Category Archives: conservators in private practice

Vertigo, the Suit

As a book conservator in private practice, I’m sometimes a bit envious of my colleagues who work in libraries. They often deal with a wide variety of objects other than books. So I’m excited to start planning a housing for Kim Novak’s grey suit that she wore in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic Vertigo. This is for a private client who collects movie related items. As she pointed out to me, this suit is more than a costume, but an essential part of the storyline, much like Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz.


Kim Novak’s grey suit worn in Vertigo. Made by Edith Head. My Photo.


Bill Minter on Cobden-Sanderson’s Bindings and the Taste of Leather. Additional Comments by Marianne Tidcombe

Bill Minter sent me some recollections about Cobden-Sanderson’s bindings, which raise several interesting questions.  Are bookbinders and book conservators—especially those in private practice—skewed in their appraisal of bindings since they generally deal with books that need to be fixed?  Could Cobden-Sanderson actually taste the quality of leather? Does Bill have a second wind since he took a straight job with a regular paycheck?

Before accepting the newly created position of Senior Book Conservator at The Pennsylvania State University Libraries (aka: Penn State), Bill was in private practice. While some may know of him as the developer of the ultrasonic welder for polyester film encapsulation, he has also dabbled with other ideas in book conservation. His email is: wdm14<at>psu<dot>edu

Bill is far too modest in this brief bio. Some of his “other ideas” include intact washing of water damaged books, a velcro based tying-up press, a video of how to maintain and adjust a board shear, the use of aluminum to lighten and make more rigid oversize drop spine boxes, and tips on how to quickly flatten rolled documents for digitizing. Most recently he has attempted to quantify some of the properties of teflon and bone folders. His poster should be in the poster area of the AIC website soon.




Bill writes (1):

I recently saw your blogpost about Cobden_Sanderson.

You wrote:  “…but his bindings are really beautiful. I’ve had the opportunity to see many of them and to work on a couple of them as well. They are quite refreshing from much of the trade work of the day. Unfortunately, many of the materials he used are often poor quality. The books I’ve been able to see the structure of have common late nineteenth century structural weaknesses: very thin slips, tissue thin leather jointed endsheets, and overly pared covering leather. Ironically…”

I would suggest that when you are in Chicago the next time that you try to see his bindings at the various libraries.

Many years ago, Marianne Tidcombe was to speak to The Caxton Club. She arrived days early to see C-S’s bindings, as well as research her next book on woman binders. I insisted that she stay with my family, so that I could be her chauffeur.

When she arrived on Saturday afternoon, I told her about my 3-volume set of signed C-S bindings in brown leather and blind tooled. After much discussion, she had me (almost) convinced that my books were not C-S, because “he never bound in brown leather”.  Upon going to my shop, indeed they were C-S. Until then, she had only seen rubbings of that particular binding.

(Teaser — the boards were detached as you might assume, but read on.)

Well, for two days we went to numerous libraries and, as I recall, every C-S binding was in excellent condition with the boards intact! AND, as I recall, there were no ‘brown’ leather bindings; most were either red, blue, green or other. After seeing maybe a dozen or more (20?) books, I asked the question, “you said that he did not bind in brown leather”. She explained that C-S knew that brown was not a good leather, for three specific reasons:  1) from working with the leather, 2) XXX?? (I do not recall the reason), and 3) (the best part) — that he could TASTE that the leather was TOO ACIDIC.

[Marianne Tidcombe writes:, “What I said in 1992 was not that C-S did not use brown leather for binding, but that he rarely used dyed pigskin – brown or any other colour – because it was acidic.  He had an instinct for judging leather, and could tell by handling, smelling, and (yes) tasting, if it was acid.  He chose goatskin, sealskin, and alum-tawed pigskin, all of exceptional quality, which is why his bindings have held up so remarkably well compared to many others bound in the same period. Your blind-tooled ‘Golden Legend’ bound at the Doves Bindery in about 1904(?) in brown dyed pigskin is an exception.  I suspect he risked using it in this case because it took the blind impressions rather better.”] (2)

Aside from him tasting that the leather was too acidic, how would he have known that that was a problem? At the same time: how did they test for acidity during that time — litmus paper?
ANYWAY:   To further enhance this story, the last stop was at the U Illinois — Chicago campus where there are approximately 19 bindings by Ellen Gates Starr of Hull House. Starr studied with C-S in the early 1900s. Her collection of bindings include, from my perspective:  one binding using C-S leather and tooled by C-S; one binding tooled by EGS on leather supplied by C-S, and the remainder were (shall I suggest) other leathers that have not survived as well as the C-S type —– again, from my perspective. The bindings using C-S leather were, as I recall, in much better condition than the others. At the same time, one would assume that all of the books have been held in the same, Chicago environment all these years.

I wish there were a way to determine whose leather C-S used and how that leather was tanned, especially compared to other tanners. AND, why is it that he rarely used brown leather? Perhaps a world-wide survey of the condition of all C-S bindings would be helpful? This story (information) is from the 1990s, though I did see the Starr bindings again in 2003.

Hope this raises some questions about the condition of Cobden-Sanderson bindings.

One other comment:   While you have done far more research than me, I would suggest that as conservators in private practice, we only see the failures and rarely get a chance to tour the stacks to examine a large number of bindings.

