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

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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.

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