Category Archives: philosophy of technology

Do Tools Matter When Making Historic Book Structures?

I made this reproduction 18th century French wooden straightedge. Does using it to make a historic bookbinding model *really* affect the process or outcome? Am I heading down the road of wearing a faux French craftsman costume while I do this?

Skillful use of hand tools often depends on their embodiment. They literally become become extensions of our consciousness and body.  We think through them in use, not about them. Don Idhe’s example of driving a car is useful. We don’t have to pay conscious attention to where we are on the road. We just drive. The car is a complex tool that has become embodied. We constantly unconsciously adjust to keeping it on the road. In bookbinding, paring leather is a similar unconscious complex activity. If you are interested in this kind of thing,  Don Idhe’s Technology and The Lifeworld is a exceedingly readable philosophy of technology.

All craft activities have a greater or lesser degree of embodiment, it accounts for some of their joy, relaxation and pleasure. We get out of ourselves for a while.  People often remark on how a tool fits their hand, or is an extension of it, and that it disappears in use. And how time quickly disappears when engaged by using it.

In teaching historic bookbinding structures, however, that these ingrained habits can be counterproductive when trying to recreate, or at least understand in detail, the nuances of earlier techniques.  This is one reason for using historic and reproduction tools. They can help take us out of the familiar, and challange our ingrained craft skills.  They force us to rethink our relationship to a particular tool, and by extension our relationship with the object being crafted. It is all too easy to slip into 21st century work habits when trying to construct a 16th century Gothic binding.

Using historic tools may or may not be the easiest way to do a particular task. When conserving a book there are many other considerations, including the safety of the original artifact, so many historic tools and techniques are not appropriate. And of course, the skill, experience and ability of the conservator is a significant factor. But by in large, the traditional tools of hand bookbinding have not been mechanized because they are an efficient and accurate way of working.

Possibly the most important aspect of using historic tools, or reproductions, is they aid in interpreting historic techniques. Binding a book in an historic style, even inexpertly, helps us understand deeply how older books were made. And isn’t this type of knowledge at the core of any book conservation treatment?

The Right to Repair

photo-41

Fire hydrant on the corner of Broadway and Nagle Avenue, New York CIty.

As a conservator, broadly speaking, I “repair” old books. I’ve always been interested in old things and being a conservator is a great way to spend a lot of time with them. It is an essential need, I think, for humans to have a tangible, material link to the past. History is sometimes defined as anything that happened before you were born.

The fire hydrant in the above photo has a patent date of “2-05-02”. Some might read this as another sign of New York City’s aging infrastructure, but I’m impressed it is still functioning after around 100 years. At least I hope it is still functioning.

I’ll never forget tearing apart a 1973 VW bug engine in high school, rebuilding it, reassembling it — and amazingly! —  it worked. Many objects can’t be fixed now, however.  Our throw-away culture, the cheapness of manufacturing of new parts, and patent law are all reasons.

The newish looking nut on top of the fire hydrant fits a special wrench that firemen have, to keep kids from opening them up and playing in the spray during hot summer days.  This special wrench is analogous to security screws many companies now use to keep the average consumer from doing any repair on their phones. Or to lock down the software that controls mechanisms.

General Motors and John Deere are arguing that you don’t own the software in your car. And without access to the software, there is no way you can fix anything automotive. In the coming internet of things this issue will only grow larger. Do you want to own something you are not “allowed” to fix, hack, repair, alter, improve, or conserve?

Thats why groups such as Right to Repair  and The Electronic Frontier Foundation are important.  They advocate on a wide range of issues concerning security, surveillance, tinkering and repair. More info.

There is pending legislation concerning the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and anyone can comment online until October 27, or in writing until November 16.  1201 Study: Request for Additional Comments. Check it out, it is a complex, important issue that I need to do more research on it.

 

Upcoming Event: Time and the Book, Yale University, September 12 and 13, 2014

Next week, on September 12 and 13, 2014, I will be participating in a symposium sponsored by the Yale Program in the History of the Book.  Registration for the symposium is full; however, Kathryn James’s lecture, “Time in Place” is open to the public.  It is great that academics are becoming interested in the book as a material object; I suspect there will be some fascinating discussions.

symposium

 

Hurricane Sandy, Reading, Money

Last week, after hurricane Sandy, I had no power, heat, lights, internet, hot water, cell service or client meetings.  Life and work were on hold. The temperature in my studio was a crisp 53 degrees, which was not conducive to working, so I spent most of the days walking around Manhattan. One thing I noticed was that while paper and screens were used for communication, paper emerged as a necessity for commerce.

