Cinderella reportedly said, “One shoe can change your life.” While Cinderella’s one shoe brought her to Prince Charming, our books’ shoes will bring them a lifetime of structure, security, and protection. Why would books need shoes you ask? Good question.

The Sutro Library has a stunning collection of libros de conventos (Convent Books, aka convento books), mostly bound in limp vellum, which means that the book does not have a stiff cover (or boards as they are technically called) and instead is very flexible (very similar in behavior to modern day paperbacks). These convento books were added to the collection when Adolph Sutro, traveled to Mexico in 1889 and purchased at auction the contents of the Abadiano Bookstore. Since the books are so flexible and in various sizes, shelving them can be tricky. At one point in the not-so-distant past, the State Library was committed to putting all these valuable books in phase boxes (a fancy word for a custom box) but the project stalled at some point, and now we have some books boxed, and some that are not. Fast forward to today and the unboxed books are starting to swell and distort.


Ideally, we would resurrect this past effort and make phase boxes for the rest of the convento books since boxes protect books from light, dust, and small leaks. Yet boxes do not let you see the limp vellum spine with the book’s handwritten title, and they also cost more money and labor to make. Since the past phase boxes were made in Sacramento, we wanted a more local solution.

Enter professional conservator Gillian Boal. Gillian learned of our desire to have a structured housing solution for our convento books but with the ability to see the book’s spines. She casually mentioned book shoes, and we quickly agreed it was the desired solution. The book shoe is a kind of box that is made out of conservation grade cardboard that the book slips into. Each custom box would fit snugly around all parts of the book except on the top and the spine. And, just like your shoes, you don’t want to make the shoe too tight or too lose. The shoe provides much needed structure for the books as well as:

  • Protects the sides of decorated or fragile bindings, such as those covered in textiles, from their neighbors;
  • Reduces wear to the book due to being pulled in and out of shelves;
  • Allows books to be moved without the binding being touched.

Gillian printed out information on how to make the shoes from the Northeast Document Conservation Center. The State Library purchased the conservation cardboard and Gillian made a prototype for our SFSU museum studies students to replicate.

Alan Scardera was the first SFSU Museum Studies graduate student to take up the project. Alan studied the documentation and prototype Gillian left behind and soon was making his own book shoes. I expressed a desire to have some sort of string or tie to keep the shoe as snug as possible and Alan figured out how to weave unbleached linen tying tape through the structure.

alan making boxes


img_6790Alan soon trained SFSU History graduate student, Allison Bermann, on how to make the shoes and the physical conditions of our convento books are rapidly improving. With the help of the California State Library Foundation, we were able to purchase enough glue and tying tape to keep Alan and Allison in steady production these last three months, and for many months to come.

img_7032The eventual goal is to have all the limp vellum bound books from Mexico in a shoe. While stage one of the project is focused on quarto-sized books, we will eventually move into folio and tiny-sized books as well. One challenge we noticed, however, is that some of the books are too fragile or have decorations that do not allow for easy slipping in and out of the shoe without causing further damage to the book’s bindings. For those shoeless books, another solution will have to be found.

The book shoe is a huge step forward for this part of our collection and would not be possible without the generosity of the California State Library Foundation and most especially, the dedication and talent of the SFSU graduate students working on the project. Their devotion to making these books secure is deeply appreciated because everybody loves a good pair of shoes—even books!

img_7033.jpgFor More Information:

The book shoe was developed by Nicholas Pickwoad while consultant at the National Trust in England. The commercial design was developed by Christopher Clarkson, then at West Dean College, Chichester, England, and Anthony Cains, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. The instructions to make your own book shoes can be found here:

If you are interested in damage to rare books and different supportive housing for damaged books, more information can be found here:

A formal definition of limp bindings can be found here:

This post and all of the images are by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library.


One thought on “If the Shoe Fits……

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