Tools for Reading

“Tools that once were the common stuff of everyday life are tools of a different sort to us.  They no longer are the implements we use routinely to sustain ourselves; instead, they are tools we can use to understand the past.”

Gaynor, James M. And Nancy L. Hagedorn. Tools: Working Wood in Eighteenth-Century America (Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg, 1993) xii.

I often think of this quote when I am looking at old tools for sale.  It is hard to shake the idea that a tool should be restored to the point it can be used or functions, and a common practice among dealers is to restore a tool to the (imaginary) point it left a craftsman’s hand.

But books are tools. A fairly broad definition of a tool: a device held in the hand to perform a specific task. Which sense of a tool that Gaynor mentions are books?

Questions quickly arise about the reasons for fixing a book. Is it necessary to return function—the original use—to a book if it no longer needs to function in the way it once did? If a book is restored to some point in its history, is its use for understanding the past compromised? How much of its history is erased? How does the physical movement or tactile function of book help us understand the past, if it is no longer used as a tool for reading? Too many questions, but maybe this is a fundamental difference between conservation and restoration: conservation asks a question about an object, restoration gives an answer.

2 Replies to “Tools for Reading”

  1. Good for you, Jeff, well said. And this is why I moved to Firenze, Italy when I retired, because I can study restoration here on actual books with masters that do it all the time, without some high falutin’ undergraduate or graduate degree in art that I need like a hole in the head (or is it more holes, I forget) or having somebody that’s never spent more than a few hours at the bench look down their nose at me because I’m a craftsperson. Here in Italy restoration is still considered an art worthy of respect. Although we have little public money to do much here, there is still some of it going on both privately and publicly…….
    Kath Thomas

  2. Humm. I think I need to clarify my thoughts. I meant to imply that restoration gave a more definitive take on an object (an answer) whereas conservation tries to accept a wider range of an objects history. I’m not saying is a good answer, in fact I usually feel it takes away some of an objects history and meaning.

    I have found with my students that the ones that have more education (in whatever setting) are generally better conservators or binders. I really like the philosophy at the Winterthur, in that conservation consists of the three legs of craft, science, and connoisseurship. And almost everyone has different ideas about which of these three aspects deserves more or less emphasis.

    I’m curious if conservation is respected in Italy as much as restoration? Or are the terms used differently there?

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