Tag Archives: conservation

Conservation Police


Photo: Shannon Zachary

It’s hard to know where to start.

“But, but, Officer, I wasn’t putting PVA directly on the spine….”


The Right to Repair


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.


Zombie Attacks: Is Book Conservation Doomed?

A zombie idea is one that we are not quite sure where it came from, keeps popping up, and stubbornly refuses to die. The latest undead idea I’ve been hearing more and more of is that book conservators do not need to know all that much about the craft of bookbinding.

I’ve asked Cathy Baker, Chela Metzger, and Maria Fredericks to respond to this question: Do book conservators need training in the craft of bookbinding?

Cathy Baker is a paper conservator, educator, editor, printer, proprietor of The Legacy Press, and an inspiration to many of us.  There is a great interview with her on The FIne Books Blog. I often consult her book From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials, and Conservation. For more of her thoughts related to this topic, see pages xii-xiii, 3-5, and 236.

Baker writes: I feel it is essential to the development of conservation sensitivities to have extensive practical experience in the craft(s) that was/were involved in the creation of artifacts if one is to make informed decisions about their preservation/conservation, and this holds true for any conservation speciality. Thus conservators of art on paper should practice traditional hand papermaking, all of the major printing techniques–relief, intaglio, and lithography–and drawing mediums–pen and ink, watercolors, dry-medium drawing, etc. And for example, how anyone can expect a book conservator to understand the best way to preserve/conserve any book while having little/no practical bookbinding experience (both one off AND edition binding) is beyond me. If that should ever be the case, I think the conservation profession is doomed: either conservators will routinely make serious treatment mistakes or treatment will cease altogether because of the (unconscious?) discomfort the conservator feels about her/his lack of understanding about artifacts. Neither situation is good for the preservation of our cultural heritage.


A few of my own thoughts: Possibly this idea was born when book conservation was founded in the US in the 1980’s. More specifically,  the integration of book conservation into the larger arena of art conservation, the concept of minimal intervention, and the concept of collections conservation likely had influence.  Most other art conservation specialities, while encouraging and requiring students to learn about the materials, techniques and history of the art form, are no where as closely related as book conservation is to the craft that produced them. So it is understandable why someone from an art conservation background might question the uncomfortably close relationship between bookbinding and book conservation. It is likely not a good idea to project too much on the abstract idea of minimal intervention which will mean different things to different people. The concept of collections conservation unintendedly reinforced the idea that the head and the hand were separate entities and the head (the conservator) could direct and abstract hand (the technician) to perform repetitive or mundane tasks, or work on material not considered valuable enough for a conservator. The beginnings of separating out craft from a conservators skill set?

Since bookbinding craft skills are still transmitted in the traditional manner of close contact with skilled practitioners, I would posit that book conservation, as a field, has an additional responsibility to preserve not only the bookbindings, but the craft skills and techniques that produced them. And the intimate knowledge of these craft skills not only manifests itself in treatments such as rebinding (traditionally almost the only treatment?), rebacking, resewing, but in the ability to determine what should not be treated, which are sometimes the hardest and most time consuming decisions. With objects as numerous, international, and subtle as bookbindings, it can take a long time to understand what might be unique or rare and what is oridinary.

As Baker mentions, lack of skill in performing more advanced or invasive treatments could lead to fewer of them being done, possibly to the detriment of the object. Then again, a cruel irony is that once an object is treated it tends to be re-treated in alarmingly short periods of time.

Everyone—hand bookbinders, book restorers, conservators, technicians and repairers—should know something about edition binding, but I have found it to be almost a completely different field: possibly more akin to music or some type of athletic performance.  It takes very long repetitive training and constant practice to gain and retain the hand skills and speed to make it profitable. I wonder it it is even possible to expect a modern conservator to be able to learn this in a three or four year program? Bookbinding training programs like North Bennet Street School give a solid foundation, but even old-timers have confided that skills can deteriorate in frighteningly short periods of time; things that once were easy had become hard again.

So I guess another question is what kind of hand skills can a book conservator possibly have, given the lack of practice and repitition, and the fact that all materials present unique challenges and circumstances?