[Marianne Tidcombe writes: Re: Jeff Peachy, Cobden-Sanderson and leather, etc.  Some of what he says is of course true, but I’m afraid he generalizes, based on a couple of books bound at the Doves Bindery, which is rather unfair.  C-S had only a short period of training (with a trade binder), and his forwarder at the Doves Bindery was a tradesman.  However, C-S was a trailblazer in advocating sound methods and materials, and passed his ideas on to Douglas Cockerell, who in turn promoted conservation binding.  C-S had to find solutions to problems himself, and work out better methods as he went along.  See, for example, the structurally sound Kelmscott Chaucers he bound at the Doves Bindery, and the concertina sewing he devised for Doves Press books printed on vellum.”] (3)




Peachey responds: First, let me acknowledge I am basing my original observations on a handful of bindings brought to me for conservation work, so this may well be a self-selecting sample.  Secondly, Marianne Tidcombe, who is the world’s foremost expert on Cobden-Sanderson, and I am honored to have her comment here. She has written books on the The Doves Bindery, Cobden-Sanderson, and knows his bindings better than anyone. So in terms of the relative durability of his bindings to the general trade work of the day, I stand corrected. And I should have made it clear that I was only considering the books I have worked on, which were his tight-back tanned leather bindings.

However, another aspect to consider is the use or abuse that a book may have during its life. A high end signed Cobden-Sanderson binding likely was expensive, collected, used less, and therefore preserved better? Isn’t this also a self-selecting sample? And I would bet good money that any late nineteenth century tight-back tanned leather bindings (Cobden-Sanderson’s included) will not prove to be as durable as many other earlier bindings — both materially and structurally — though would like to learn what specifically Cobden-Sanderson did differently.

Are turn of the 20th century tight-back tanned leather bindings due a reappraisal?



  1. Email to Jeff Peachey from Bill Minter, 18 June 2016, 12:57 PM.
  2. Email to Bill Minter from Marianne Tidcombe, 22 June 2016, 2:05 PM.
  3. Email to Bill Minter from Marianne Tidcomve, 22 June 2016, 2:05 PM.

Planning and Constructing Book and Paper Conservation Laboratories: A Guidebook

Planning and Constructing Book and Paper Conservation Laboratories, edited by Jennifer Hain Teper and Eric Alstrom, has recently been published. It is the first book to be written on this topic, and thirteen conservation professionals have contributed their expertise.  I wrote a chapter, “Special Considerations for Private Book Conservation Labs.”  This book can be purchased from the American Library Association store.

Overall, this book contains practical and technical advice for establishing, remodeling and updating book and paper conservation labs. Although the book is targeted to institutional book conservators, many of the chapters—especially Design and Layout, Water Purification, Lighting,  Ventilation and Exhaust, Ergonomic Considerations for Equipment, and Considerations for Private Book Labs—are likely to be of use to private practice book conservators and bookbinders.

My chapter specifically deals with the challenges of private practice, and includes many practical tips on evaluating and procuring used tools and equipment. It also discusses the pros and cons of industrial, store-front and home-based labs. I tend to view private practice labs as more personal than institutional ones, but they should present a professional image to the public which reinforces the ethical, conscientious conservation services performed within them. Additionally, I offer advice for fitting a fully outfitted lab into a small space. Much of the information in my chapter can be applied to book conservation labs and binderies.


Chapters 1 and 7 are available free.

1. Project Management for the Construction of Conservation Laboratories- Donia Conn

2. Design and Layout- Eric Alstrom

3. Special Collections, General Collections, and Hybrid Conservation Laboratories-Whitney Baker

4.Water Purification and Treatment- Jennifer Hain Teper

5. Lighting- Diane Vogt-O’Connor

6. Laboratory Ventilation and Exhaust Systems- Laura McCann and Kristen St. John

7. Custom-Built Furniture and Equipment- Shannon Zachary and Gillian Boal

8. Ergonomic Considerations for Furniture and Equipment- Heather S. Caldwell

9. Quarantine and Segregation Rooms- Ramona Duncan-Huse

10. Special Considerations for Private Book Conservation Laboratories- Jeffrey S. Peachey

11. Special Considerations for Paper Conservation Laboratories- Claire Hoevel

Planning and Constructing Book and Paper Conservation Labs, Edited by Jennifer Hain Teper and Eric Alstrom. 230 pp, Published by ALCTS, 6 x 9″, Softcover, ISBN-13: 978-0-8389-8601-1, $67.95, 2012.

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


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. < > & < >.

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 < >, Artstor < >, and dissertations [available through Proquest < >]… 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 < >, < >, and < >.


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 < >. 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 < >. In addition, authors are themselves responsible for obtaining permission to reproduce copyright materials from other sources.”


AIC’s policy is at < >. 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 < > would be an example in our field that I know of. So is the Distlist/CoOL. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ at < >) 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 , < > or Peter Suber’s overview at < >.


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 < > – 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 <>. 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 < >. 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 < >. 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

The Thread That Binds: A Book Review

I recently reviewed “The Thread that Binds: Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders” by Pamela Train Leutz in The Bonefolder, Volume 6, No. 2, Spring 2010.  Here is the beginning of the review:

“In a field as small as bookbinding, a book reviewer occupies a precarious position, since they often have personal knowledge of, if not direct relations with, the author. At the very least, the reviewer and author are usually connected by a friend, or friend of a friend. So reviewing a book that includes interviews with 21 of leading bookbinders currently working in the field places this author in a position beyond precarious – an ideal chance to anger friends, alienate acquaintances and antagonize colleagues. The book even featured a long, highly complementary blurb from the publisher of this journal, Peter Verheyen on the back cover.

Foregrounded by these preoccupations, my hands trembled as I unwrapped my review copy…”

Read the entire review here.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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!


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!


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.