Friday, October 3rd, 2014...9:30 am

Creepy-crawlies and their tell-tale traces

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Robert Hooke, Micographia, schem XXXIII (EC65 H7636 665maa)Unsurprisingly, some of the centuries-old books now in Houghton’s library stacks have fared better over time than others.  There are many factors that impact the breakdown of codex materials, including (but not limited to) natural elements like water, heat, and either too much, or too little, humidity.  All of these deteriorate the components of the codices; ie. paper, leather, ink, adhesives, cloth, and wood.

Another enemy of long-term preservation is bugs, one of which is the purposefully named “bookworm” that leave tiny holes inside of books.  As the name suggests, these insects do indeed eat the wood and leather of the covers and the paper of the pages.  The bugs that leave these holes, however, are not worms, nor is there only one type of “bookworm.”  Rather, the culprits can be one of several types, including the larvae of beetles (Xestobium rufovillosum and Anobium punctatum), paper louses (Trogium pulsatorium), or Silverfish (Lepisma saccharina).

It is also noteworthy that contrary to popular belief, Silverfish usually do not bore into books, but rather eat along the surface of the pages. Also, they prefer to eat adhesives and will often eat the glue used to bind books spines before the paper.

As an example of the destruction caused by these critters, this copy of Tade enesti en tēde tē bibliō by Theocritus (Inc 5549 (27.5)) has dozens of pin-prick holes that start on the cover and go well into the pages.

Theocritus. Idylls, 1496. Inc 5549 (27 5)

Theocritus. Idylls, 1496. Inc 5549 (27 5)

What do the bugs that leave these holes look like?

Robert Hooke, Micographia, schem XXXIII (EC65 H7636 665maa)

Robert Hooke, Micographia, schem XXXIII (EC65 H7636 665maa)

Another Houghton book, Micrographia, or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses: with observations and inquiries thereupon by Robert Hooke, contains an illustration of one “bookworm” (fig. 3). Hooke was able to create such a detailed image because he looked through an early version of the microscope to study a silverfish (which he called the “small Silver-colour’d Book-worm”) as well as other bugs, plants, textiles, and dozens of other specimens that were invisible before the invention of the microscope.

Robert Hooke, Micographia, p 208 (EC65 H7636 665maa)

Robert Hooke, Micographia, p 208 (EC65 H7636 665maa)

When Hook published the Micrographia in 1665, his instructions on how microscopes worked and what the lenses revealed were revolutionary.  Unsurprising, it was very popular, becoming the Royal Society’s first major publication, and as such the first “scientific best-seller.”

[Thanks to Leah Lefkowitz, Reference Assistant, for contributing this post.]

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