Maria Fredericks is the Drue Heinz Conservator at The Thaw Conservation Center of The Morgan Library and Museum. She has been a leader in the field of book conservation for decades and teaches widely.

Fredericks writes:  In my opinion, book conservators should continue to learn as much as possible about the technical history of craft binding, in exactly the same manner that conservators in every other specialty devote years of study to the technologies and materials used to make the objects under their care. Understanding the structural and material evolution of the codex form over time is essential to recognizing what is significant and authentic about bound objects in their cultural context(s), which in turn informs the conservator’s judgment in the selection of appropriate preservation options. In more practical terms, a deep understanding of binding mechanics is required so that books may be repaired or re-bound in ways that prevent further deterioration, while preserving historically significant features. A profound knowledge of how bindings work can only be gained through a combination of observation and hands-on practice, including patient exploration of a vast number of structural and material variations, and repetition of core skills. Even in a culture of minimal intervention, re-binding or significant structural intervention is required often enough that a book conservator must possess the skills to re-sew and re-bind text blocks with a broad range of requirements for safe handling and display (e.g. manuscripts on parchment, printed books on fragile or brittle paper, photo albums, ledger and stationer’s bindings, amateur bindings, Islamic bindings, East Asian bindings, to name a few).

An important question is how to acquire these diverse binding skills, and keep them fresh enough to be used with assurance when they are needed. We are far removed from the kind of fast-paced repetitive production work carried out by trade binders and restorers of the last several centuries, that honed certain skills but perhaps discouraged creative thinking. Conservators, by contrast, must consider each item or group of items individually, and because library collections are often quite diverse, the opportunity to repeat a complex repair technique or re-binding structure with any frequency can be rare. In addition book conservators must be educated in the conservation of paper, parchment, leather, and other materials that tend to appear in books. A strong, early foundation in bookbinding would seem ideal, creating a repertoire of basic operations (variations on sewing, forwarding, covering) that becomes instinctive and is always ‘on tap’. In recognition of this need, the North American conservation training programs, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, offer both intensives and semester courses focused on practical bookbinding in their curricula for library and archive conservators; the European programs with which I’m familiar also have this type of course work. Some new post-graduate fellowship opportunities for rare book conservators, which will allow important additional training and research time for recent program graduates and other emerging book conservators, are encouraging, and I hope mark a new trend. In summary, the acquisition and use of binding skills continue to be central, in both the training and the ongoing work of book conservators.

One last thought on minimal intervention. In spite of criticism from proponents of more traditional restoration, minimal intervention in conservation treatment now feels right in step with the seeming explosion of academic programs of study in the ‘material book’, and the growing number of opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion of books and manuscripts as physical objects. Conservators may have been ahead of that curve for a few years, but it now seems universally recognized that over-restored books, like other similarly abused artifacts, are stripped of a significant percentage of their meaning. The excellent news is that conservators, curators, bibliographers and humanities scholars are increasingly working together to interpret material evidence found in books and bindings. Hurray!


Chela Metzger is Conservator of Library Collections and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Winterthur/ University of Delaware. Quite likely she has more experience teaching book conservation than anyone in the US, and her research interests include blank books.

Metzger writes: In 2006 the consdist list, a conservation list serve, had a several month long back and forth discussion that is relevant to the intersections of craft skills, minimal intervention, and ethics in conservation.

Here is the first post. “From: Frank Hassard <f.hassard> Date: Thursday, June 15, 2006 A very well respected and senior member of the international conservation community recently stated the following: “It is my belief that ‘minimum-intervention’ is an institutional ploy to save money and to cover up a lack of skills.” This fundamental tenet of professional conservation, which functions with “reversibility”, is related directly to the ethical acceptance of “non-like” restoration. This is reflected in a wide variety of material applications in conservation education and training today; for example, the use of synthetic resins (commonly known as car-body filler in the UK) to replace wood-carvings and as a general wood-substitute in loss-compensation, the use of Paraloid B72 as a surface-coating in place of oil, wax or shellac, the use of digital photography to replace missing veneers and so on. Therefore, can anyone disprove this assertion by providing me with examples of “non-like” restoration (such as those listed above) that require greater practical expertise to apply? Also, comments on the following is welcome: Are “minimum intervention” and “reversibility” conservation”s big cover-up–as the citation above suggests? -Frank Hassard PhD Research, Faculty of Design Buckinghamshire Chilterns University c/o Brunel University, United Kingdom”


