Outside Of The Text: My Work In Book Conservation

(The complete version of this article is at.  Center for Mennonite Writing, CMW Journal Vol. 2, No. 2. Don’t miss the new translation of a short lyric below Jan Luyken’s “The Bookbinder”, from his 1694 Book of Trades in the introduction to the Journal. My article details what book conservation is, how it differs from book restoration and bookbinding, then traces some ethical decisions during the course of a treatment. Below is the beginning.)

A book conservator often enters into public perception heavily colored by, and often confused with, romantic notions of a “Master Craftsman,” “Master Bookbinder,” or “Master Restorer.” In a world where many use their hands only to tap at a keyboard or lift a cup of coffee, the idea of a craftsman seems refreshingly simple, a bit anachronistic, very poetic and entirely appealing. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately!) these romantic ideas of a bookbinder bear little resemblance to what I do.

Although the terminology is somewhat debatable, in North America a bookbinder is usually someone who makes new fine bindings, or binds small editions, or repairs old books, often by putting new bindings on them. A book restorer, often working for the antiquarian or rare book trade, restores a book to an imagined, often pristine state, previous to damage, use or age. Many also make period bindings. (1) A book conservator attempts to preserve all the information that a book embodies, and ideally tries not to alter or change any existing element. Although conservators employ a full arsenal of craft skills, they also must know the history of book structure, be familiar with a wide variety of materials, have knowledge of preventative conservation and also understand methods of documentation. (2) The process is decidedly prosaic and cautious, and tends to adopt a scientific methodology.(3)

Figure 1

Fig 1. This romantic view is nothing new. Above is a 19th century plate of a bookbinder at work. Note the cherubic children who appear to be joyfully playing rather than working. Does the engraver imply that a bookbinder’s work was so simple a child could do it?

In contrast, bookbinding, or crafting an object, involves creating something, usually from raw or partially prepared materials. Craft often implies, at least today, a personal relationship to the work. Craft often involves handwork….

(READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE)

Or it is also located here:

http://www.mennonitewriting.org/journal/2/2/outside-text-my-work-book-conservation/

Espresso Drippings

Jeff Altepeter, Bookbinding Instructor at North Benett Street School, gave me a copy of John J. Pledgers’ “Bookbinding and its Auxiliary Branches” which was printed on demand by the Espresso Book Machine.  For expensive, hard to find books, the Espresso is great for people like me who basically want the textual information, and have difficulty concentrating while screen reading.

The Espresso bills the books it makes as a “Library Quality” binding.  I’m not quite sure what this means, or even if this is a good thing, but the book  is similar in quality to a mass produced paperback, with slightly better quality paper.  The cover is lined up and it is well trimmed, but there is a suspiciously dark colored glue on the spine. If the grain of the paper ran head to tail, it might even open fairly well.  For $8, however, it is cheaper and easier to read than a photocopy, though the images are a bit worse in quality.  In many ways, the Espresso is getting close to the ultimate goal of  bookbinding machinery inventors– to print and bind a book without human intervention, relatively inexpensively and reasonably durably.

Below is the same image from three versions of this book for comparison.

Fig. 1. Screen shot from Google Books.

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Fig. 2. Image from the Espresso Book Machine Printing, using the Google Scan.

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Fig. 3.  From a photocopy I made in the 1990’s, from the Revised edition of 1924.

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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.

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