Frank Fabry, senior archives conservator with the Alexander Turnbull Library and the National Library, opens the book on conservation and restoration.
In the 1980s I worked in the United States as the conservator for the research libraries of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Like a lot of book conservators who work for large cultural or educational organisations, I received queries from the general public on preserving their own library collections. This usually involved a request about “restoring” a perceived individual treasure from that personal collection.
I say “perceived” because it’s not always rationality that drives attitudes to a book collection or any volume in it. One’s relationship with books, and particularly with a given copy of a book, is more often than not an affair of the heart.
A case in point: a professional woman in her 50s, with a successful medical career, asked if she could show me a book which was important to her, in poor physical condition, and which she wanted “restored”. When we met she had in her possession a worn out paperback copy of a Collins French/English Dictionary. She explained this was the dictionary she used while studying French at university, and carried with her in Paris the two years she lived there after graduation, more than 25 years previously. The covers were worn and torn, the adhesive on the spine had long since become embrittled, and with each opening and use more pages were falling out.
First, I needed to tell her the obvious, which I knew she was not interested in hearing: “The most cost-effective thing you could do is go out and buy another copy. Something near-identical could (in theory) still be purchased.” But her copy was full of pencil annotations and inscriptions, and sketches she had made on the two blank pages at the back of the book. This ordinary volume verified part of her life, including those two years in Paris. So, for the sum of $200, I “restored” the volume, made it structurally sound again, replaced the adhesive on the spine, and reinforced the covers in ways that made them look like I hadn’t done anything to them. She wanted the dream intact, whatever that dream was. Given who she was and what the book symbolised, she may not have given a second thought had I quoted $2000.
Book conservation is a relatively new profession, its establishment firmly anchored in the 20th century. While bookbinders and even book repairers have been around since before movable-type printing was invented in the 15th century, the book conservator is a new person on the scene. The beginning of book conservation as a specific discipline is usually dated to November 4 1966 (and the months immediately afterwards). That was when Florence’s Arno River overflowed its banks to unprecedented levels and tens of thousands of priceless library treasures, including the famed Magliabechi and Palatino collections, were damaged by the floods that swept through the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale. The Italian government made an international call for assistance in saving its cultural heritage. Many bookbinders and rare-book librarians arrived in Florence and were able to salvage large quantities of materials. To this day, 40 years after the flood and with continuous efforts ever since, those damaged volumes are still in the process of being repaired and preserved.
Working with such a variety of binding styles and materials, inks, papers and parchments, it soon became apparent that certain salvage conservation approaches and attempts worked well, and others didn’t. In the months that followed, many innovative stabilisation and repair techniques evolved, which slowly became an “ethos” or basic standard for book conservation.
A book conservator today is someone who, along with conservators in other conservation specialties – paintings, textiles, works on paper, objects – is a professional who subscribes to a code of ethics and practice. In New Zealand, the professional body is the New Zealand Professional Conservators Group (see www.conservators.org.nz). A conservator carrying out treatment on an individual book combines solid hand-craftsmanship with knowledge of the book’s history and of materials science.
A book conservator, especially one working for a large institution, spends only a fraction of their time in actual hands-on repairs and restorative treatment of individual books. Most of their time is spent on preventive conservation. This covers anything that will slow down or halt deterioration of book collections en masse: ensuring optimum temperature, relative humidity and light levels (basic chemistry here: higher temperatures and relative humidity, and brighter or more energetic light sources cause books to deteriorate faster); ensuring all boxes and wrappers and anything else in direct contact with books are of archival materials that will not allow acids to migrate; ensuring good shelving and storage practices; and educating staff and others in proper handling and use.
As far as I know, there are only six book conservators in New Zealand; three work for large national institutions, one in private conservation practice, one in conjunction with a fine binder in private business, and one no longer practices hands-on book conservation but works as a consultant.
Book conservators aren’t the only people who work physically with books and bindings. There are also fine binders/design binders, as well as general bookbinders. As in all professions, the quality of work ranges from the highest to the questionable, and all stops between. Three or four New Zealand fine binders/design binders are craftspeople extraordinare, and sensitive to the materials on which they work. At least one book repairer and bookbinder’s work is frequently called into question. And there are a handful of competent bookbinders and book repairers (usually working for institutions) who do very good work.
So who should you choose to treat that first English translation of Anna Karenina sitting on the bookshelf at home, or your great-grandfather’s Bible that he carried on his voyage to New Zealand, or your copy of Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy?
First of all, know what you want. Perhaps you want your book repaired: either a cover is detached, or pages are falling out, or a headcap is damaged, or some pages are torn, and you just want to get the book in useable condition. You need a competent bookbinder, or a book conservator.
Perhaps you want your book rebound. Putting a new binding on a book is a major change and the pros and cons should be carefully weighed. Instances where rebinding may be an acceptable option include an older volume that has been rebound sometimes two or three times over the centuries, and is currently in poor condition, or in such a stylistically inappropriate binding that a more sympathetic binding is called for – an 18th century binding that was at some point put into a 20th century commercial library binding, for instance. You need a bookbinder or a fine binder/design binder. Similarly, a new binding may be in order for a title that has great personal significance and for which you would like a special binding created. Note, though, that this option may be illegal, especially if the book is ever to be resold. Again, you need a fine binder/design binder.
Perhaps you want your book preserved, usually the least intrusive of all the options. Repairs or modifications are minimal and always carried out in a manner that complements the book’s existing components. Any structural changes are made because original structures are weak or faulty, to ensure long-term preservation of the book. Repairs are also easily reversible. It’s not unusual for a conserved book to be fitted with a custom-made archival storage box or enclosure. A conservator will work on the book, and either a conservator or a fine binder/design binder or a bookbinder will construct the box.
Don’t hesitate to ask questions of the person you choose to repair or treat your book. Free advice should be readily available, and written treatment proposals with estimates should be provided on request. Remember, a book you have decided to invest extra care in is a treasure, and you want the one to whom you are temporarily entrusting it to treat it like one.