Category Archives: conservation

Nicholas Pickwoad’s lecture “Unfinished Business: Incomplete Bindings made for the Booktrade from the 15th to the 19th Centuries”

Dr. Nicholas Pickwoad presented an informative lecture last night at The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.  This was the final venue of a three stop North American tour. Pickwoad is director of Ligatus Research Centre, University of Arts London. He has a doctorate in English Literature from Oxford University. He trained with Roger Powell, and ran his own workshop from 1977 to 1989. He has been Adviser on book conservation to the National Trust of Great Britain from 1978, and was Editor of the Paper Conservator. He taught book conservation at Columbia University Library School in New York from 1989 to 1992 and was Chief Conservator in the Harvard University Library from 1992 to 1995. He has published widely on book history and conservation.

Pickwoad’s thesis—and he took pains to make it clear he is far from certitude at this point—is that there is a previously unrecorded class of books, which he terms incomplete bindings. He noted that he has seen more than 130 of these types of books, which he feels is more than just an accident. This lecture was intended as a challenge, both to refute his thesis and stimulate awareness in these structures, hopefully discovering more of them.

Temporary bindings are different from incomplete bindings if they are sewn in a way that could later be covered. For example, a a tacketed sewing structure would not be covered in leather, but all along sewing on double cords most certainly could be. These unfinished bindings, which seem to start around the time of the invention of printing, seem to morph appealingly into the late 18th century paper covered boarded bindings.

Pickwoad presented numerous images of books that had never been finished, as well as visual evidence from paintings, and some tantalizingly cryptic entries in bookbinder price lists.  An example of this type of binding, in this case from the early 16th century, can be found in Fine and Historic Bookbindings from the Folger Shakespeare Library on page 33.[1] The authors of the catalog consider this to be a temporary binding: Pickwoad, however, interprets the thongs as being meant to be laced into a wooden board structure without needing to be resewn, hence an incomplete binding.

These books fit into a continuum of how books could be purchased.  A traditional, but inaccurate view is that books from the handpress era were printed, then the purchaser would direct the binder or bookseller to bind them. The actual situation seems more complex, with books available in various forms for different price points, at various times in history. Books could be sold in sheets, in temporary bindings [2], sewn, sewn with boards, and bound. [3]

Pickwoad has tentatively identified two main styles of incomplete bindings: sewn, and sewn with boards. The sewn binding is basically a sewn text block as it would have left the binder’s frame, uncut or sometimes trimmed. He considers whip stiching on the sewing cord ends to prevent unraveling a key aspect to identify an incomplete binding: it seems to point to intentionally stopping the binding process at a certain point.  A sewn with boards style has also been identified, some that were trimmed, edge colored, and sewn with primary end bands, and with the supports were laced into boards.  There are many variations of both of these.

Many questions remain. It is unclear if these books were actually sold as unfinished though some of the binder price lists suggest this.[4] Is it possible, as Pickwoad suggested, they were done so to save on transport costs or to escape taxation imposed on bound books?  Out of the many hundreds of thousands of books, can a few hundred be considered a statistically significant sample? Could these bindings remain unfinished due to accident or neglect? A key, possibly unknowable point seems to be if were intentionally sold as unfinished. I would also consider if it were properly beaten a key aspect in differentiating these from more temporary structures.

Some of these incomplete bindings were later covered: this can create a complex situation of a book partially bound by one workshop and finished, possibly at a much later date and possibly in another country by a different bookbinding workshop.  Thinking about these complexities obviously delighted Pickwoad, who seems hopeful one day this vast array of information can be put into a meaningful and accurate construct.

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1.  Frederick Bearman, Nati H. Krivatsy and J. Franklin Mowery, Fine and Historic Bookbindings (Washington, D.C: The Folger Shakespeare Library/ Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992), 32-33.

2. Would temporary bindings have been more or less expensive than these incomplete structures? The term “temporary bindings” is an imprecise term that generally refers to a wide variety of structures: vellum wrappers, publisher’s printed paper bindings, the french broche, and others. Bibliophiles often considered case bindings temporary well into the 20th century.

3. Obviously bound books often are be made to a number of different price points, from a simple trade calf, to an elaborately tooled morocco in 18th century France, for example.

4. Mirjam M. Foot, “Some bookbinders’ price lists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” in De Libris Compactis Miscellanea, ed. Collegit G. Colin (Bruxelles: Bibliotheca Wittockiana, 1984) Foot discusses the complexities of these in this lengthy 45 page article.

Conservation of the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation: Results of a Survey and Treatments

A paper copy of Setbacks, Vol. 3., No. 1., 1990. Oddly, this paper volume is easily accessible in my library, while the more recent, online digital only version is difficult, if not impossible to find.  All three early volumes are indispensable.

I originally published the article linked to below in “Recent Setbacks in Conservation Online” in 2004.  In the intervening years, many of the problems discussed are, regrettably, as yet unresolved. Sadly, Setbacks Online seems inactive and inaccessible. Please be aware that the conservation techniques mentioned in this article are possibly somewhat dated, and are presented for historical and informational purposes only, and the author takes no responsibility for their efficacy or lack thereof. Caveat Conservator!

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From the Hand to the Machine. Nineteenth-century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials and Conservation

I wrote a review of Cathleen A. Baker’s new book, “From the Hand to the Machine.  Nineteenth-century American paper and mediums: technologies, materials, and conservation”  in the current issue of  The Bonefolder, Vol. 7, 2011.

Here’s the beginning-

Until recently, I would have assumed that the readers of these words were reading them on paper. But the primacy of paper as the carrier of textually based information is gradually ending, and the words I am writing will likely be read on screens or other non-paper inventions. There seems, however, an inversely proportional relationship in the ways we regard paper itself: the less we look at what is on it, the more we look at paper itself: its substance, structure, tactile qualities and history. Cathleen A. Baker’s book explores in detail the technological artifact that once served quietly as substrate, and now emerges as subject– paper.

Baker has ventured into the enormously difficult and confusing world of 19th century papermaking history, and returned to give us a book that is important, readable, scholarly…” Read the rest of the review.

Challenges To The Online Access of Conservation Literature

Please welcome Guest Blogger Peter D. Verheyen.  There was recently a lively  thread on the CIPP (Conservators in Private Practice) listserve, which is a specialty group of AIC (American Institute of Conservation), and Peter agreed to expand on some of his views into the post below.  He ends this post with a challenge to all of us to become more proactive in securing open access for our professional publications.

Challenges to the online access of conservation literature

By Peter D. Verheyen

BIO

Peter D. Verheyen is a book conservator by training and currently Head of Preservation at Syracuse University Library where he also is part of efforts to use digitization as a preservation tool in addition to working to preserve the digital. He has published, is publisher of an “open access” e-journal, retains the rights to his work, and shares it freely on general principle. < http://www.philobiblon.com > & < http://library.syr.edu/about/people/staffbio/Verheyen_Peter.php >.