(Scroll down to “conservation principals”)

Mr. Hassard never revealed the senior conservator who made the quote that starts the post, and he also noted in later posts in the thread that he was mainly interested in furniture and decorative arts conservation. The entire thread is archived under the subject heading “conservation principles” in the COOL site. I enjoy thinking about the issues of craft in book conservation. I must entertain the idea that minimal intervention is a possible curtain to hide lack if skill, since it is not uncommon to hear that critique of conservators.

I see conservation as an an approach and as a problem solving activity. I think it is better described as a thought process and a set if relationships than as a list of techniques. That said, a book conservator should be very clear about when an agreed upon best treatment is beyond their skill level. Conservation treatment, which is not the only thing many conservators do all day as a general rule, must be done with unalterable respect for and curiosity about the materials and those who made them. I would argue that we are not the last hands that will touch these objects, and should not put our treatment hand skills above the actual book in question. It’s an interesting professional disappearing act sometimes.

Personally, I find the decision to rebind agonizing most of the time. But once that decision has been made, rebinding can be very straight forward compared to a “minimal intervention” treatment. Engineering an appropriate minimal intervention can be very time consuming and tricky. It can also involve skills and materials not typical in one-off or edition binding. Bookbinding skills are necessary, but not sufficient to the book conservation decision-making process in my opinion. We have lots to learn from object and paper conservators.

Should anyone be especially interested in my further opinions on book conservation, especially educational issues, feel free to watch my lecture:


Dr. Christopher Clarkson on Conservation Education

I could write a number of posts just introducing Christopher Clarkson. This is the very,very short version. He graduated from the Royal College of Art, London, then worked for S. M. Cockerell, and Roger Powell. In 1966 he was sent to Florence after the flood & taught in Italy and England till 1971. In 1972 Clarkson moved to the Library of Congress, concentrating in Special Collections. In 1977 Clarkson moved to The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore to set up a book conservation studio, he also helped Dr. Lilian Randall, adding many of the parchment & binding descriptions  to her great manuscript catalogue. He returned to England in 1979 as the first Conservation Officer at The Bodleian Library Oxford. Concerned about training, in 1987 Clarkson moved to West Dean College, where he ran an internship programme & worked on many medieval manuscripts. Most recently Clarkson has reported on the early 5th century Ms. Syriac 30 & the ‘New Finds’ of Codex Sinaiticus for the Monastery of St. Catherine’s. Currently he is conservation consultant to Hereford Cathedral Chained Library & Mappa Mundi, The Bodleian Library & to The Wordsworth Trust.

Quite likely, he has done more to create awareness of traditional materials, research the context of older structures, and impart sensitivity to treatments than any other book conservator.  And he generously shares this knowledge through teaching and in publications. Many of his articles form the foundations of the field. In July, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from The University of Arts London. Chris describes that he “was given two minutes for a speech in which he wanted to try to heighten the profile of conservation within the University also to stress why an art school system is probably still right for the  subject.”

Like most of his writing, the speech below is quite dense and warrants reflection.



“It is a great pleasure to be back amongst art school people. I started at Camberwell School of Art in the 1950’s when I was thirteen, when it was still very much academic & Arts & Crafts based. The observational, painting techniques & graphic printing skills I learnt there have been essential in my later career as a conservator.

Conservation is a subject that bridges many disciplines – history, chemistry, engineering, material science etc. Possibly because of this, specific educational committees have said, “this is not ours” & passed it on to other committees. Above everything, it is a discipline which requires a high level of visual & craft skills plus ‘historical awareness’, my phrase, meant to express a deeper knowledge, sympathy & thus respect for the integrity of a period artefact. The danger in poor restoration/conservation training is ‘facsimile’ – the misconception that past cultures & their artefacts can be recreated – they cannot.

