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.

5 thoughts on “A Future For Book Conservation at the End of the Mechanical Age

  1. Pingback: What we’ve been reading, digital edition « Conservation Occasional

  2. Kris Peachey

    Interesting lecture, Jeff. Living in a culture (Laos) where little textually based information in the local language was ever published, not to mention preserved, I had to stop and think about what this all means for this and other developing countries. I did see an article recently that mentioned a digital library of Lao traditional palm script manuscripts that you may be interested in:


    On a side note, we still haven’t been successful at locating any traditional Lao handmade tools for you… seems like everyone is using Thai, Chinese, or Vietnamese items.

  3. Jeff Peachey Post author

    Thanks for the info, Kris. Most of the philosophic foundations of conservation seem to be entirely Western in origin– it will be interesting to see how that changes in the coming decades.

    As for the tools, I guess I will have to settle for some handmade Thai ones :)

  4. Pingback: 39th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, Library Collections Conservation Discussion Group, Education. Education! Education? Education. Models for Educating Library and Archives Conservators, Thursday, June 2 | Conservators Converse

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