The past week or so has seen lively discussion on the Conservators in Private Practice (CIPP, a part of AIC) listserv, about how the research needs of conservators, especially those in private practice can be met. This is an area of concern becauseit is critical to keep abreast of trends and new developments, as is understanding the history of an object. While we can gain access to some of the literature as members of scholarly societies, one cannot be a member of all, nor be completely aware where research is being published. There are just too many diverse sources. The digital age has made finding things much easier, and more frustrating in the sense that we are now coming across articles but not able to gain access.

 

Given that one cannot reasonably afford or be expected to have access to all sources of professional and related information, libraries (and the resources they provide) are critical. Depending on the scope of the library, they may have the resources available on the shelf in print, as electronic, or be able to provide access via inter-library loan. While it is nice to think that all, regardless of location can have access at no expense, this does not reflect the realities. Jstor < http://www.jstor.org/ >, Artstor < http://www.artstor.org >, and dissertations [available through Proquest < http://www.proquest.com/en-US/products/dissertations/ >]… were all mentioned as being essential resources in the CIPP discussion. These kinds of resources are VERY expensive to provide, and as a result of declining budgets and increased costs, libraries have been forced to cut back. I write this as a librarian working in an academic research library that subscribes to Jstor $35,000 and Proquest dissertations/theses at $27,851. Our total budget for e-resources is over $1,000,000… and this does not keep pace with increases in costs. The costs of these resources, especially serials, is something that has been oft discussed in the library literature with articles such as < http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6651248.html >, < http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-science-journal-crisis >, and < http://www.arl.org/sc/marketplace/journals/ >.

 

One of the issues with many of the journals in Jstor and Artstor is that they often bundled with lots of other journal titles saving costs, but making it difficult to pick and choose titles. Subscribing to packages via Elsevier, Springer, … is even more expensive. Publishers heavily restrict who can access the packages, often limiting concurrent users to the packages. In real terms this means that only affiliated users logging in from campus or at the library may have online access. Even then access to particular titles may not be available. This can be because the title is too recent (Jstor has a “moving wall” of on average 5 years before a title is available online to protect publishers), or that title in not available as part of the package. Even AIC has a 5-year moving wall on its website, even for members. In other cases, titles for some journals published by scholarly societies might not be available other than in print. This is especially true for the humanities.

 

While working in a research library has its advantages, it does not solve all challenges of access. There may be options, evenif not affiliated with a research library. Joining a “friends” group can give one borrowing privileges and perhaps access to selected databases and inter-library loan (ILL). Likewise some libraries may also allow one to purchase access to other resources beyond that. While it is worth asking AIC to pursue providing access to titles, I fear that trying to corral and pay for the breadth of resources desired would be very costly and complex. Calls for assistance with research would effectively require at least one full-time research librarian position with access to the collections AND the ability to share that research. Even with grant support, it would invariably need to be fee-for-service to be sustainable.

 

When Jeff asked me to expand on my posting to the CIPP list I used an article he recently posted in ICON’s Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2010 as an example. Jeff has the abstract of the article at < http://jeffpeachey.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/the-use-of-parchment-to-reinforce-split-wooden-bookboards/ >. Logging into the publisher’s (Francis and Taylor offers it electronically for ICON) website it showed that Syracuse provided access to some of the titles they offer, just not this one. The option to buy an e-version directly was not available… Ordering a print copy of the issue from the publisher would cost $228. Jeff cannot really share the article himself because of the restrictions incurred when he signed away his rights to the article for it to be published in the journal, a common practice that the AIC Journal also demands.

 

This brings us to the next topic… The “rights” (copyright) issue is a complex one, and authors often give away their copyright to their research and other work in order to get published… Then, their institutions (in most cases) have to buy back the output of that work, often created “on the clock,” at very steep prices through those journal subscriptions… Where one publishes can be dictated by tenure requirements (the more prestigious the journal the better), subject matter, intended audience, and any number of other variables…

 

In the case of Jeff’s article,

 

“It is a condition of publication that authors assign copyright or license the publication rights in their articles, including abstracts, to ICON, The Institute of Conservation. This enables us to ensure full copyright protection and to disseminate the article, and of course the Journal, to the widest possible readership in print and electronic formats as appropriate.  Authors retain many other rights under the Taylor and Francis policies, which can be found at < http://www.informaworld.com/authors_journals_copyright_position >. In addition, authors are themselves responsible for obtaining permission to reproduce copyright materials from other sources.”

 

AIC’s policy is at < http://www.conservation-us.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewpage&pageid=586 >. In contrast to ICON, AIC provides free access online. Some organizations do, others do not seeing it as benefit of membership. These policies are regardless of whether the publication is print only, a hybrid, or “e” only. They will also dictate how the articles can be shared, whether authors can deposit them in repositories (see below), share via their websites, and much, much more… The fine print is required reading.

 

In effect, institutions are paying twice for the research and scholarly output of their faculty and staff – once as they pay for their salaries and provide resources to do research, and then again to pay for the outcomes of that research through subscriptions to journals without retaining any of the rights.

 

There is a way out of this, but that requires work and a very long, patient view. That way is “open access” (online) publication. E-Conservation at < http://www.e-conservationline.com/ > would be an example in our field that I know of. So is the Distlist/CoOL. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ at < http://www.doaj.org >) has listings of thousands of journals in all disciplines that are “open access.” Open Access does not imply “public domain” with the authors giving away their copyright, but it does mean that the publications can be freely accessed, shared, and the research built upon. Many are peer-reviewed, just like those exclusive print journals or the AIC Journal and the peers are sometimes even the same as for the exclusive print journals. For more information see , < http://www.doaj.org/doaj?func=loadTempl&templ=about > or Peter Suber’s overview at < http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/overview.htm >.

 

If we as authors don’t want to start our own “open access” publications – doesn’t always cost money, just tons of sweat equity, but also very rewarding from my own experience with The Bonefolder < http://www.philobiblon.com/bonefolder > – we can choose to publish or work via our own websites or “institutional repositories” (IRs) to those working in academia. Here at Syracuse where I work, we recently launched our IR < http://surface.syr.edu/>. I plan to use it for departmental (Department of Preservation and Conservation, Library) manuals, project descriptions, proposals, presentations. This is in addition to using it for my own articles. Individuals can also set up free accounts via SelectedWorks, also hosted by the Berkeley Electronic Press (BePress), with my output at < http://works.bepress.com/peter_verheyen/ >. The advantage of these over sites like Google Docs or one’s own domain is that they work to create and maintain a digital preservation environment in which the documents are more likely to persist over time, important for citations. They also make sure the content is well indexed and rises to the top of Google searches.

 

There are benefits and drawbacks to all publication methodologies. For professionals, the most important is acknowledging that peer-review is essential for vetting research, treatment reports and the like. It can also be critical for professional advancement, especially for those working in “faculty-like” environments. However, as authors we need to be more assertive in retaining our intellectual property rights to our research so as to allow their work to be shared more widely. For example, this could include agreeing to a 6 month “embargo” period during which the publishers have exclusive rights to share the work, but after which authors are allowed to work with the material as they feel appropriate, including republication. The language of agreements is also important because most often restricted is the final published version of an article, with the author able to share the preprint version. Reading the fine print is critical.

