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

Window Dressing

This is not an image of water damage, an art project or a disaster recovery workshop.  Instead, it is the current window dressing of the Anthropologie store located at 5th Ave. and 16th St. in New York City.  At least a couple of thousand books appear to have been opened 180 degrees, wetted, then rolled into these large cylinders, as if the books were returning to the trees from which they came.  This display could be interpreted as an incisive a comment on the relationship between advertising and narrative structure– even a non-functioning narrative (the destroyed book) is powerful enough to be co-opted by advertising. Maybe this display is a political statement on the torturing of physical objects, denying them of their own meaning, forcing them to deliver another message, in this case to sell items in the store. Most likely, however, the relationship between this display and the overpriced crap luxury consumer goods that this store retails wasn’t even considered.

I’m always a bit uneasy when I see books that have been mutilated, whether it is done in the name of art, censorship, vandalism, or commerce.  I would have given no pause to this window if it were filled with broken laptop computers or ebook readers, which indicates some fundamental differences between our relationship to virtual and “real” books.  It is a sign that book arts have entered the mainstream when designers adopt their techniques– part of the filtering of ideas from “high” art to popular culture.  I noticed  Brooklyn Public Library and Appleton Public Library (Wisconsin) stamps on some of the tail edges, but all libraries have to deaccession books. Is it better to do a surreptitious run to the landfill or recycling center, or should they “live a second life” as some might argue this display illustrates? 

Many librarians subscribe to the broken windows theory — books that are poorly shelved and messy tend to encourage more disorder and damage.  And many conservators bemoan the thoughtless handling that many patrons (and sometimes curators!) display when handling a fragile, rare book with the careless aplomb more commonly observed at telephone booths–holding the telephone book precariously in one hand while inserting the change and dialing with the other, for example.  

Although this display sets a horrifying example about how books can be handled and stored, what concerns me more is that it represents an insidious cultural trend — specifically a disregard for the physical substrates used to transmit and store information, and generally a de-privileging  (perhaps denial?) of human interaction with the physical world.

The More Things Change…

Some early Christians thought it was a good idea to carve a cross on the forehead of this Roman statue, in order to “Christinify” him.


When the Muslims took over the Aya Sofya, they thought it was a good idea to remove the top part of all the Christian crosses, in order to “Islamify” the church.


And in 2006 this person thought it was a good idea to sign their name and date on top of a 13th C. fresco, in order to let everyone know that he visited this unprotected, early Christian cave.











Note:  All of these examples were found in Turkey in 2008.