Conservation Treatment of Hendrick Doncker’s Zee-atlas from 1660; Or, How an Atlas Gets Stressed, and What Book Conservators Do About It

By Abigail Slawik, 3rd year NYU conservation intern at the NYPL Barbara Goldsmith Conservation Laboratory , supervised by Ursula Mitra, Senior Book Conservator during Summer 2021.
September 28, 2021

At The New York Public Library, the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Maps Division contains over 443,000 single-sheet maps, and 20,000 bound items. The bound maps include atlases, guidebooks, and gazetteers.1 Over 10,000 of the items in the Maps Division have been digitized, and are accessible for browsing here

One atlas in unstable condition was recently selected for treatment at NYPL's Barbara Goldsmith Conservation Lab. Titled De zee-atlas ofte water-waereld (Dutch for "The Sea Atlas or Water World"), the large folio-format book was published by Hendrick Doncker (1626-1699) in 1660, and contains 27 maps of maritime regions around the globe. Each map is a single engraving,2 printed from a copper plate onto a piece of paper, and colored by hand with a rich palette of reds, blues, browns, greens, yellows, and golds. (Figures 1 and 2).3 Through use over the years, the strips of paper attaching the maps to the book had begun to tear (Figure 3). The primary goal of treatment was to reinforce the maps’ attachment to the book. Treatment would also include minor repairs to the gold-tooled cover, made from stretched, dried animal skin, also known as parchment (Figure 4).

Hendrick Doncker's De zee-atlas ofte water-waereld, published in 1660, open to the two-page double-hemisphere world map.

Figure 1: Doncker’s De zee-atlas ofte water-waerld before treatment, open to the first map. It shows the two hemispheres, surrounded by celestial charts in the top corners, and the north and south poles in the bottom. This colorful print was printed first in black and white in a copper-plate engraving process, then colored in by hand.

The atlas open to a two-page map of the Caribbean.

Figure 2: The maps showing maritime regions have color-coded coastlines, and individual decorative labels (also known as cartouches), that in many cases show the Dutch perception of the people that lived in that general region. These figures give some insight into how the Dutch viewed people from around the world, and what iconographic signals they used to portray them, for example, in a cartouche to label the map of the Caribbean islands.

The atlas open to a map that is almost completely torn out of the book.

Figure 3: This photo of the book before treatment shows a map that is more than two thirds detached from its guard along the fold. Through the tear, stubs following the map are visible.

The atlas, closed, seen from the spine.

Figure 4: The gold-tooled parchment of the cover, seen here before treatment, had numerous stains and scratches, and was missing its headcap, but was generally in stable condition. It had also been heavily repaired, and was adhered all along the spine to the textblock.

A particular structure for this type of atlas book was common in Europe in the 17th century.4 Many map publishers and cartographers hailed from the Netherlands, and the structure allowed two-page engravings to unfold flat in a large, folio format book. This structure is different from that of a typical printed book, that is sewn along the fold. A typical book opens, and the pages disappear into the fold, also called the gutter (see Figure 5); this remains true of most printed books we see today. The Zee-atlas, however, has what is called a guarded structure. A series of short strips of paper, called guards, are sewn together, with folded maps adhered on one end. This way, when the reader opens the book to a map, it opens almost completely flat, without any of the printed image disappearing into the gutter. When looking at an image that extends over both open pages, this characteristic is especially helpful.

An illustration of a book open to a two-page map, sewn through the fold; and a book with a guarded structure.

Figure 5: Left: A typical book, sewn through the center fold, with the center of the two-page map disappearing into the gutter. Right: A guarded structure, where the two-page map, adhered to a guard at the fold, opens flat.  

Three photos showing how the paper guard attaching the maps to the book bends and flexes as the pages are turned.

Figure 6: Left and center: As a map with an adhered guard opens, the guard (indicated in red) bends at about 90 degrees in one direction. RIght: As the page is turned to look at the next map, this guard then bends in the opposite direction, again at almost 90 degrees.

Every time the map is opened, this bit of paper bends along the fold about 90 degrees (Figure 6). When the map is closed and the page is turned, then the strip bends back the other direction at 90 degrees. Book and paper conservators call this location of reinforced, sharp bending a "breaking edge." Flexing repeatedly along a breaking edge will eventually tear almost any type of historical paper. Stubs are another aspect to guarded book structures, that help keep the book the same thickness at the spine as at the fore edge. When examining the book, I made note of where and how many stubs occurred. The pattern that emerged showed that the book’s signatures, also called gatherings, were mostly in groups of seven. To schematize the collation of the book, I created a collation chart using an online, open source tool developed by the University of Toronto Libraries, called VisCodex (Figure 7).5

A collation chart generated with VisCodex, showing the arrangement of seven stubs, two maps, three stubs, and two maps, in each gathering.