 

We can lament the lack of accessibility to professional research, but in doing so must acknowledge our collective role, beginning with signing away our rights, in perpetuating the publication models that can severely limit that access to our peers. What needs to develop is a balanced approach that acknowledges the role scholarly societies play in facilitating research with the rights of the authors and the need for that research to be available. The US National Institutes of Health as taken a lead in that by mandating that any research receiving funding be available “open access” and posts it’s policy online at < http://publicaccess.nih.gov/ >. While not conservation related, it is serving as a model for other disciplines and repositories, especially moving forward because it will be difficult, if not impossible to open up those materials now “owned” by the scholarly societies and publishers unless they themselves agree. Libraries will follow their leads and restrictions, and cannot break their contractual obligations. They can however facilitate the creation of institutional or discipline specific repositories.

What I have attempted to do is outline some of the issues related to being able to access “the literature,” something that is only becoming more complex as society’s and publisher’s business models change, the technology of publishing changes, and user’s expectations rise. In pursuing elusive references we will need to become increasing nimble and self-reliant in that we build the costs of access into our business models or budget for them with our institutions should we not have access already.

 

Email: verheyen(at)philobiblon(dot)com

Hera

Hera are Japanese bamboo spatulas.  There  can be made in a wide variety of sizes for numerous purposes; lifting, stirring, folding, smoothing, mechanical removal of backing material, marking for wet tearing, etc….  They are typically owner made, and can easily be customized with a knife or chisel– ie. making the blade slightly more flexible (by thinning) or less flexible (by shortening), making it smaller to fit a specific purpose, and making it sharper or duller.  In fact, since the edge is very delicate, it is almost necessary that the owner be able to repair or reshape them.  Recently, I became interested in them thanks to Robert Minte, conservator at the Bodeleian Library in Oxford, UK, who showed me some examples he made when he was studying scroll mounting in Japan.

Fig. I.  Examples of several hera I have made.

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Fig. II.  Close up of a single hera, showing the flexible curved blade, transition from the handle, and the typical placement of a growth node near the end of the handle, on the right.

 

Hera are quite easy to make and another useful tool in a conservators arsenal. Small, thin ones as pictured above are useful for backing removal. I’ve even used some stout ones for lifting weak, deteriorated book cloth. Some conservators find them useful when removing pressure sensitive tape.  Thicker pieces, with more of a knife shape, after soaking in water, are an effective tool for wet tearing, since they slightly abrade the tissue as well as wetting it. The strength, flexibility, and smoothness of bamboo is unique among materials.  They are also very fun and highly addictive to make.

Bamboo.  I found some bamboo at a local hardware store/ garden center.  Larger diameter bamboo permits making a wider tool- a 3 inch diameter piece yields about a maximum .5 inch wide tool. There are over 1200 kinds of bamboo, but traditionally the best for hera is susu dake, or soot bamboo, which is very hard.  According to Thompson, “Soot bamboo is so called because it was reclaimed from the roof beams of old Japanese houses.  Other bamboos are perfectly acceptable but the slower grown (the hearly growth nodes should be as close together as possible) will produce more durable tools as the structure of the wood is more compact.” (1)

I cut the bamboo to the desired length with a coping saw.  It is best to cut the pieces longer than required, then adjust the length after preliminary shaping.  After cutting to length, it is easy to split into desired widths with chisel, then to pare them into rough square of rectangular shapes.

Fig. III. Splitting the bamboo with a chisel.

Working on a small block of wood to protect one’s work surface, the chisel was then used to square up the sides to the desired width, clean off any of the thin, soft inner lining of the bamboo, and smooth any rough corners.  Mainly the soft interior of the bamboo is shaped– the cutting edge (the outside of the tool) is the outside of the bamboo.

To shape the blade, I found it easiest to clamp the handle of the tool and working with the bevel of the chisel, gradually shape a graceful transition.  Bamboo is very easy to split and shape.

 

Fig. IV. Shaping the blade

Once the blade is at the desired thickness, it can be chopped to length with a quick chisel blow.  At this point the bamboo is fairly brittle (2) so it is safest to continue to shape and refine the edge with sandpaper or scrape it.  Caution: as it gets thinner, it can get sharp enough to easily puncture flesh. A progression of 150 US grit followed by 400 US grit worked well for the initial shaping.  Final polishing consisted of a using 3M Tri-M-Ite  polishing paper of 1200 then 6000 grit.  A thin coat of Renaissance wax gave it a nice look and  feel.

(1) Thompson, Andrew.  ‘Japanese tools for conservation’ in The Paper Conservator, Vol. 30, 2006. (Pp. 65-72)  There is a picture of a variety of sizes and shapes of hera in the article.

(2) In fact, it occurred to me that bamboo is much like the structure of a Japanese chisel– there is an extremely hard cutting edge (the outside of the bamboo), supported by a softer backing material (the inner pith) that adds flexibility and strength.

wooden board workshop at the Huntington

This fall, November 8-12, 2010, I will be teaching an intensive five day master class at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.  This will be the first time I’ve taught this class, and hopefully it will be a great introduction to woodworking and the conservation of wood board books.  I’m really excited about it and think it will be a lot of fun, as well as a lot of learning. The workshop fee is a very modest $650, and I’m estimating about $150 for materials and some basic woodworking tools.  Please contact Justin Johnson ( jjohnson (at) huntington (dot) org) for an application, or if you have questions, please contact me.

WOODEN BOOK BOARDS: THEIR CONSERVATION, HISTORIC CONSTRUCTION AND THE PRAXIS OF WORKING WOOD.

This five day master class will focus on the fundamentals of wooden book boards: the basics of using hand tools to shape wood accurately, easily and efficiently; the making a sample set of wood to identify common historic varieties; the examining of historic techniques of shaping wood; and the making a sample set of common treatments for split boards. Choosing, tuning, using, sharpening and maintaining woodworking tools will also be taught. Exploring some of the complexities of wood technology and how this impacts treatment, storage and handling options for conservation treatments will also be covered. Participants are encouraged to bring documentation concerning specific split board treatment problems for class discussion. No previous woodworking experience is necessary.

Bio: Jeffrey S. Peachey is the owner of a New York City-based studio for the conservation of books and the inventor of conservation tools and machines. He is a Professional Associate in the American Institute for Conservation. For more than 20 years, he has specialized in the conservation of books and paper artifacts for institutions and individuals.