Myself, and most residents living in lower Manhattan needed to walk to 27th St., where power and cell service began. The grocery stores that remained open in lower Manhattan had plenty of food and water: what people needed was juice for their phones and cash. Mass charging on daisy chained power strips took place in coffee houses, outside of stores, at portable generators in parks, and even at pedal powered dynamos on Avenue C. This atmosphere of cooperation extended into the street where cars—without traffic lights—negotiated the intersections without incident in my observation.

But paper still had its place. At Fishs Eddy, many wrote cheeky post it notes to Sandy, a kind of postmodern post card. Also, paper money was once again a necessity. Credit cards were useless without electricity or cell service.  But Banks and ATM’s were closed. Do many Manhattan residents stash cash under the mattress? Merchants tallied bills with a pencil and paper or visual inspection. Tax was largely ignored, possibly rationalized because there were no services, or likely too difficult to record.

Could this be a glimpse at a potential post-apoclyptic culture?  What if all cell phone service had disappeared? How many of us still have battery powered radios? Among other things, Sandy highlights the overlapping and non-linear nature of technological change as well as the durability of paper, a technology which is at least 2,000 years old.

I didn’t see anyone using books, though….

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Contact me or the AIC-CERT disaster response team, or The New York Alliance for Response if you have wet or water damaged books.

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Things are back to normal for me, but there are still ongoing needs for others. Many, especially in New Jersey, are still without power, heat, and need gas, food, etc. Donate to your favorite charities if possible, or these local ones.

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David Nye has a great and very readable social history of blackouts titled “When the Lights Went Out”. There is a section on the 2003 east coast blackouts.

Paper, Paper, Paper

Before Jacques Derrida died, he used to teach a yearly seminar for grad students at New York University, which I managed to sit in on in the late 90’s.  It was completely over my head, but it was an intellectual roller-coaster that I will never forget.  I could barely remember where I lived after listening to him for a while.  One of his later books, Paper Machine, deals largely with paper and  books.

Included in the book is an interview, where he was asked to what extent paper functions as multimedia, and how paper has influenced his work.  Derrida responds:

Seeing all these questions emerging on paper, I have the impression (the impression!–what a word, already) that I have never had any other subject:  basically paper, paper , paper.  It could be demonstrated, with supporting documentation and quotations, “on paper”: I have always written, and even spoken, on paper: on the subject of paper, an actual paper, and with paper in mind.  Support, subject, surface, mark, trace, written mark, inscription, fold–these were also themes that gripped me by a tenacious certainty, which goes back forever but has been more and more justified and confirmed, that the history of this “thing,” this thing that can be felt, seen and touched, and thus contingent, paper, will have been a brief one.  Paper is evidently the limited “subject ” of a domain circumscribed in the time and space of a hegemony that marks out a period in the history of a technology and in the history of humanity. (p. 41)

Although he wrote this in 2001, it is remarkable how prescient he was, given the recent revolution in ebook readers: the Sony reader, the Kindle and the Nook.

Derrida, Jacques. Paper Machine. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Upcoming Events In June

If you are in the New England area, consider attending the Book Arts Supply Market.

Book Arts Supply Market
June 7th, 2009
12:30-4:30
Arlington Center for the Arts
41 Foster Street
Arlington, MA

I will be there with a full range of tools for sale, including the infamous bargain box, which is quite full right now.

I also have prototypes of some new tools I am working on, for example, a portable, collapsible sewing frame that only weighs 1 lb, 12.4 oz (804 grams) including 5 Al sewing keys.  It is 11 3/8″ (290 mm) between the uprights and packs flat at only 1 1/8″ (30 mm).  Rubber feet keep it from sliding around on the workbench.

portable sewing frame

Also I have a reproduction of the boxed set of knives I made for Abraham Karastovsky, which I wrote about earlier and were featured in the book “Homicide in Hardcover.”

ak knives

Please stop by and say hello!

 

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I will be presenting the following talk in NYC on Sunday, June 21 at 3:00.  Please feel free to repost and contact me if there are any questions.  I also have a half sheet flyer I can email anyone who would like to post it.  I envision this talk as a type of outreach, since it contains information about book history and conservation.    It should be a lot of fun.

