When Good Intentions Create Chaos: The Spanish Play Collection at the University of Illinois

Last year, the Conservation Lab took on a sizeable project: disbind and rehouse almost 12,000 19th and Early 20th Century Spanish plays. Sounds fun, right?

This project garners several questions: why so many? why are you disbinding them? Who wanted 12,000 plays in the first place?

All great questions and only a few good answers. 

According to the “Performing Spain: Theaters of Memory in Iberian Cultures” Symposium website from 2016, the Spanish play collection came to the University of Illinois in the early 1960s thanks to Professor James O. Crosby. As part of the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, Crosby pushed for the acquisition of these plays, all 8 inches or less in height. However, Crosby never saw the plays once they arrived at the University Library as they were not part of his research, but a colleague’s, William Shoemaker.

Once they arrived at the University, the plays were cheaply bound together into 669 volumes. In general, the plays were bound by author and then by title. However, the practice of double surnames in Spain created more of a haphazard organizational structure, making it difficult to locate a particular play. The Symposium’s website also notes that bindery chose to put the plays together using “LUM” or “Lesser Used Materials.” This entails that items were bound together with some tape or spine cloth and then glued to ensure adhesion.  This usually entailed shoddy work that does not meet current preservation standards.

That’s where Preservation Services comes into play! Our hourly workers and volunteers at the Conservation Lab have been working to disassemble and save these plays from being glued together forever – making them way more usable than ever before. Each play will be cataloged individually and digitized for online access.

Throughout the disbinding and rehousing process, the team has come across beautiful, plain and everything in between in terms of paper decoration on these plays.

While the work is tedious and seemingly never-ending, the lab has worked through over 500 volumes in the last year. Here’s to only a few more to go!

Keep an eye out for future posts about the Spanish plays as they journey on!