GOALS OF THE WORKSHOP

  1. Learn how to evaluate, use and maintain basic hand wood working tools.
  2. Construct a sample set of reference wood commonly encountered in historic book boards.
  3. Construct a specialized jig to plane thin wood boards.
  4. Reproduce historic board shapes, channels, tunnels, chamfering and learn to recognize the tools used to make them.
  5. Construct samples of currently used techniques to repair split and splitting boards, and discuss their applicability in various real world situations.
  6. Make one sample board from a log, by hand, to understand the historic hand technologies– using a maul, froe, and broad axe.
  7. Begin to appreciate some of the complexities of wood technology and how this impacts treatment, storage and handling options for real world books.
  8. Discuss in depth the results of a recent article by Alexis Hagadorn and  Jeffrey S. Peachey  “The use of parchment to reinforce split wooden bookboards, with preliminary observations into the effects of RH cycling on these repairs” Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Volume 33, Issue 1 March 2010 (pp 41 – 63)
  9. Consider storage, housing and display issues unique to wooden board bindings.
  10. Discuss specific potential treatment options from examples that participants supply.

The registration fee for this 5-day workshop is $650.00. Other costs apply. Class size is limited to 10. For more information and to apply contact Justin Johnson at jjohnson (at) huntington (dot) org.

Free X-Ray Magnification Fluoroscopy Offer

Last week I attended the Atlantic Design and Manufacturing Show at the Javits Center in NYC.  There are similar shows around the country, and if you are interested in cutting edge technology that may have possible applications to conservation, they are well worth attending.

I noticed a couple of interesting items; super-fast absorbent sponges designed for Ophthalmic applications, sub $200 ( 10-70x) USB microscopes, and a very cool, open source 3d printer for less than $1000.  Three dimensional printers can print virtually anything, in this case up to  100 x 100 x 100mm out of ABS, HDPE or PLA plastic.

But perhaps the most useful offer came from Gil Zweig, President of Glenbrook Technologies Inc. He has invented a patented, real time, MXRA x-ray machine with magnification up to 20x.  If you have a bit of money left over in your budget, he sells a desktop machine for about $39,000.  Or you can rent lab time for $250/ hr in his Randolph NJ location.  He is primarily marketing his services for medical, industrial and forensic applications, but seemed interested in expanding his market to conservators, and offered a free hour on the machine if you have an artifact than needs x-rayed.

The Use of Parchment to Reinforce Split Wooden Bookboards

I was quite pleased to receive the new Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2010, since Alexis Hagadorn and I have an article included in it titled “The use of parchment to reinforce split wooden bookboards, with preliminary observations into the effects of RH cycling on these repairs”

Here is the abstract:

Split wooden boards are a common problem in early book bindings, and treatment can be complicated by the need to disturb original components as little as possible. A technique used to reinforce or rejoin fully or partially split wooden boards using parchment has been evaluated. A reinforcing parchment strip has sometimes been employed to treat cracks in wooden musical instruments and examples of reinforcing strip repairs to wooden bookboards have also been observed. The books considered in this article presented an opportunity to use this technique and make observations about its merits. With favourable results but some questions, the authors undertook a systematic study of this method, considering and comparing several options for re-joining split wooden boards. Samples of some common repair techniques were made and subjected to relative humidity cycling to compare how each method might withstand extreme RH fluctuations at a constant temperature. The response of reinforcing strip repairs to RH changes showed a negative impact on join adhesion within the sample group, which may indicate that modifications are necessary to improve this technique. When re-examined after three years, the treated boards were intact and stable.”

It took over four years from the start of the project until the revised manuscript was accepted for publication, but it is gratifying to see the results of our research, and images of a couple of my treatments in a peer reviewed journal.  Unfortunately, the journal is not available online yet, although I have heard it is in the works.  And if you are not a member of ICON, this single issue costs, gulp, $228.oo!


Outside Of The Text: My Work In Book Conservation

(The complete version of this article is at.  Center for Mennonite Writing, CMW Journal Vol. 2, No. 2. Don’t miss the new translation of a short lyric below Jan Luyken’s “The Bookbinder”, from his 1694 Book of Trades in the introduction to the Journal. My article details what book conservation is, how it differs from book restoration and bookbinding, then traces some ethical decisions during the course of a treatment. Below is the beginning.)

A book conservator often enters into public perception heavily colored by, and often confused with, romantic notions of a “Master Craftsman,” “Master Bookbinder,” or “Master Restorer.” In a world where many use their hands only to tap at a keyboard or lift a cup of coffee, the idea of a craftsman seems refreshingly simple, a bit anachronistic, very poetic and entirely appealing. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately!) these romantic ideas of a bookbinder bear little resemblance to what I do.

Although the terminology is somewhat debatable, in North America a bookbinder is usually someone who makes new fine bindings, or binds small editions, or repairs old books, often by putting new bindings on them. A book restorer, often working for the antiquarian or rare book trade, restores a book to an imagined, often pristine state, previous to damage, use or age. Many also make period bindings. (1) A book conservator attempts to preserve all the information that a book embodies, and ideally tries not to alter or change any existing element. Although conservators employ a full arsenal of craft skills, they also must know the history of book structure, be familiar with a wide variety of materials, have knowledge of preventative conservation and also understand methods of documentation. (2) The process is decidedly prosaic and cautious, and tends to adopt a scientific methodology.(3)

Figure 1

Fig 1. This romantic view is nothing new. Above is a 19th century plate of a bookbinder at work. Note the cherubic children who appear to be joyfully playing rather than working. Does the engraver imply that a bookbinder’s work was so simple a child could do it?

In contrast, bookbinding, or crafting an object, involves creating something, usually from raw or partially prepared materials. Craft often implies, at least today, a personal relationship to the work. Craft often involves handwork….

(READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE)

Or it is also located here:

http://www.mennonitewriting.org/journal/2/2/outside-text-my-work-book-conservation/

A Future For Book Conservation at the End of the Mechanical Age

The following is the text of the 2010 Mim Watson Book Arts Lecture given at the University of Texas, School of Information, on 3/11/2010.

The problem of survival for the hand-bound book in America is a difficult one. There are many economic and perhaps even sociological factors involved which threaten the existence of hand binding, making this field some what uncertain as an occupation. Chief among these, I believe, is the ever-growing attitude that the book (like so many other objects of everyday use) is something ephemeral: read it and give it or throw it away. This attitude combined with the very understandable desire on the part of the book buyer- you and me- not to pay more than he has paid in the past for his books, has forced publishers into putting less physical quality into their books. I don’t believe that the situation is entirely gloomy. As the machine-made object comes more and more to dominate our existence, there is a small but growing group of people who value having the work of the human hand re-enter their lives. Most of these people, however, struggle valiantly against very difficult odds—principally economic—to keep our great libraries from falling apart.”

-Paul Banks, 1960, “A Controversial view of the Extra Binder in America”

If you roughly substitute ‘conservation’ for ‘hand bound book’ in the above quote, it is striking, 50 years after these words were written, how little has changed, or perhaps we have come full circle. It wouldn’t surprise me to read observations like this on a book-arts related blog. Survival in this field has been a struggle for a while, and still is today. Perhaps the entire history of books, as well as bookbinding and conservation, has been in a constant state of crisis, punctuated by continuing revolutions: paper, printing, the rolling machine, book cloth, stamping presses, stereotyping, publishers bindings, paperbacks, Printing On Demand and now, eBooks. As we know, there is painfully direct correlation between the decline of the physical quality of the books, and number in which they were produced. Tonight, I will examine some of the cultural forces that are changing how we use books, look at how this is affecting book conservation, then speculate a bit about the future. I’m afraid, however, that I have more questions than predictions.

