Comments on Clarkson, Conservation and Craft

Book conservation, possibly more than any other conservation discipline, consists of a skill set that is closely linked to its craft roots. Conservators must not only be able to intellectually understand the mechanics, chemistry and history of book structure, but also need the hand skills to actually do bookbinding: performing, for example, a full treatment where a text needs to be rebound in a style sensitive and sympathetic to its structural requirements and time period. So what prompted Christopher Clarkson to write,  “European hand bookbinding practice does not form the best foundation on which to build or even graft the principles of book conservation.” (Clarkson, 1978)

 Although written 30 years ago, these words are still extremely provocative. In a very narrow interpretation, the phrase “ European hand bookbinding practice” could mean typical trade bookbinding practice, and the statement is entirely uncontroversial— not every book should be rebound and of course a 10th century manuscript should not be stuffed into a typical late 19th century trade binding! (1) But what if Clarkson is pointing towards a broader reading, establishing a dichotomy between bookbinding and book conservation, potentially even between a craft and a profession?  Given the close relationship of the two, how could they be separated?

 A few clues can be found elsewhere in the same volume of The Paper Conservator.  This issue begins with a policy statement, noting four basic purposes of publication:

“1.  To conserve the traditional crafts of conservation… .  2.  To stimulate the craftsmen to develop a methodology with which to record their techniques and experience… . 3. …extending knowledge about craft techniques in closely related fields… . 4. To assemble a reference source of craft techniques for trainee conservators.” (My italics) (McAusland, 1978)

 These multiple references to craft are perhaps even more shocking that Clarkson’s original quote, and somewhat explain his need to propose a break with the past, at least in a philosophical context.  It appears that in 1978 that book conservation was considered a craft, or at least craft was a large part of it. But professionalism was on the rise at the same time; Paul Banks was elected President of AIC in 1978 (a first for a book conservator) and his The Preservation of Library Materials was published the same year.  Did a rise in professionalism necessitate a break with craft tradition in order to escape habits, both in thought and praxis, built up over centuries?

 I am certain that if I mentioned “the craft of conservation” in 2008, I would be greeted by suspicion, jeers and critical blog posts from my peers. Today, conservators have, to a large degree, distanced themselves from that dirty little word—craft– at least in their own minds.(2)  This distancing seems to be the core message in Clarkson’s statement, as a necessary first step. In order to rationally and objectively approach a conservation treatment, it was necessary to step outside of the preconceptions of a craft tradition, and attempt to examine the book and the goals of the treatment from the outside.  Sometimes a conservation treatment might closely resemble how a bookbinder might repair a volume; sometimes it might be radically different.

 How can the craft of the bookbinding be preserved in a professional context that has struggled to escape its craft based roots? Are there dangers, however, of completely refuting the craft of bookbinding while formulating a new theory of conservation?  Almost 1,700 years of mostly unwritten craft skills have been passed on during the history of bookbinding.  Many structures and techniques have been abbreviated, forgotten and lost. Some have been rediscovered later, existing as primary evidence in book structure, or extrapolated through praxis.  A conservator could start a treatment, with no knowledge of bookbinding technique, but if the treatment was at all complex, it seems the conservator, even if ignorant of craft technique, would end up reinventing it. Maybe this is how the craft will survive.

 As books cease to be viewed as primarily a vehicle for transmitting textual information, and move closer to object-type status, I predict the physical information their materials and construction contain, and their visual appeal will become increasingly valued. (3) Paradoxically, we may have to wait until books no longer fulfill their original function (to be read) before we fully value the craft skills that created them, and then will have to rediscover those skills. 

 In another 30 years, perhaps, the field of book conservation will be mature enough to reexamine its relationship to craft. Hopefully some of the craft skills will still be present or rediscovered, and might be reincorporated into some future conception of conservation.


1.  Ironically, this style of binding, with all of its structural faults, remains the ideal of fine hand bookbinding in most of the public’s imagination. 

2. Most of the public, unfortunately, uses the terms bookbinder, master restorer and conservator interchangeably. A paramount task for conservation is to educate the public on these differences.

3.  In the past year or two, I have noticed more private collectors wanting a cradle for their book so that it can be safely displayed in their home.  



Clarkson, Christopher. “The Conservation of Early Books in Codex From: A Personal Approach: Part 1.” The Paper Conservator Vol. 3 (1978): 49.

McAusland, Jane. “Manual Techniques of Paper Repair” The Paper Conservator Vol. 3 (1978): 3

4 Replies to “Comments on Clarkson, Conservation and Craft”

  1. This is a really interesting post. I’ve come to think that maybe what we have is analogous to a teenager leaving home: there’s a tendency to repudiate one’s parents views in order to find one’s own way in the world. Both the artists’ book makers and conservators have, in their own ways, repudiated the craft aspect of bookmaking to some degree. Like you, I suspect that at some point (hopefully sooner than 30 years…) the value of the craft will come to be appreciated.

    I’ve always had a little problem with the idea that one can become a degreed conservator with a minimum of bench experience. But then I’m just a guy that works with his hands…

  2. Thanks Don. Even the currently proposed AIC system for certification seems to de-emphasize any sort of hand skills, since the current model seems to be an written exam and the applicant provides some treatment documentation.

    But maybe it is just how the field is changing- most of my institutional colleagues rarely do single item treatments. I’m starting to feel like a (youngish) dinosaur!

  3. I’ve hesitated to comment because I’m a neophyte – still struggling with how best to train in conservation. But Clarkson is a rock star, so it’s hard for me to read his article (again) and not want to be convinced. What about the other rock stars who believed in craft? I’m reading the Roger Powell felschrift and people keep saying how important craft was to him, his training, and his work.
    My concern is that the focus on the “profession” of book conservation at the expense of the “craft” of book conservation will result in a baby/bathwater scenario. The professionalization of librarianship occurred 100 years ago and librarians are no more respected now than when everyone thought they were simple clerks. In fact, many people still think they’re simple clerks. Other disciplines need to be educated about the complexities of book conservation rather than conservation adapting itself to the standards of other fields.
    I’d also like to ask you as a student of technology if you think it would even be possible for the craft to be rediscovered in 30 years. Can modern people with iPhone’s actually recreate centuries old techniques or has the use of current technologies closed off that aspect of our creativity?
    Thanks always for your input.

  4. Please don’t hesitate to comment!
    I do think there is a dichotomy between a craft and a profession, and as Don points out perhaps the craft aspect will be “rediscovered” or “reinvented”. I do think it is possible– look, for example, at the renaissance in hand woodworking that has taken place since the 1970’s. Currently, there are at least a dozen plane-makers making planes that are as good (better?) than the historic models they have copied or based their designs on. This is exactly why conservation is so important– to preserve all aspects of extant objects so that we can better understand the object itself, how to use it, how it was used, what it was used for, it’s time period, the people and culture who made it. Of course, things do get lost and forgotten- like what the nib on a hand saw is for.

    A couple of my librarian friends have tenure- that seems like an academic recognition of a profession, if not exactly a popular culture one.

    And your first, most difficult question- how to start in conservation? Let me think about this one and do a proper blog post.

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