JODY SMITH AND Joseph Watson have found four poison books in Middlebury College’s Special Collections which contain arsenic along with other elements. The books are all covered in those bright green covers, which were popular in the 19th century. The books have since been registered on the Arsenical Books database. Independent Photo/Steve James
They say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but in this case, you might want to… In fact, that’s exactly how Joseph Watson, Head of Preservation and Special Collections Associate at Middlebury College , found four books from the early 19th century. century that turned out to be toxic.
“They were just sitting on the shelf,” Watson said in an interview last week. “It really only took a few hours to go through the collection, as I could research the specific emerald green aesthetic of the binding. I used a bookmark tool to color match and once I found one or two I could spot them pretty easily.
Watson began the search after Kaitlin Buerge, a former Special Collections colleague, highlighted Melissa Tedone’s efforts with The Poisoned Book Project. Tedone works as a Laboratory Manager for the Conservation of Books and Library Materials at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware. She discovered the “hidden danger” of emerald green books while preparing one of these Victorian-era books for an exhibition in Winterthur in the spring of 2019.
“Aware of recent literature on Victorian wallpaper, clothing and other household items colored with a poisonous emerald green pigment, a dubious concern grew in my mind: could this same toxic pigment have been used to color book cloth? of the 19th century? read Tedone’s article in The International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (spring 2020).
Indeed, when the books were analyzed, they “identified the strong presence of arsenic and copper in the cover”.
So how dangerous are these enchanting emerald readings?
“I like the way Dr. Tadone said it,” Watson paraphrased. “She says you should be aware that those books can kill you…but you should eat it.”
“We wear gloves when interacting with books and now keep them in plastic bags…but exposure is low if the book is in its undisturbed form.”
Still, it’s good to know.
That’s why Tadone and the Winterthur research team aimed to “provide accessible tools for identifying potentially arsenic book tissues in collections as well as the most comprehensive scientific information possible to help institutions make these decisions.” logistics,” reads the 2020 report. “To that end, we have designed and printed color swatch bookmarks that can be used for visual identification of the remarkably consistent shade of emerald green book cloth when ‘it is considered in combination with other historical indices.
With the help of this bookmark which Watson obtained from the Winterthur Poison Book Project, he was able to select several books from Middlebury’s Special Collections that might contain arsenic. And then he took his samples to Jody Smith to find out if those titles were actually hits.
Smith manages the technical operations of McCardell Bicentennial Hall and provides support and training for advanced analytical instruments and instrument systems. Originally from Rutland and a graduate of the University of Vermont, she holds a master’s degree in analytical chemistry. She’s the person to know if you want to know what’s in a book cover.
“We used XRF (X-ray fluorescence), which here at Middlebury is typically used for rock samples to identify elemental compositions,” Smith said. “But it’s a great tool for preserving art and history. The reason it’s very suitable for something like a book or a painting is that XRF is non-destructive. We don’t need to sample the material to test it.
So how exactly does the XRF instrument work?
“In the simplest terms, we’re shooting x-rays at a sample (in this case, the book),” Smith explained. “When an atom is hit by these X-rays, an electron from that atom is ejected. The way atoms work is that they want to be very stable. Atoms don’t like to have an empty spot in their inner orbital shell. Thus, an electron from a higher energy orbital fills up and emits a fluorescent X-ray, which is detected by the instrument.The energy of this X-ray is equal to the specific energy difference between two quantum states of the electron.
Smith is then able to take the data and identify several items.
“It was very obvious,” said Smith, who, with the help of Watson, tested seven pounds over spring break. “We found arsenic, gold, copper and lead… There was arsenic in the first four samples we took, but not in the other three samples which were from a much duller green color.”
Watson submitted the four books and the test results to the Arsenic Books Database, where they are now listed. The books have also been placed in zip-lock polythene bags and will be stored in special boxes with special handling instructions.
“Honestly, I was surprised we didn’t have more than four,” Watson said. “But it’s more than enough for us to use these ‘poison books’ as an example for educational purposes.”
“I was surprised to see that the gold leaf is actually gold,” Smith added. “It was different for me to deal with a book from the 1800s…I’m not artistic, so for me, linking arts and science is cool.”