To begin, please indulge me the opportunity to share some recollections of my relationship with this conservation certificate program when it was at Columbia University. Chela Metzger, when delivering Syracuse University’s 2008 Brodsky lecture, spoke about the role of luck in finding ones path in conservation. “The lucky combination of skills, opportunity and the right historical moment,” she succinctly said. I couldn’t agree more. When I started in conservation, as a technician working on a two year grant in the Columbia University Conservation Lab in 1990, I had no idea how lucky I was. Terry Bellenger’s Rare Book School was there and almost every Thursday night there was a book arts lecture. Nicholas Pickwoad was the instructor for the conservation program, and would often give public presentations. It seemed the students were always hanging out in front of Butler Library – didn’t they ever have lab time? Chris Clarkson was consulting Deborah Evetts at the Morgan, and would often stop by. Later Fred Bearman became head of the CUL and I worked closely with him for four years on special collections material. There were lectures at the Grolier Club, classes at the Center for Book Arts, advanced workshops sponsored by the NY Chapter of the Guild of Bookworkers, lectures at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, and an informal monthly beer meeting for binders and conservators. At the time, I assumed all of this was par for the course for any conservation job.

But I was very lucky, I later realized, to be exposed to a tremendous variety of educational opportunities. While the Advanced Certificate in Conservation has graduated hundreds of students over the years, there are likely thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, who have benefited from it in many various, undocumented ways. I am grateful how the program has enhanced and formed my knowledge of conservation, and feel a bit sad about its current demise.

Books and libraries are rapidly changing. Many believe that books are shifting from functional devices for delivering textual information to museum objects. Circulating collections are being replaced by online resources. Many undergrads refuse to use physical books for research. Libraries have gotten rid of card catalogs and opened up coffee shops in their place. If books become functionless, or unavailable, it can only be a matter of time until we question why we are spending all of this money to store them—they are expensive space wasters. Conceptually, off-site storage seems to have gotten us used to not gaining instant access to books in a library. I believe the first bookless library is at Cushing Academy, in Massachusetts. The headmaster of the school, James Tracy, states,”When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.

If paper books are dead, are digital books ‘undead’? Aren’t these books like zombies – living eternally in a digital netherworld, occasionally assuming a temporal physical form, and if they die a replacement is quickly created? But whether books are dead, or undead, convenience may be what finally replaces the paper book. I often succumb to the convenience of screen reading, because it is good enough for certain purposes. Sometimes I will just look up a book on Google for a citation, rather than walk ten feet over to my bookshelf.

If libraries are changing, and the use of paper-based books is declining, where does this leave book conservators? Isn’t one of our main tasks to preserve and restore the functionality of books? I’ve seen a steady decline in the number of treatments preformed within institutions over the past 20 years, not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Maria Fredericks observed in a panel discussion at the Center for Book Arts last week, that robustness and the desire to treat a book so they would last ‘forever’ were overriding concerns behind treatment decisions in the 1980’s – this resulted in a lot of disbinding, washing, deacidifying and rebinding. Although the Florence flood is often cited as the birth of book conservation, in some ways the 1980’s marked the cutting of the cord. Conservation became differentiated from bookbinding and book restoration; funding was plentiful, the Graduate Certificate Program was set up at Columbia, and in many libraries the bindery was converted, often with resistance, into a conservation lab.

Perhaps, an unintended consequence of the need to establish book conservation as something visually and materially different than bookbinding or book restoration, was a somewhat identifiably ‘conservation’ look to many treatments preformed in the 1980’s. These books often look very much like the 1980’s, rather than the time period that the book is from. Similarly, forgeries, over time, look more like the time period they were made in than the time they proport to be from, although I’m not implying these treatments are forgeries! It would be an interesting project to visually trace how notions of a sympathetic treatment have changed over the years. The early 1990’s started a trend towards less invasive treatments and minimal intervention which continues to this day. But minimal intervention has an endpoint. One of the most difficult decisions a conservator has to make is deciding when a somewhat more aggressive treatment preserves, during storage and use, more information than is lost through the invasiveness of a particular treatment. It is a decision no one takes lightly, and is complicated by the unique nature, unknown material history and uncertain future use for each book.

Although treatments are guided by the philosophy of minimal intervention, many of us were initially attracted to conservation because of the hand skills and craft aspects. Ironically, most of us, by mid-career become permutated into an administrator. A colleague of mine at a large NYC institution said she only does one treatment about every three years. The opportunity to spend a lot of time carefully documenting, looking at and treating a spectacular, or sometimes an unspectacular book is deeply rewarding. I’m not trying to deny the importance of preventive conservation and a host of other competencies a conservator must possess, but acquiring treatment skills is perhaps the most time consuming, humbling and frustrating aspect of a conservators education. I’m sure many of us have been dazzled by the technical skill of the binders who made the books we work on, and just as often are dumbfounded by the amount of time lavished on poor quality materials. Learning craft based skills takes years and years of practice after the end of formal education. So if the need and frequency of treatments continues to decline, how will conservators get enough practice to learn, improve and maintain their hand skills? And how will it be possible to continue the transmission of these skills?

Without high-level craft skills, many collectors and dealers, and quite possibly curators, could look once again to binders or restorers to repair their books to the level of historic sympathy, tactile qualities and aesthetic integration they expect. Most discussions about the future of book conservation tend to ignore the fact that about half of all conservators are in private practice, and that most historic and artistic objects that get ‘fixed’ are not treated by conservators. In my own experience, I rarely compete with other conservators for jobs – the problem is competing with Billy Bobs’ Budget Book Bindery. Many of the somewhat invisible aspects of conservation – such as documentation, the quality of materials, research, professional development, adherence to AIC’s Code of Ethics – can add a lot of expense to a treatment, putting a conservator at a severe disadvantage economically when competing with a restorer for a job. When I started in private practice, I once gave a client duplicates of all documentation– he looked at them and said all those slides looked expensive, I’m not going to pay for any more of them. And the Antiques Roadshow style experts, who inform the public they can get a book tarted up for a minimal sum does’t help matters. All conservators need to continually explain, validate and explicate what they do, in a way the general public can understand and get involved with emotionally. There are many compelling narratives surrounding conservation that we can use to engage the public imagination. Otherwise, what we do, and our profession generally, will remain invisible. And if it is invisible, it will undervalued.

Book conservation is much closer to its craft origins than other conservation disciplines. This may be why book conservation education is often separated from other disciplines. It also may be why book conservators are sometimes suspiciously regarded by conservators in other specialities. Craft values and professional values can appear contradictory, if only superficially compared. No one expects a paintings conservator, for example, to also be a creative artist. But it is necessary for a book conservator to be a competent bookbinder, unless the societal role of books changes so dramatically that books are no longer needed to function. If books are no longer required to be functional objects – which I can’t really imagine, since a functioning book is the fundament to access – then there would no longer a need for a specialized book conservator. An object conservator, for example, can construct a box or cradle. One of the principal purposes of conservation, as envisioned by the American Institute for Conservation, is that objects should be preserved so that they can be enjoyed by future generations- if a functional object cannot function, how can it be enjoyed?