What I have tried to develop and teach are the principles of conservation as applied to period book structures, the diversity and the unexpected is what I am trying to preserve. This means teaching a wide and ever growing variety of techniques, utilizing a wide variety of materials and treatments out of which imaginative and historically sensitive young people can begin to find the answers to the problems that damaged books will present.

I am very interested in the choices conservators make in their treatments and how these decisions may influence our interpretation of an object. Thus observational skills are central to any conservation programme, I mean traditional drawing skills – to train the eye is to train the mind.

Conservation belongs in the Humanities, which are suffering badly in the present educational climate. I do hope the University can continue to support, & if possible broaden its commitment to its conservation course. It is a resource intensive discipline, expensive in time, training & quality materials, tools & equipment; a high percentage of bench-work is essential.

There has never been a greater need for well-trained conservators who not only know the techniques but also the cultural significance of what they will be working on. The support that the University gives to such courses is of enormous value.

I would like to congratulate all the students receiving their degrees today & wish you a bright & interesting future.

To the University I thank you for the honour you bestow on me.”

-Christopher Clarkson, 16 July 2012

Carbon Fiber Lifter

The carbon fiber lifter is a new tool to aid a conservator when mechanically lifting covering material, pastedowns and general delaminating.  Lifting knives, teflon tools, micro spatulas, teflon coated tools, and bamboo hera all have their place in a conservator’s arsenal. The carbon fiber lifter is between a teflon folder and bamboo in feel: much thinner and more rigid than teflon, stronger than bamboo and it slides easier. Very strong and flexible, though not indestructable. Great for paper, weak cloth, heavily embossed cloth, and lumpy, uneven boards.  It is flexible, yet provides unparalleled control even when it is in deep.  It is designed to slide between and separate adhered materials, but the blade is not really strong enough to split a board, like a knife can do.  The carbon fiber lifter is designed for sliding and prying lifting techniques.  I’ve also found it useful for reversing previous “repairs” like gluing a cloth case spine to the text block, given its thinness and long length. The cutting edge is rounded and extends about 2.5 inches (63 mm.)  The edge can be easily sanded to alter or repair the bevel, but I strongly recommend respiratory protection and gloves.  Here is the Material Safety Data Sheet MSDS. Additionally, the carbon fiber looks very cool. Materials: Woven carbon fiber embedded in epoxy.

Weight: .3 oz (8 grams)  Size: 1 x 12 x .030 inches (25 x 300 x .75mm)

ITEM #: CFL  Introductory price  $25.00   CURRENT PRICE $35.00




Kafka on Craft

“Intellectual labor tears a man out of human society. A craft, on the other hand, leads him towards men.”

-Franz Kafka

I want to believe this appealing quote.  I want to believe that the thousands of hours spent learning, practicing, preparing and performing craft — usually alone — lead back to humanity at some point.  I want to believe that the products of craft will also somehow connect with other people. If thinking separates us from society, do reading rooms in libraries and gathering together in coffee shops somehow compensate by letting us be physically together? But Kafka’s conception of  intellectual labor in opposition to craft is troubling. Isn’t he separating the hand from the head? Most craftsmen I respect have a tremendously wide curiosity and intellect, encompassing history, technique, tools, materials and many other seemingly unrelated things. Craft is not about just having made something, or even being able to make something.  It is consciously participating in the tradition of making something.  Is this how it might lead us to others?


Gustav Janouch, Conservations with Kafka, trans. Goronwy Rees. 2nd rev. and enlarged ed. (London: Andre Deutsch, 1971) p. 15 in Paul Virilio, Ground Zero (London and New York:Verso, 2002.) p. 7.

