newberry

Recent Projects

Title page, Popol Vuh. 1701-03. Vault Ayer MS 1515.

Title page, Popol Vuh. 1701-03. Vault Ayer MS 1515.

Conservation Technician Linda Kinnaman with a choir book from the Gannon collection.

The Popol Vuh Conservation and Digitization Project

The Popol Vuh, which has been translated as Book of the Council, Book of the Community, Book of the People, and The Sacred Book, is the creation account of the Quiché Mayan people. It contains stories of the cosmologies, origins, traditions, and spiritual history of the Mayan people. It is considered by many Mayans as their equivalent to the Christian Bible and is held in deep reverence by them. In an effort to make it more widely available and reduce non-essential handling of the text, an important digitization project is underway and almost complete. It includes the complete conservation of the manuscript.

The Newberry’s manuscript of the Popol Vuh is one of the most widely known and possibly the earliest surviving copy. Quiché nobility probably wrote the original manuscript of the Popol Vuh in the mid-sixteenth century, in the Quiché language, using Latin orthography. The Newberry’s Popol Vuh was most likely copied from this original manuscript (now lost) in 1701-03, in the Guatemalan town of Chichicastenango, by Dominican Father Francisco Ximenez. His copy includes the Quiché text and a Spanish translation in side-by-side columns. In addition to the Popol Vuh, the manuscript also contains a Cakchikel-Quiché-Tzutuhil grammar, Christian devotional instructions, and answers to doctrinal questions and other material by Ximenez.

Conservation preparation and treatment are major components of the Popol Vuh digital project. With increased handling of the delicate manuscript during the filming and scanning process, it is absolutely critical to stabilize the paper and inks. A multi-disciplinary group of curators, librarians, conservators, and other experts reviewed the Popol Vuh’s condition and created the following procedure to provide appropriate conservation of the document.

The group decided that the binding, which was not original, should be removed and the ink checked under a microscope and stabilized. Removal of the binding included: separation of the covers from the text, cleaning the glue and paper linings from the spine, cutting the sewing threads, and separating the pages. By removing the old binding, the pages laid flat for filming. After the text was digitized, the manuscript was mended, page-by-page. Mending rejoins tears and strengthens any weak areas of the page, such as loss from insects, moisture damage, or wear from use. After additional consultation, a new binding style was chosen that was sympathetic to the Popol Vuh’s history, and a custom fitted enclosure created to house the Popol Vuh.

The new electronic versions of the Popol Vuh make the manuscript more accessible to a larger number of readers. In order to preserve the item for future generations of researchers, access to the actual sacred text of the Popol Vuh is available by appointment only. To make an appointment, please contact Will Hansen, Director of Reader Services, at

Visitors to the Newberry may access the new electronic versions of the Popol Vuh in the Reference Center on the third floor. Ohio State University has recently released a digital version of the Popol Vuh. In addition, Brigham Young University’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Texts (formerly the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts) produced a DVD-ROM of the Popol-Vuh. This DVD is available in the Newberry’s special collections.

The Gannon Initiative: A Major Cataloging and Conservation Project

In November 2010, the Newberry celebrated the Gannon Initiative, a $750,000 gift given in honor of Sister Ann Ida Gannon, BMV, a Newberry Trustee, former President of Mundelein College, and renowned Chicago educator. The gift will provide cataloging and conservation for approximately 8,000 titles relating to the early modern period, ca. 1500-1750, focusing on a selection of religious collections currently in the Newberry’s backlog of uncataloged materials.

A particularly interesting and challenging collection in the project is a group of 25 Mexican choir books dating from the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries. The challenge is in their size—all ranging from two to three feet in height, the largest measuring 37” x 27” x 5”. The very large volumes, produced for worship services, need essential conservation treatment before they can be handled in cataloging.

The bindings are leather and parchment over heavy wooden boards, some with brass clasps and bosses, sewn on oversized support cords that are laced into the boards. Most of the texts consist of parchment leaves, although a few are paper. The texts are all manuscript, usually with black ink or red pigment, with large initials of red or blue pigments. The ink and pigments have not yet been analyzed. Due to their size and difficulty in handling, the bindings will be consolidated, repaired, and stabilized before the media survey of the text begins. The bindings are quite heavy and require at least two handlers.

The entire lab staff will be working as a team on the treatment, from condition reports to repair, expanding our thinking and methods of spine repair as well as the size of book supports. Three of the largest Clarkson foam supports were needed to prop the covers open to repair the spine leather of our first patient. After extensive documentation, the process began with cleaning and vacuuming dirt and debris from the covers and throughout the text block. Metal clasps and bosses were dry cleaned with soft cloths. Desiccated leather was consolidated where needed, but a large portion of the leather was supple and in good condition. Portions of the head and tail were missing, with tears at the joints. In this particular example, the spine was somewhat exposed, allowing the application of new stabilizing spine linings. A lamination of airplane cotton and toned Japanese kozo tissue were used for leather fills and kozo layers used for strengthening the cord supports, especially at the joints.

Certainly each volume will be unique and techniques will have to be modified as we go, depending on the condition. The most extreme treatments will involve rebacking, as some spines are missing or completely deteriorated. Each volume will also need some type of enclosure that will facilitate easier movement from shelf to reading-room table. As our team comes together and discusses the bindings, new ideas and solutions evolve.