This is the linchpin for the future of the field. The primary question is not if a book conservator needs an MILS, it is deciding if the overall cultural expense of transmitting the specialized set of skills used to maintain the functionality of a book, while preserving its artifactual and historic integrity, is important. Unfortunately, given the corporate model that currently pervades our cultural institutions, we may just let the market decide. I desperately hope this does not happen.

The engineering, technological and material science skills to make a book function while preserving existing evidence, is unique to the domain of a book conservator. Book conservation works almost completely opposite to other types of conservation; it involves a constant refining and increasing specialization of knowledge and skills – learning more and more about less and less. I’ve worked with several paper conservators who lack a basic understanding of how a functioning page needs to be properly repaired. Without an understanding of book history, it is impossible to determine what is material evidence and what is damage. Without a knowledge of book structures, it is difficult to determine what is rare or unique, and should be preserved as is, as opposed to a common structure that should be made functional once again. Many treatment decisions are extraordinarily complex and impossible to quantify, given the large number of often unknown variables. Each book, and by extension the treatment decisions surrounding it, raises questions about the impossibility of conservation ever becoming entirely scientific, since all books and treatments are unique. And no treatment is truly reversible.

Because of the close relationship between bookbinding craft and book conservation, it is vital that conservators not only to preserve books, but learn, document, and transmit the collective craft knowledge of bookbinding as well. Working closely with someone more experienced is essential to learning and transmitting this knowledge. I doubt that anything can take the place of one-to-one transmission, as previously conceived of as an apprenticeship, or currently as internships. However, some new forms of technology – ironically the very forms that are challenging the role of paper books – can preserve types of information almost impossible to document textually. Hand tool woodworking provides an example of how craft skills were ‘rediscovered’ after almost a generation of neglect.

Woodworking with hand tools, which had declined precipitously starting with the power tool craze of the 1950’s, was rediscovered in the early 1970’s. Most of the rediscovery came from textually documented sources, attempting to reconstruct exemplars of workmanship, and possibly the most important aspect, learning to use and maintain specialized, high quality tools. It is a striking example of how a long lasting professional trade was rediscovered by amateurs. Today, hand tool woodworking is experiencing a renaissance, and there are more small, local tool makers fabricating higher quality of tools than have been available for a long time. Inherent within books themselves, both physically and textually, is some of the information necessary for the transmission of the craft of bookbinding. And this is part of the reason we conserve them. So there is some hope of a rediscovery of the skills, even if they disappear for a while.

Although the craft skills of bookbinding, and books themselves aren’t going to disappear tomorrow, next week, or even in our lifetimes, the use of books as the primary instrument for the vernacular transmission of textually based information is slowly ending. The book didn’t start out in vernacular culture, and it won’t end in it, either. The inexpensive, commonplace paper based book will have circumscribed a brief, yet explosive period of human history, roughly starting with the enlightenment and ending with the web.

The rapidity in which print culture is changing will affect us in varied and unpredictable ways. Take, for example, the shrinking of the newspaper industry. It is difficult to get good quality newsprint (I know, an oxymoron) to use as wastepaper. In a recent order I was sent a coated, shiny paper more like something used in magazines. I suspect as newspapers die out, this will become more of a problem. ACE Grinding, who regrinds my board shear blades, make most of their money from resharpening newspaper guillotine blades; I doubt they could survive on the 20 or so conservation labs in NYC who get their blades sharpened once a year. Will any library binderies exist in another 20 years? Will someone produce a bookcloth even remotely sympathetic with 19th century books? Quality sewing thread is difficult to find. Leather? Binders board? Leather dyes? High quality handmade paper and tissue is possibly the only bright spot. The difficulty in procuring quality materials is a constant battle; I won’t bore you with the details. One tip, however, if you ever find a material you really like, buy enough for the rest of your career if you can possibly afford it.

The use of books for accessing textually based information is gradually declining, and even apart from my obvious pecuniary interest as a book conservator, I feel a sense of loss. Part of it is similar to the loss of a companion, part of it nostalgia, but part of it must stem from a deep respect for the subtle sophistication of the codex structure itself: I can’t think of a comparable technology that has been so durable over the past 16 centuries. Fine bindings can be gorgeous, small press books beautiful, but books that are functioning, working documents are perhaps the most gorgeous, beautiful and meaningful of all. Collectively, they are the primary documents of human intellectual life.

Outside of the book world, there are more general cultural trends that are very troubling. We are at, or have just passed the end of the mechanical age. I’m frightened how much of my life and thoughts only exist digitally. I’m worried that ‘things’ will not last long enough to acquire use value. I’m concerned that the general public doesn’t have much interest, let alone comprehension, of how and why things work, what they are made of, and most importantly why their physical, material nature has meaning. And I’m troubled by the ease in which we discard a functional object which is no longer fashionable.

In the United States, the notion of fixing things is disappearing – has anyone here had a pair of shoes resoled recently? I have a collection of Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1950’s that not only contain articles about how to fix many common household items, but also how to build the power tools to accomplish these tasks! Most things now can’t be fixed; if it breaks, it is discarded or a large chunk of it swapped out and replaced. I rebuilt my VW bug engine when I was in high school, but the only thing I can do to my current vehicle is to change the windshield wipers. There will be no need to repair a book produced on the Espresso Book Machine when a new one can be printed cheaply on demand. If my kindle ebook reader fails, I just buy a new one; actually, I’d probably walk away from it and read the few books I’ve purchased on my computer. I suspect we will interact with objects for briefer and shorter periods of time, and know less and less about them. The oldest prevalent complex machine still in use, at least around the East Village of NYC, seems to be 1970’s era bicycles. I can only foresee a consistently more difficult battle to try and argue for the expensive preservation of the non-textual aspects of books, when most of the owners have no awareness or ability to interpret these elements.

Despite all of this gloom and doom, however, the codex seems to be continually reinvented. Lulu, Blurb and the scrapbooking phenomena form an interesting counterpoint to some of my aforementioned concerns. These new forms make me wonder if there is deeply ingrained need for the codex, and the demarcation and fixity that it exemplifies, and that we will always have some form of it. The satisfaction that children feel, for example, when turning their scribbles into a book is remarkable. And although I personally find scrapbooking mildly repugnant because of its extreme commercialization, limited opportunity for artistic expression and deskilling of the bookmaking process, if it gets people thinking and working in the book form, I can only encourage it. Keep in mind that scrapbooking is big; at the burned out city center of almost every Midwestern town, right next to the tattoo parlor is a store selling scrapbooking supplies.

