The Conservation of Leather Bookbindings Workshop Review by Kasie Janssen

One month ago, I was able to attend The Conservation of Leather Bookbindings at the University of Notre Dame. The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation (FAIC) supported this 5-day workshop that was taught by book conservator and tool-maker Jeff Peachey. Conservation is a field that requires a constant love of learning new skills and techniques, so when I saw this workshop was hosted not too far from Cincinnati, I jumped at the opportunity to increase my knowledge on the conservation of leather bookbindings.

Jeff demonstrating a leather reback.

Leather is an interesting topic in book conservation, as many of the historic books we work on have full or partial leather bindings. Leather, like paper, comes in a variety of qualities, and has inherent issues as it ages over time. And we, as conservators, have many ways to combat these issues to make the books in our collections accessible to all.

This workshop offered an in-depth look at the many ways leather can be conserved, while also discussing the pros and cons of the various types of treatment options. This level of understanding is crucial part for us.  Think of it like taking a test – you can simply have the list of answers, or you can study and understand why the answers are in fact correct (any teacher will tell you they prefer the latter of these two options, and we do too!).

Joint tacketing and sewing extensions.

While the leather on the outside of a book is what most of us see when we look at our books and bookshelves, a large portion of the workshop focused on how those books are put together. If you’ve seen a leather book, you have likely seen a book that has its covers detached or missing. We talked about reattaching covers using techniques such as joint tackets, sewing extensions, slitting and slotting the boards, and tissue repairs. These are techniques that need to be considered before a leather reback, which was the final technique we learned, would take place.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the workshop was that we were able to practice these techniques on our own books. (I’ll take this time to note that these were not collection items! We like to practice on models or personal books first.) Being able to learn about the techniques and then practice them was a great way to use the hand skills needed for these types of treatments. Having our own personal examples that were treated also provides an application of how these techniques work and wear over time.

Detail of sewing extensions that come out under the original sewing supports.

The workshop also covered leather dying, as well as knife sharpening – a crucial tool for working with leather, and leather paring techniques and tools.

I have to say, the workshop happened in the week before Covid-19 began impacting the United States on a massive scale. All of the attendees remained in contact with their home institutions and families throughout the week as news progressed. The workshop, though, provided a sort of conservation utopia where we could turn off the news and focus on the profession that we all love. Jeff Peachey was an incredible instructor, offering vast amounts of knowledge and insight that we can apply to our day-to-day work. And the staff and facilities at the University of Notre Dame provided the perfect environment for our leather conservation deep dive. A sincere thank you to Jeff, the University of Notre Dame, AIC and FAIC for the wonderful workshop.

While I continue my work-from-home, I will be finishing a few of the treatments I had started during the workshop, and also practicing things like leather paring, leather dying, and repair techniques. This will ensure that when we are back in The Preservation Lab, I’ll be able to provide assistance on many of the damaged leather books that are waiting for our tender loving care.

Paring leather for a reback.

In the meantime check out some more photos from the workshop on our @ThePreservationLab Instagram!  And follow us if you don’t already to see what we are up to in our work-from-home spaces.

 

Kasie Janssen (PLCH) is the Senior Conservation Technician of The Preservation Lab, a collaborative hybrid lab of The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and the University of Cincinnati Libraries in Ohio. She works on both special and general collection items for both institutions. She holds an MSLIS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has been working in the field of conservation since 2014.

Interview with Jeff Peachey from NTD Television

A couple of weeks ago, Shiwan Rong and her crew from New Tang Dynasty News interviewed and filmed me in my studio. I recounted how I entered the field of conservation, explained some of the differences between conservation and restoration, and demonstrated a few bookbinding techniques. It was interesting to see what made it into the final cut, and despite some quibbles, overall it presents a reasonably accurate summary of what I said., considering that a three hour interview was cut down to two minutes!

One of the first questions was something like “How does it feel to be a master craftsman in the dying art of book restoration?”. This allowed me to explain that first of all, I am not a master craftsman, though I suppose anyone can call themselves one. Secondly, I discussed the differences between restoration, conservation, and bookbinding. Finally, I argued that the study and importance of the material nature of the physical book is thriving, not dying, in a large part because we as a society are not dependent on books simply for textual information. All in all, I hope the interview can educate the general public a bit about books and book conservation.

The video is accompanied by a written article and still images:

Treasures from a well made book: NY book conservator saves books for the future.

 

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?