Tag Archives: phenomenology of tool use of

Do Tools Matter When Making Historic Book Structures?

I made this reproduction 18th century French wooden straightedge. Does using it to make a historic bookbinding model *really* affect the process or outcome? Am I heading down the road of wearing a faux French craftsman costume while I do this?

Skillful use of hand tools often depends on their embodiment. They literally become become extensions of our consciousness and body.  We think through them in use, not about them. Don Idhe’s example of driving a car is useful. We don’t have to pay conscious attention to where we are on the road. We just drive. The car is a complex tool that has become embodied. We constantly unconsciously adjust to keeping it on the road. In bookbinding, paring leather is a similar unconscious complex activity. If you are interested in this kind of thing,  Don Idhe’s Technology and The Lifeworld is a exceedingly readable philosophy of technology.

All craft activities have a greater or lesser degree of embodiment, it accounts for some of their joy, relaxation and pleasure. We get out of ourselves for a while.  People often remark on how a tool fits their hand, or is an extension of it, and that it disappears in use. And how time quickly disappears when engaged by using it.

In teaching historic bookbinding structures, however, that these ingrained habits can be counterproductive when trying to recreate, or at least understand in detail, the nuances of earlier techniques.  This is one reason for using historic and reproduction tools. They can help take us out of the familiar, and challange our ingrained craft skills.  They force us to rethink our relationship to a particular tool, and by extension our relationship with the object being crafted. It is all too easy to slip into 21st century work habits when trying to construct a 16th century Gothic binding.

Using historic tools may or may not be the easiest way to do a particular task. When conserving a book there are many other considerations, including the safety of the original artifact, so many historic tools and techniques are not appropriate. And of course, the skill, experience and ability of the conservator is a significant factor. But by in large, the traditional tools of hand bookbinding have not been mechanized because they are an efficient and accurate way of working.

Possibly the most important aspect of using historic tools, or reproductions, is they aid in interpreting historic techniques. Binding a book in an historic style, even inexpertly, helps us understand deeply how older books were made. And isn’t this type of knowledge at the core of any book conservation treatment?

Losing It

At Hopes and Fears,  Jared Fischer asks a variety of educators, neuroscientists, and others the question: “How long does it take to lose a skill?”

Most of the answers are theoretical, and the main consensus is that it is dependent on the skill and how it was acquired.  Similar to the ‘you never forget how to ride a bicycle’ adage, crafts and activities that require extensive muscle memory to learn (and the least conscious attention to perform) tend to be the most durable. Many aspects of bookbinding and knife sharpening fall into this category, and these are some of the most difficult skills to initally learn.

It’s a great question, relating not only to the acquisition of craft skills, but the maintenance of them.  Some answers in the article may contain seeds of argument for institutional conservators who feel they are trapped in front of a screen and need to justify bench time. But no practitioners were ask to self-report on their own experience, so I will ask myself.

Q: Jeff, how long does it takes to lose a skill?

A: I usually don’t subscribe to the idea that various crafts and skills sets are so different that there are isolated muscle memories associated with them.  When I teach freehand knife sharpening, for example, I try to emphasize the relationship between sharpening and leather paring: the muscle memory that it takes to hold the knife freehand on the sharpening stone is closely related to the way you need to consistently hold the knife to pare. So in many regards, I think if you are active in some craft activity it can slow the erosion of neglected skills in another.

That said, when I was a kid I tried to learn how the juggle one summer.  It seemed like hundreds of hours were spent, essentially in failure.  But the next summer, I picked up the three balls and for some reason it just worked.  Juggling may be pure muscle memory, since it primarily depends on how accurate you throw the ball.  Now when I try it, I am not nearly as good, but can keep the balls in the air for a short time and suspect if I kept at it could return to a basic proficiency. So in this case, the skill is severely degraded, but not lost.

A dispiriting aspect of this question is that one’s intellectual knowledge of what constitutes skillful performance often increases during the time that the physical ability to accomplish this decreases.

Well worth reading other perspectives:  “How long does it take to lose a skill?”