Will books disappear in a manor similar to VCR’s, film cameras, vinyl records or CD’s? I’ve seen photography wiped out faster than I could have ever imagined. I was still buying new lenses for my 35mm rangefinder in 2001. By 2003 I was shooting a lot of digital for fun, and by 2006 was using it for documentation. CD’s replaced albums, but albums are now back as a retro technology with bands releasing new work on them. Cheap Trick even recently released an 8-track tape. But as film disappeared for snapshots and vernacular uses, earlier processes, like non-silver printing, are experiencing a resurgence for fine arts applications. I have a friend, in his late 20’s who is grinding his own lenses to make a 16 x 24 view camera. But photography is only about 185 years old–will the sixteen century history of the multi-quire codex affect the speed of its replacement? Will books enjoy an art-based retro-vogue? Or could they become a conjoined with the current fetish for the handmade, reversing some of Paul Banks concerns?

If books become rare, treasured objects once again, they could increase in market value, which could increase cost effectiveness of their conservation. But what type of book will be preserved? I wonder if a decrease in the use of books will be proportional to the increase in their sentimental value. Could this affect their need to function? In some ways, conservation is becoming like a third world economy – there are a very few upper class, high level treatments, and the masses environmentally stabilized or rehoused. If, far in the future, owning and accessing a book becomes a rare and exotic experience – a direct, physical, tangible link to an earlier time period and technology – I can only see their value increasing. After all, home viewing hasn’t replaced the unique experience of watching movies in public. And talkies didn’t replace the live theatre. But talkies did replace silent film, while color has yet to completely obsolete black and white. And on a pragmatic level, books in general, and specifically those from the handpress period, are currently seriously undervalued.

I doubt any of us think ‘books are dead’. However, the eroding funding to preserve the book is of grave concern. The days of rapid growth in conservation seem to be over. In NYC at least, there are fewer jobs than there were when I started in this field, as well as fewer grant funded positions, and more uncertainty about the future of existing positions. And there are more conservators. I do think there will be one growth area: private practice. Across all conservation specialties, almost 50% of us are in private practice. Some by design, some by default, some taking time to raise kids, some waiting for a real job, and some because they couldn’t keep a real job. There are many varieties of working in private practice; some of us own a business, some work freelance for others, some work part time in institutional labs, etc…. In my dealings with institutions, most archivists and curators are relatively familiar with the basics of environmental monitoring and preventative conservation. I suspect some more small labs will close and preservation duties are assumed by existing staff. I wonder if this could create opportunities for those in private practice for project and contract treatment work?

What might some of these treatments be? This is pure speculation, but I imagine some specific problems – pigment consolidation, inappropriately bound vellum text blocks, scrapbooks, split wood boards, iron gall ink, photographic albums, reversing leather dressings, brittle paper, modern first editions – will all be key areas for extensive future research and treatment. I also think there will be a need for treatments addressing aesthetic concerns; as books are read less and looked at more, presenting bindings and books as treasure objects will likely increase, as well as increasing the need for preserving their aesthetics. Additionally, there are tremendous opportunities and possibilities for new designs of inexpensive, attractive protective enclosures, as well as more versatile wedges and cradles for safe handling and exhibition, both for institutions and private collectors. There are many aspects of a standard, drop-spine box that are in need of improvement and redesign. I’m also sure there will be many as yet unidentified problems, some likely caused by our current practices, if history is any guide.

In conclusion, it is the history, tradition and even metaphoric associations, that will sustain, perhaps in a radically different form, the cultural importance of the codex. Fighting to preserve and interpret its importance is nothing new. The aesthetic, historic and artifactual values need to be constantly brought to the publics attention. This is perhaps the biggest current failure of conservation, as a whole– the lack of adequate outreach and public education. We spend far too much time bickering about internal affairs.

Figuring our how to construct a viable life in bookbinding or conservation has never been easy. The current economic and cultural climate makes things very difficult. So I applaud the conservation students in this audience for having the courage to commit to this weird, changing, undefined, but immensely rewarding field. Despite the challenges, I’ve never regretted joining it. And I hope all the conservation students get ‘lucky’ as you continue your own varied, unpredictable, yet undeniably exciting career paths.

A Sordid Tale Involving a Book Conservator and an ebook Reader

“The ebook reader is devil spawn, the product of an unholy union between book and machine.”

Jeff Peachey–July, 2009

Last week, in a stark reversal of previously held convictions, I purchased a kindle 2 ebook reader.

Initially inspired by a number of upcoming talks I will be giving concerning the future of books and conservation, I have been reading and thinking about ebook readers for a while, especially in terms of how they might augment, change or supplant paper books.  This machine is emblematic of the societal changes regarding the distribution, consumption and value of books.  It can also evoke ire in those who are firmly enamored with paper books.

So I am slightly ashamed, after wrestling with the dilemma to purchase one or not for a few months, that  I realized, with an intensity almost religious in its conviction, that I wanted one– immediately.  Purely in the interests of research, I told myself.  Last Monday, at 9:17 am I logged on to Amazon and purchased one.  I’m even more embarrassed to admit I succumbed to the same day delivery option for Manhattan.  Who in their right mind would wait 5-9 days for free delivery, I reasoned.  I wanted this machine now.  During the day, I was embarrassed yet again, by how excited and eager I was to get my kindle. At 2:26 that afternoon the machine arrived.

After charging the battery, my first thought was to make some sort of case to  hide protect it.  This proved more challenging than initially envisioned.  A number of designers and computer case makers have fabricated various holders, hinged book-like portfolios and envelopes, but none of these seemed satisfactory, since I found the machine very comfortable when held naked.  I ended up making a slipcase  lined with Volara, which works for now.

The next step was to inform some of my friends and colleagues that I had bought this reading machine.   Not surprisingly, I received a variety of responses, ranging from “WHAT!”  to “WHAT THE…!” to “ARE YOU CRAZY?!!” to “OH_MY_GOD!”  After downloading a number of free books, I settled on my first purchase; “Erewhon”, by Samuel Butler.  It is a novel describing  a future civilization that only has knowledge of machines through reading about them in books.

I must confess that I like the kindle, but have only used it for a week.

THE BAD

*It is another expensive portable electronic device that I have to remember to recharge.

*I keep wanting to scroll, but the machine can only turn pages.

*The page turns are much faster than earlier versions, but still pretty slow, and still accompanied by a split second seizure inducing reversal of text and background.

*ebooks themselves seem overpriced to me- around $10. Since there is no production, distribution and minimal storage costs, $5-$7 would seem more in line with the profit margin on paper books.

*There is no secondary marketplace for ebooks.

*Rapidly “flipping” through to find specific pages is difficult.

*It is strange to read everything in the same font- Caelicia.

*It is strange to read everything on the same “page”.

*The formatting and kerning are quite variable and often very bad.

*The footnotes on the books I have are not in hypertext, so it is awkward to first go back to the table of contents, then to the notes, then page through each to find it.

*The 6 inch screen seems small in relation to the size of the machine. Not that many words-per-page even with a small font size.

*I still find the machine itself a little distracting to the reading process.  Maybe it is just a matter of me getting used to it. It invites me to fiddle with buttons and check the web.

*Occasionally the screen glares in a strong light source.

*The “text to speech” voice is annoying and virtually unlistenable.

