Learn About One of the Oldest Books at Toronto Public Library — And How We Preserved It

August 23, 2021 | TPL Staff

Comments (0)

Did you know that some of TPL's special collections have books that are centuries old? You may not be able to borrow them — but they're available for researchers or curious visitors to examine in person.

Our conservators recently treated one of TPL's oldest books: a religious publication from the 15th century. It's part of our Special Collections in the Visual Arts, and is one of over 2,000 items held for its importance related to the art and history of books.

Here's an overview of the book and how we're preserving it so it can be studied by current and future researchers.

Conservator in mask handling old book in lab
A conservator treats Compilatio decretaliū Gregorii IX (1489) in our conservation lab at Toronto Reference Library.

About the book

Our copy of this book was published in Italy in approximately 1489. Written in Latin, it is titled Compilatio decretaliū Gregorii IX. It is a version of Decretals of Gregory IX, an influential text of religious laws dating back to the 13th century.

A decretal, which is mentioned in the title, is a papal decree concerning a point of canon law (or ecclesiastical law). Basically, it is a pronouncement by the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1230, Pope Gregory IX directed that five existing compilations of canon law be combined into one manuscript: what became Decretals of Gregory IX. This fundamental text went on to control many aspects of secular and clerical life.

It is not known exactly how many copies of the manuscript were made, or how many still exist. Scholars point to annotations and marginalia in the ones that do exist as proof that it was a work in progress up to the 16th century and maybe later.

Old book with blank cover next to measurement tools and the text After and a date
This copy held by TPL has a publication date of approximately 1489, centuries after the death of Gregory IX.

A few relevant book-related terms & concepts


This book belongs to our holdings of incunabula. An "incunabulum" (singular) refers to a book printed between 1450 and 1501. The word is Latin for cradle or swaddling cloth. In this context, it alludes to the "infancy of printing." However, the 13th-century versions of this text would have been hand written, so would be classified as manuscripts.


There are examples of marginal notes on many pages, including drawings. At the time, the importance of the book's information meant it attracted commentators, especially those who studied Canon Law, its interpretation and application. Commentary by educated men was known as gloss.

Our version of the book includes commentary by Bernard of Botone, also known as Bernard of Parma. He was an Italian canonist of the 13th century who studied and promoted canon law; he held prominent academic and ecclesiastical positions while contributing to works such as the Gregorian Decretals. Bernard was a respected glassator and his work Glossa ordinaria was a valued source for later glosses. 

Uniform layout, penwork & decoration

Text is laid in a structured, consistent form in the book. Decorative hand-drawn lettering and use of colour is also uniform. This uniformity made the contents of the book easier to use as a reference guide. In turn, the format aided the dissemination of Papal law.

Page of Latin text with handwritten notes written in right column of page as well as decorative arrows highlighting portions of text
Marginal notes appear on many pages throughout the text, including drawings.
Opened page of book with small text arranged in columns with some decorative letters at the start of sections
A uniform layout allows for an ordered presentation of text and gloss.

Interesting parts of the book's anatomy

The volume has not had extensive repairs or been rebound — this is uncommon for a book this old. Our copy of the book has interesting features that demonstrate the hand-made quality of early printed books. These features, as well as past repairs, are important to observe when determining conservation treatment.


This volume has been bound in a full parchment or alum-tawed (or perhaps even tawed parchment) skin over wooden boards. It can sometimes be difficult to tell how the animal skin has been treated, especially when very worn and soiled.

After discussions with conservation peers from other institutions, we concluded the technique previously used to process the skin could not be determined. Further analysis of the covering material may be helpful in identifying it.

Damages to the binding show the sewing structure of the text block (inside pages of book). The simple shape of the metal clasps for this binding is quite striking.

Opened vintage book with lots of wear with bits of pages pasted on
Inside binding: torn-up pastedowns reveal a music manuscript used to line the text block.
Outside of binding for vintage book with detached metal clasp
One-piece hooked metal clasps sandwich the strap attached to the front board. Catchplates are attached to the back boards, with outer ends rolled to create a lip.


An endband is the material at the top or bottom edge of a book, near the spine. On today's hardbacks, these are often stuck-on strips of fabric that are just decorative. In bindings for earlier books like this one, endbands were functional as well as decorative. They strengthened text block attachment and protected the head and tail of the spine.

View of old book binding with stitching between spin and pages
Remnants of a decorative secondary endband in (faded) blue and yellow silk can be seen over the functional primary endband in linen.


Some of the tears and losses in the text block paper were actually created during the papermaking process — materials were so costly that paper with minor flaws would still be used for printing.

Portion of opened book with markings near spine
Areas that look wrinkled near the spine fold are possible indications that the handmade paper was hung on ropes to dry.
Open page that is slightly wavy
Undulations that can be seen in the text block paper result from hand-printing with slightly dampened paper for better ink impression.

Conservation treatment

While there was some damage to the binding, it was in a mostly stable condition. We decided on a less interventive treatment. To avoid changing the object as much as possible, we decided not infill the losses in the wooden boards or covering material.

Close up of book spine with damage visible and metal instrument held by hand
Close-up view of the book's spine and the repair underneath.

The covering material was splitting and lifting from the cover's joints. The boards were mostly only still attached to the text block through the laced-in sewing supports. To strengthen the cover-to-text-block attachment, we adhered cotton flanges under the covering material where the joints were broken. This method of board reattachment was minimally invasive. It only adds small, unobtrusive amounts of new materials to the binding and does not remove any original components of it

Spine of book with many tears and measurement instruments below and paper reading Before
Spine before treatment.
Spine of book with a few tears and measurement instruments below and paper reading After
Spine after treatment.

Parts of the pastedowns (lining on inside of covers) and spine linings of manuscript waste had torn up. They were not re-adhered down because the breakage and lifting had released tension and stress points at the opening mechanism of the volume. If re-adhered, lining extensions could tear again, causing further damage.

To prevent further damage, a custom-made protective enclosure was created for storage and to ensure proper handling of the volume when it's being studied.

Old book with blank cover and clasps inside white book with lid open
Our custom corrugated clamshell box has spacers for the clasp at the head. It also has a drop-down side. Foam and polyester coverings were attached to the metal clasps to prevent them from catching the text block.

More conservation blog posts from TPL

Curious about conservation? Read more about some of our other projects.



Post by Kimberly Kwan (Book Conservator) and Natasha (Librarian).