Is Restoration Dying?

First Ed. Tom Sawyer, seen at the 2019 NYC Armory Book Show a few weeks ago.

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?

 

Goldschmidt on Restoration

“There is no such thing as restoring an old binding without obliterating its entire history.”

E.P. Goldschmidt, Gothic and Renaissance Bindings I, 1928, p. 123.

Ngrams: Book Conservation, Art Conservation, Book Restoration, Art Restoration

An N-gram is a continuous series of letters or words. In linguistics, they are useful for gathering information about frequency of use. Google has an Ngram tool that uses more than eight million of the texts it has scanned, which is estimated to be six percent of all books ever published. I thought it might be interesting to compare four terms: book conservation,  art conservation, book restoration, and art restoration. I selected the years 1900-2008 and added some smoothing to make the trends more clear. It is also possible to distinguish between English and American usage, though I didn’t do this.

conservation book

Larger table at Google Ngrams

A couple of things jumped out at me. The use of the term conservation essentially overtook the term restoration in the mid-1970’s, which also roughly correlates with the beginning of professionalism in the field: the founding of the American Institute for Conservation (1972), journals, graduate schools, conferences, etc….

We see a peak in book conservation in the mid-1980’s.  The Columbia University Library and Archives program was in full swing and grant money was plentiful. Microfilming was still the dominant method of reformatting. Book conservation, along with book restoration, has declined precipitously since this time.

The term book conservation gets used roughly 25% as much as art conservation in 2008. It also seems to be on a bit of an upswing.

For a short time in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, book restoration was even more popular than art conservation. I’m not quite sure what explains this, the Florence Flood? Chance?

It is debatable exactly how the frequency of these terms used in publications reflects the growth, size and public perception of the field. They also likely bear little resemblance to the actual practice of restoration and conservation.  Additionally, I think journal articles are not included, as well as online sources, which might change things dramatically.

My gut feeling, though, is that this graph roughly mirrors the popularity, size and funding for book conservation, which has declined significantly over the past 25 years. Art conservation seems to have declined less, but still significantly since 2000. But the frequency of these terms is still about half of the peak. It has often been noted that creating a written body of literature for book conservation is a necessary step towards professionalism and even some kind of certification in the United States, which currently does not exist.  Are we farther away from that goal now than we were in 1985?

Ngrams can be a pleasant time sink serious tool for the statistical analysis of use frequency patterns. Finally, we can answer such crucial questions as were The Beatles more popular than Jesus Christ?