*I wish the background of the screen were a little whiter.

*Many books and  journals are not available.

*I don’t like the idea of an ebook readers.

THE GOOD

*It seems well made, the buttons have a nice inward click.  Easy to hold with one or two hands.  Good ergonomics.

*Lighter than an average book of the same size. And obviously, much lighter than 1,500 books.

*Purchased books are backed up by Amazon, and can be shared on other formats, like the iphone or computer.  Even bookmarks and notes are shared.

*It is very convenient not have to think about what book to take when I go out.

*The choice of five font sizes is invaluable for the over 40 crowd.

*It is fantastic to use while eating, lying flat, taking up half the table space of a paper book.

*The eink is clear and easy to look at for long periods of time. Better “print” quality than many common mass market paperbacks.

*There are thousands of free, public domain books available.

*It it a wonderful size for reading in the car or on the subway.  It is very easy to turn the pages on a packed train while standing.

*The battery life is great. I’ve used it constantly for a week, and haven’t turned it off, only recharging it once.

*The free 3G web browser works reasonably well for mobile optimized websites.

*It will help clear up scarce bookshelf space.

*An average book downloads in less than a minute.

*I imagine it will be perfect when traveling- no worries about running out of books, and a lot less weight.

I will avoid the already somewhat tiresome “is the kindle better than a book” debate for now, at least until I’ve had a couple of months to use it.  Suffice to say, there are many issues.  But the ebook reader itself may already be heading towards obsolescence.   A couple of ebook blogers are nervous that the tablet computer, which Apple will possibly introduce later this week, may replace their traditional ebook reader, and are growing anxious and defensive about it. Technology races onward.


Book Conservation in the US and the UK

The practice of book conservation not only changes over time, but some of the ethics, underpinnings and treatments vary in different countries.  In November 2009, I had the opportunity to install a board slotting machine in England, teach a three day workshop on its use, and give a presentation on the history of board slotting.  During the course of a week,  I had time to talk shop with conservators from a number of institutions, and recorded some of my impressions from these conversations.

THE JOB SITUATION

Currently, it seems slightly better in the UK than in the US.  No one I spoke to experienced hiring freezes or a forced four day work week during the summer, like many institutional conservators experienced here.  Many of the jobs in the UK are short term or part time, but these were often to get renewed.  Because of their National Health Care system, this employment uncertainty is much more doable than here.   It is a nightmarishly difficult, and sometimes impossible, to rapidly change health care providers here.

Salaries, traditionally lower, seem to be catching up and in some cases equal to what a conservator would make here in the US. Perhaps this is due to ICON’s efforts to establish minimum accepted salary standards.  The cost of living is higher, however.  Salaries for conservators in private practice, however, seem to lag well behind the US, likely because of a much longer craft oriented bookbinding tradition that competes for rebinding and restoration type jobs. Overall,  there seemed to be a less alarming reallocation of funding for digital projects at the expense of treatments. Perhaps the bulwark of a longer tradition of caring for cultural objects provides a buffer against the current rush, at least here in the US, to digitize everything by noon tomorrow.

Because there are so many older books in Europe, the general public considers them commonplace and functional, rather than treasured relics.  I’m not suggesting Europeans don’t value their cultural heritage, but for them, a 19th century book is not all that old; additionally these books can be somewhat slighted because they are a product of technology, not craft.

Conservators tended to be much more international than here.  I’ve met conservators working in the UK from the US, Canada, Serbia, New Zealand, France and Italy. Additionally, I have to confess a degree of jealousy when examining the overall age and quality of materials that my English peers were treating–generally they get to work on better stuff.

EDUCATION

Once again, possibly due to the demise of the Kilgarlin Center,  more Americans are choosing to get their conservation training in England.  Camberwell and West Dean both seem to have bumper crops of new students.  There is even a US/ UK alliance between North Bennet Street School and West Dean, though I am unclear if it is official or not: complete the rigorous two year NBSS program, with its emphasis on bookbinding craft skills, then enter into the 2nd. year MA at West Dean for conservation training. It is almost like training in the US is back to where it was in the early 1980’s, with potential conservators forced to devise their own conservation education based on a variety of sources–bookbinding courses, on the job training, internships, an MILS and countless short term workshops.  In some ways this is nothing new– book conservators have always had to be proactive in their education. Given the lack of new, entry level jobs, coupled with the lack of training opportunities and the decrease in funding for treatments, I am growing increasingly apprehensive about the future of book conservation.  Books are rapidly loosing their unique status as interactive, movable functional objects, and becoming more like any other museum object. Will  future book conservators only learn how to safely house and display them?  Will future book conservators be trained in the various MA art conservation training programs; Buffalo, The Institute of Fine Arts, Winterthur, Queens?  The conservators I have met from these programs have been top notch, highly skilled and very professional.   Since book conservation, historically, has been so closely linked to its craft roots, emerging initially in the working library, not in a museum setting, should we consider the preservation of these craft skills a necessary part of an overall book conservation training program?  In many ways, this shift in book conservation education mirrors the shift of the societal role of books themselves.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

The EU also brought in stringent (and to my mind sometimes ridiculous) health and safety rules.  Board shears (called ‘board choppers’ in the UK) are retrofitted with a large Plexiglas fin, similar to a Kuttrimmer, to prevent users from putting their head under the blade to align material to be cut.  This often results in a nasty cut on one’s forehead when, out of habit, one tries to align the material under the blade.  Even a Tormek (slow speed water cooled grinding stone) had to be outfitted with an ‘emergency’ on-off switch.   Since it is possible to touch the wheel when it is in motion without abrading your skin, I am suspicious about the necessity for this switch.  Quite fortuitously, UK conservators never use sharp knives and scalpels, otherwise they might be required to wear kevlar gloves, a thick leather apron and safety glasses!

TEA TIME

The sacrosanct ritual of tea time seemed to promote employee bonding and encourage a general sense of well being,  as well as providing a respite from the sometimes tedious nature of performing  conservation treatments. In general, Europeans have a more nuanced understanding of work. One gets the sense that the workplace was made for people, not people made for the workplace. I suggest this attitude be more widely emulated here, and vow to start with my studio!

SIMILARITIES

Many of the frustrations expressed are quite similar on both sides of the pond.  The most common being the lack of time to actually do treatments, given the amount of administrative duties.  Another is the amount of time that exhibitions and loans take, often to the detriment of treating serious, complex problems on other books.  And there is a persistent sense–sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken– that book conservators, because they work with their hands in a profession closely related to a craft,  are somewhat closer to shoemakers than other museum professionals.

Most book conservators, attracted to this low paying field for a variety of reasons, are personable, intelligent, practical, curious, decent people.  They are the kind of colleagues  one chooses to socialize with outside of professional obligations, often sharing a love of good food, as well as a deep, often thankless commitment to preserving the most perfect and durable technological invention of all time:  the book.

I suspect there are many familiar with both the US and UK conservation worlds, and am interested to hear some other comparisons and perspectives.

The American Institute for Conservation has also compiled information about conservation education.

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