Figure 7: A collation diagram is a schematized view of how a book is put together, viewed from one end of the spine, in cross section. This collation diagram, generated with VisCodex, shows the construction of a typical gathering in Doncker’s Zee-atlas. Seven stubs precede the center sewing, indicated by the black horizontal line, followed by two guarded maps, three stubs, and two more guarded maps.  

Figure 8: A time-lapse video of repairing the torn guards using long-fibered tissue and cooked wheat starch paste, which are common materials used by conservators to repair handmade, historic paper.

The book viewed from the end, showing repairs in progress.

Figure 9: The book during the conservation treatment stage of repairing torn guards with thin, long-fibered tissue. The excess, white tissue was later trimmed with a scalpel, flush to the edge of the textblock.

During conservation treatment, the order of operations is important. At this stage of my education in the field of book conservation, my work is highly supervised and guided by an experienced conservator. For this treatment, I was fortunate to work under the supervision of senior book conservator at NYPL, Ursula Mitra. She advised me that to ensure that my initial repairs were sufficient for the movement of the book, I should repair the torn map attachments before any other stage of treatment (Figures 8 and 9). This way, I could be sure that my repairs would withstand the repeated flexing during the following steps, which included surface cleaning every page, humidifying and flattening heavy creases, and repairing other tears in the textblock (Figures 10 and 11). Each step required paging through the atlas at least once. 

Figure 10: A time-lapse video of surface cleaning each page of the atlas with cosmetic sponges and soft erasers. Although the visual difference is slight, reducing surface soiling is beneficial to the book, because it reduces transfer when handling, deters pests, and slows down the natural degradation processes of paper.

Figure 11: A time-lapse video showing localized application of steam to relax creased pages.. Once humidified, paper becomes more easily manipulated to lay flat. Then, it is dried while restrained under glass weights. A warm tacking iron was also used to speed drying.

After treatment, the book opens smoothly to show the maps, and the pages flex easily along the guards as the pages are turned (Figure 12). The goal, in line with the American Institute for Conservation’s Code of Ethics, is to design treatments that leave objects re-treatable; that is, if someone decides to remove these repairs at a later date, it should be possible, and with minimal damage to the original object.

Figure 12: A time-lapse video of the pages of the atlas being turned. Note how each map opens nearly flat, and how much flexing and bending occurs at the repaired guards, which are visible due to the lighter tone of the repair tissue.

Although Doncker’s Zee-atlas ofte water-waerld is not available online, a digitized copy of a sea atlas from 1672, published by a contemporary of Doncker’s, Pieter Goos (1616-1675), may be viewed here


  1. According to NYPL maps Libguide titled Finding Locations, a gazetteer is “a geographical dictionary or index, usually with an alphabetical arrangement of place names, and an entry for each place name that describes the place's location.”
  2. To show how prints are made, an online demonstration series made by the Metropolitan Museum of Art illustrates different printmaking techniques, including engraving.
  3. More technical details about the production of atlases during this time in Europe may be found in David Woodward’s Techniques of Map Engraving, Printing, and Coloring in the European Renaissance, Chapter 22 from part 1 of Volume 3 of The History of Cartography: Cartography in the European Renaissance, available online from University of Chicago Press.
  4. A bookbinding manual by Dutch binder’s apprentice Dirk de Bray (active 1656-1701) describes bookbinding in this place and time period. The New York Public Library holds a copy of the Dutch-English edition, published in 1977. Dirk de Bray, Onderwijs van 't boek-binden, English & Dutch (Amsterdam: Nico de Israel, 1977).
  5.  VisCodex was developed as an online version of VisColl, a collation visualization software created by Dot Porter at the Penn Libraries. VisCodex is the work of the Old Books New Science Lab and Information Technology Services at University of Toronto Libraries.

Many thanks to New York Public Library maps division curator and geospatial librarian Ian Fowler for suggesting this interesting and beautiful atlas for treatment, as well as answering my many questions about it.

Thank you to Dot Porter at Penn Libraries and the University of Toronto Libraries for developing and providing free and open access to the VisColl and VisCodex tools for digital manuscript studies (which also occasionally come in handy for printed books).

All other illustrations, photos, and videos are by the author.

Abigail Slawik is a third year dual master’s degree candidate (MS/MA) at the Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, and an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow in Library and Archive Conservation. She is interested in digital tools for book and manuscript studies, and unique binding structures of prints in the handpress period (from circa 1450 to 1800). 

Ursula Mitra is senior book conservator at the NYPL Conservation Lab. She graduated from the School of Library Service at Columbia University in 1992 with a Master of Science in Library Service and an Advanced Certificate in Library & Archives Conservation. During the degree program she interned at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, and at the Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland. Subsequently she worked as a conservator at the Frick Art Reference Library from 1992-97, followed by two years as Conservator at NYU’s Bobst Library in New York City. In 1999 she began serving the greater New York City area in her private practice in Library Conservation and joined NYPL in September 2020.