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.

NOTES:

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.  

 

REFERENCES

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

Thoughts About Board Shears

Depictions of standing and lying presses tend to be very popular logos for bookbinders and conservators, but an image of a  board shear might more accurately symbolize current hand bookbinding practice.  More than any other tool or machine in a bindery, the board shear demarcates the difference between in-boards binding and case binding, it highlights the difference between the late 18th and early 19th centuries binding styles, it marks a major shift in the role of bookbinders from artisan to worker, and often today it reflects difference between an amateur and professional binder.

A board shear does one thing, it cuts a piece of cloth, board or paper at 90 degrees quickly and accurately. Physically, the board shear is often  the largest machine in a hand bindery. My relatively small 19th C. 30″ Jacques takes up about 20 square feet. It quite heavy and expensive as well.  For these reasons most amateur binders do not have one. It’s imposing presence, however, garners many comments from clients.  Although the large blades appear dangerous, most accidents I’ve witnessed involve pinching one’s finger under the fence, then jumping away from the machine, and in the process stepping down harder with the foot clamp, which squeezes one’s finger even more.  A torn off fingernail is often the result.  And I have seen the counterweight fall off the end, which could have been deadly.

The earliest publishers case bindings appear around 1810, and the board shear around 1840.  There are types of earlier case bindings, wrappers and related structures, but I am just considering publishers case bindings here. It is difficult to imagine a 19th C. publishers bindery without one, since it is made for dealing with the relatively new invention of book cloth and machine made binders board. Machine made binders board, with an even thickness, is perfect for cutting on the board shear.  Earlier water leaf or paste board usually vary considerably in thickness (possibly explaining the remarkable amount of beating prescribed in historic bookbinding manuels) and make it a poor canidate for use in a board shear- the fence must hold the material being cut evenly and firmly, otherwise it will tear rather than cut.  With a bound book, a plough is the most necessary piece of specialized equipment, not the board shear.  

19th C. case binding, consisting of two boards, a spine piece and covered before gluing to the text block, requires much more accurate, repeatable cutting that a bound book.  Late in the 19th C., after case bindings became prevalent, I hypothesize that their movement influenced bound books. In earlier binding structures, when the boards are opened, the spine also begins to move. When a cased book is opened, the front cover, for example, can be opened  more than 180 degrees without any motion being transfered to the text block.  Late 19th C. bound books move the same way.  At this time, if the board of a bound book was opened fully, it was considered shoddy workmanship if the flyleaf moved at all.  I I wonder if it was the public, bibliophiles or the binders who desired this new type of movement from a book.    

The late 18th C. marked the end of the leather bound book as vernacular culture, and the cased book radically changed the nature of bookbinders work.  Mechanization, repeatability, perfect 90 degree angles, reliance on adhesives rather than mechanical strength, interchangeability of a text and cover and the speed at which the binder had to work all came to the fore at this time. When making an in-boards binding, the craftsman has a sense of constructing or building the book, rather than simply gluing it together.  Since the text and boards are ploughed at the same time, slight deviations from 90 degrees are much more acceptable that in a case binding, where difference would be diasterous if the turnins aren’t even with the boards.  The bookbinder, previously an artisan was increasingly becoming a worker.   And he was forced to emulate machine made standards.

In a roundabout way, all of this points to the importance of studying the tools and machines that made books, in order to better understand small, specific historic details and larger picture- how books have informed the human experience.

 

On Sept 2, 2008 Thomas Conroy added:

I’ve been looking at early binding equipment, and some of the six or eight 1824-1836 patents for “paper cutters” listed in my write-up on the guillotine may have been for board shears rather than guillotines. It isn’t easy to find out, since the Patent Office and all its records burned in 1836. 

Click here

But the rotary board cutter was already in use by 1856, since an engraving of one appears in the edition of Pilkington’s “Artist’s Guide and Mechanic’s Own Book” that also has an early engraving of the roller backer:

Click here

The rotary board cutter would satisfy the edition binder’s need for squareness better than the board shear, so perhaps the board shear’s ability to cut square was less important than you suggest. In any case, do we know when board shears were first equipped with gauges? I don’t think early guillotines had them, and there were still guillotines being sold with only one side gauge into the 1890s.

 

March 20, 2009

I noticed that in Nicholson’s Art  of Bookbinding, both the 1874 and 1856 editions have a picture of a man at a “Table Shears” on page 175.  It doesn’t have gauges, as you mention, but it is in the section of the book that deals with cloth work, not in the section on bound books.

Blinded By Aesthetics

Conservation involves creative thinking, but mainly in a problem solving sense; how to accomplish a clearly defined goal when dealing with a unique object.  Respecting the object, not self expression, is a guiding principal. Even with bookbinding type projects, which I sometimes do, they often involve working with a designer or art director.  I do have some input, but  more often am hired to realize a preexisting idea.

So I am an amateur woodworker to satisfy a creative urge.  Tools for working wood (link on the right hand side bar) sells the metal hardware and blade to make a turning saw.  They also supply free plans, all you need to do is supply the wood.  Did I follow the plans?  Of course not!  As I spent a sunday afternoon spokeshaving the three main pieces, I became more and more interested in emphasizing their thin curves, thinking how elegant looking they were becoming and not thinking about how much tension they would be under when I tightened the toggle.

 

Did I loosen the tension when I was storing the saw?  Of course not! I wanted to be able to grab it and use it.  I did use a natural hemp to twist the toggle, which I was hoping would counter act some of the changes in humidity and keep the tension even, however it is apparent there was simply too much tension for the extreme curve.  The wood was a clear quarter sawn white oak, that I air dried myself.  

About 2 months after I finished the saw, I picked it up to use it and noticed that the wood had split right along the grain.  Looking at it now, the weakness in the curved area seems obvious.  I didn’t give it a thought when I was involved in the act of spokeshaving.

Often, the most common mistake beginners in any craft make is to overbuild, and they end up with a clumsy, heavy, wasteful and amateur looking product.  I went the opposite direction.  Lesson learned. Time to make another one, this time a little straighter and thicker.  Will I follow the plans?  

 

 

 

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