 

THE UNIVERSITY OF TRASH PRESENTS:

THE OBSOLETE MAN AND THE OBSOLETE BOOK?

 Sunday, June 21 at 3:00 pm at SculptureCenter in Long Island City, NYC.

 The Free Skool at the University of Trash announce an Jeffrey S.  Peachey’s presentation titled “The Obsolete Man and the Obsolete Book?” The University of Trash is an experiment in alternative architecture, urbanism, and pedagogy taking place in SculptureCenter’s main space. Throughout the summer there will be a mix of workshops, screenings, and presentations focusing on grass roots, self-organized urbanism, DIY architecture and the evolving aesthetics and politics of public space.

Peachey will screen an original Twilight Zone, “The Obsolete Man”, present a short lecture, then lead a discussion based on some of the issues it raises. Peachey is the owner of a New York City-based studio for the conservation of books.  Because of his experience in examining and treating a wide variety of historic book structures, he is especially interested in how humans have interacted with the physical form of the book over the past 1,600 years, the importance of non-texual information and how the book has acquired such symbolic power.  The images of books in this episode form a locus for a variety of issues—authority, freedom, history, truth, the state, individuality, identity and conformity—that are explored in a classic Serlingesque manner.

 “I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages.” Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith) declares when the Chancellor (Fritz Weaver) pronounces him obsolete, and then condemns him to death.  Wordsworth, a secret librarian, lives in a room not only surrounded by books, but virtually built out them.  Considering aspects of book conservation, Peachey will deliver a short lecture touching on some of the ideas explored in the film, looking at how books are displayed in Wordsworth’s apartment, commenting on the various book structures portrayed and linking these to themes presented in the episode. Models of several historic book structures will available for handling. Then some more general observations on the value of non-textual elements of books will be made, along with the challenges of conserving these elements.

 This will be followed by an open discussion.  Possible topics include questions about the supposed death of the codex; the importance of non-textual elements in books; books as physical expressions of authority; books as moving, portable hand held sculpture; books as democratic instruments; the display of books as externalized knowledge; hand interaction in reading; and most importantly, how closely is our culture inexorably linked with the history of the book.

 This event is free, and there is a $5 suggested donation to the museum.

 Jeff Peachey:

https://jeffpeachey.wordpress.com/

 SculptureCenter:

http://www.sculpture-center.org/

The University of Trash:

http://www.universityoftrash.org/

 Attendees are encouraged to preview the entire Twilight Zone episode at:

http://www.imdb.com/video/cbs/vi759562265/

 info@universityoftrash.org

bookshevles

One Year Anniversary

Today is the one year anniversary of this blog. I’ve noticed a number of people celebrate the anniversary of their blog.  Besides birthdays and my wedding anniversary (which both my wife and I often forget!) I can’t think of any other anniversaries I celebrate. Why do I feel like doing one for this blog?  I’ve noticed other bloggers have similar feelings.

I’ve really enjoyed the discipline of writing a post roughly once a week, it has given me a chance to investigate and think about things that are slightly outside the usual scope of conservation discourse.  And it has helped improve, I think, both the speed and quality of my writing, which I hope will become manifest in some other projects.  Tags are a useful tool to organize and build on previous posts–hopefully they will lead to a larger, more coherent whole down the road.  A special thanks to all readers who have submitted comments; there are some valuable, original ideas expressed.

But there are some downsides to blogging.  I really dislike the quantification and statistical nature of the “dashboard”, but it is hard to ignore.  (FYI: This blog has had 19,761 visits, 60 posts, 118 comments and 7,840 rejected spam comments. The most popular post is the tool catalog, with 1,507 visits.)  It can easily become creating popularity for its own sake, as Lee Siegel points out in his book.  Even more distressing is Siegel’s observation that the web 2.0 is in some regards the apotheoses of capitalism– we have become the producers as well as the consumers.  And the plethora of information leads to powerlessness, not empowerment.  Since Communism has collapsed, and Capitalism is on the brink, Marx is becoming more and more appealing.  A great introduction are 13 video lectures by David Harvey,  distinguished professor at the City University of New York, which can be downloaded as video or audio podcasts, or streamed online.  Harvey  has taught Marx’s Capital Volume I for over 40 years– the breadth of his knowledge is amazing and the class is uncannily relevant to our current situation.  

 

NOTES

Siegel, Lee.  Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.  New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008.