Comments on Clarkson, Conservation and Craft

Book conservation, possibly more than any other conservation discipline, consists of a skill set that is closely linked to its craft roots. Conservators must not only be able to intellectually understand the mechanics, chemistry and history of book structure, but also need the hand skills to actually do bookbinding: performing, for example, a full treatment where a text needs to be rebound in a style sensitive and sympathetic to its structural requirements and time period. So what prompted Christopher Clarkson to write,  “European hand bookbinding practice does not form the best foundation on which to build or even graft the principles of book conservation.” (Clarkson, 1978)

 Although written 30 years ago, these words are still extremely provocative. In a very narrow interpretation, the phrase “ European hand bookbinding practice” could mean typical trade bookbinding practice, and the statement is entirely uncontroversial— not every book should be rebound and of course a 10th century manuscript should not be stuffed into a typical late 19th century trade binding! (1) But what if Clarkson is pointing towards a broader reading, establishing a dichotomy between bookbinding and book conservation, potentially even between a craft and a profession?  Given the close relationship of the two, how could they be separated?

 A few clues can be found elsewhere in the same volume of The Paper Conservator.  This issue begins with a policy statement, noting four basic purposes of publication:

“1.  To conserve the traditional crafts of conservation… .  2.  To stimulate the craftsmen to develop a methodology with which to record their techniques and experience… . 3. …extending knowledge about craft techniques in closely related fields… . 4. To assemble a reference source of craft techniques for trainee conservators.” (My italics) (McAusland, 1978)

 These multiple references to craft are perhaps even more shocking that Clarkson’s original quote, and somewhat explain his need to propose a break with the past, at least in a philosophical context.  It appears that in 1978 that book conservation was considered a craft, or at least craft was a large part of it. But professionalism was on the rise at the same time; Paul Banks was elected President of AIC in 1978 (a first for a book conservator) and his The Preservation of Library Materials was published the same year.  Did a rise in professionalism necessitate a break with craft tradition in order to escape habits, both in thought and praxis, built up over centuries?

 I am certain that if I mentioned “the craft of conservation” in 2008, I would be greeted by suspicion, jeers and critical blog posts from my peers. Today, conservators have, to a large degree, distanced themselves from that dirty little word—craft– at least in their own minds.(2)  This distancing seems to be the core message in Clarkson’s statement, as a necessary first step. In order to rationally and objectively approach a conservation treatment, it was necessary to step outside of the preconceptions of a craft tradition, and attempt to examine the book and the goals of the treatment from the outside.  Sometimes a conservation treatment might closely resemble how a bookbinder might repair a volume; sometimes it might be radically different.

 How can the craft of the bookbinding be preserved in a professional context that has struggled to escape its craft based roots? Are there dangers, however, of completely refuting the craft of bookbinding while formulating a new theory of conservation?  Almost 1,700 years of mostly unwritten craft skills have been passed on during the history of bookbinding.  Many structures and techniques have been abbreviated, forgotten and lost. Some have been rediscovered later, existing as primary evidence in book structure, or extrapolated through praxis.  A conservator could start a treatment, with no knowledge of bookbinding technique, but if the treatment was at all complex, it seems the conservator, even if ignorant of craft technique, would end up reinventing it. Maybe this is how the craft will survive.

 As books cease to be viewed as primarily a vehicle for transmitting textual information, and move closer to object-type status, I predict the physical information their materials and construction contain, and their visual appeal will become increasingly valued. (3) Paradoxically, we may have to wait until books no longer fulfill their original function (to be read) before we fully value the craft skills that created them, and then will have to rediscover those skills. 

 In another 30 years, perhaps, the field of book conservation will be mature enough to reexamine its relationship to craft. Hopefully some of the craft skills will still be present or rediscovered, and might be reincorporated into some future conception of conservation.


1.  Ironically, this style of binding, with all of its structural faults, remains the ideal of fine hand bookbinding in most of the public’s imagination. 

2. Most of the public, unfortunately, uses the terms bookbinder, master restorer and conservator interchangeably. A paramount task for conservation is to educate the public on these differences.

3.  In the past year or two, I have noticed more private collectors wanting a cradle for their book so that it can be safely displayed in their home.  



Clarkson, Christopher. “The Conservation of Early Books in Codex From: A Personal Approach: Part 1.” The Paper Conservator Vol. 3 (1978): 49.

McAusland, Jane. “Manual Techniques of Paper Repair” The Paper Conservator Vol. 3 (1978): 3