A somewhat ironic placement of this DISCARDED stamp. I suspect every institution has sold, discarded, or recycled books in their collection, often quite quietly, not just the NY Academy of Medicine. I’m amazed how many books I have worked on that were deaccessioned at some point in their lives, then recollected, once again deemed valuable. What is considered a rare book changes. I’ll lay good money that a lot of currently “non-rare” books will become rare at some point in the future. Will all paper based codex books be rare someday?
When sewing books or endbands, it is sometimes helpful to grip the needle with a pliers in order to position it or increase leverage. Standard pliers do not grip a needle securely, and the jaws are the wrong shape for these types of manipulations. Precise needle control is also essential in book conservation, for in-situ resewing of loose signatures, endband reinforcement, and various types of board reattachment. If you have ever had to pierce a parchment spine lining, you will likely understand the purpose of these pliers immediately. These pliers are also great for removing staples.
The Bookbinder’s Pliers have a small groove cut near the tip, which securely grip needle sizes from 24 to 12 gauge. (.020″ – .104″) Note that 18 and 15 gauge needles are most common in bookbinding, though conservators may need smaller sizes for specialized tasks.
The jaws are ground to .375″, which is wide enough to leverage and guide the needle through stubborn materials, but narrow enough to get close to the work. All edges of the pliers are rounded to prevent potential damage to the book and the user.
Made of stainless steel, this precision tool fits comfortably in the hand. The pliers have a box joint to apply even pressure. About 4.5″ long. You will wonder how you ever worked without these.
Purchase your Bookbinder’s Pliers here.
Twenty years ago this Tom Sawyer, and other expensive first editions, were often extensively restored. This often involved a lot of conservationally questionable work. Redying or painting abrasions in the cloth, sophisticating the text with better boards from later editions, mixing partial textblocks with better condition plates were all common practice. Anything, really, that would make the book appear in more pristine condition.
Dust jackets, often worth more than the book they covered, were treated similarly with invasive, invisible, and often irreversible restoration done to make them look brand new. And now, the untouched ones are worth more than ones that has been messed with. Uh-oh.
And if the label on this Tom Sawyer is a harbinger of the market, things are changing for the books too. I personally became interested in old books because I liked the way old books looked, and didn’t want to change that. Generally speaking, old books and other old things are becoming more valuable when they are genuinely old, exhibit use value, have wear, patina, history, and character. Authenticity, in a word. Three reasons for this come to mind for this change: we spend more time virtually, are overwhelmed with disposable objects that can’t be fixed or retained, and there is a dwindling supply of unaltered old objects. I’m sure there are others.
A recent NY Times article about high end watches neatly summarizes some reasons for the appreciation — romanticization?— of older watches, which also could apply to books. “… old watches are considered cool: They have patina, provenance, soul. And for a generation of men (and yes, vintage watches seem to be an obsession largely for men, with apologies to Ellen [DeGeneres]) who value the analog-chic of antique mechanical watches, just like vinyl records and selvage jeans… .” A millennial friend of mine likened the record player in her living room to a fireplace: of course it is not necessary, but it is comforting to engage with a durable antiquated technology that takes a little bit of attention and care. It wasn’t an audiophile’s opining: she liked the thingness of it.
There is an imposing presence when you hold an older book in your hands. A Benjaminian “aura”. Somehow just knowing this object has seen so much over the years impacts us. The scars, damage, wear, uniqueness, and trauma an object has encountered can often add aesthetic and sometimes even informational value. An extreme example might be the books that were damaged while by stopping a bullet, possibly saving a life. Despite being mass produced, nineteenth century titles are often unique, due to the amount of handwork that went into them at various stages of the binding, and the physical traces from their existence in time and space.
Yet I fear the book dealer’s sign on this Tom Sawyer may swing the pendulum too far. Although I only looked at this book under glass, I could think of a few very minor treatments that would greatly extend the life of this object when handled, without impacting its aesthetic value, use value, patina or other inherent qualities. Is “free from repair” a good thing if the joint continues to tear with each opening? Or was the dealer sophisticated enough to distinguish between restoration, repair and conservation?
A professional conservator (i.e. me) takes their ethical obligations to the object entrusted to their care seriously, and most of us pledge to do this in writing. The AIC guidelines for practice specifically discuss compensation for loss and reversibility. Restoration treatment may or may not reversible: conservation treatment always should be. This may be the main reason for the notice on the Tom Sawyer book: a future owner could move forward with a more invasive treatment, depending on the intended uses of the book, but could not go back. And this affects the value.
Are we finally witnessing a place for conservation oriented book treatments in the marketplace and recognition in the public sphere?