Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, Connections, tech, U of Iowa Ctr for the Book, University of Missouri | Tags: blogging, book conservation, Gutenberg Bible, history, jim downey, Johannes Gutenberg, technology, University of Iowa Center for the Book, University of Missouri, Wikipedia
As a book & document conservator, I’ve had the good fortune to see, handle, and work on some really interesting historical artifacts. Just the other day a client came to me for an assessment of a ratty old paperback book which had been in her mother’s underwear drawer for the better part of the last fifty years. Don’t think it sounds particularly special or interesting? Well, if it’s the right kind of paperback … yeah, there’s a *very* good chance that the book she brought me would be just the fifth known copy of that very important first edition. I recommended that she deal with a qualified rare book appraiser, though everything about the book — the paper quality and age, the sewing structure and condition, the amount of dust and dirt it had collected, even the smell of the thing — all fit perfectly into what I would expect of a book printed in that time and that place and then used and loved for a century or so, then put away and essentially forgotten for another century.
But there is one thing which is so iconic, which so perfectly focuses on a critical moment in history, that when I was first asked to work on it more than 20 years ago I knew that my talents and training had been accepted by the then-director of Special Collections at the University of Missouri – Columbia. This item:
I would expect that anyone who would find themselves reading my blog would already know the history and importance of the Gutenberg Bible, but just in case here’s the intro for the Wikipedia entry:
The Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible or the B42) was the first major book printed in the West using movable type. It marked the start of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and the age of the printed book in the West. Widely praised for its high aesthetic and artistic qualities, the book has an iconic status. Written in Latin, the Gutenberg Bible is an edition of the Vulgate, printed by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, Germany, in the 1450s. Forty-eight copies, or substantial portions of copies, survive, and they are considered to be among the most valuable books in the world, even though no complete copy has been sold since 1978.
The title page from this presentation case explains a bit more why it is just a ‘leaf’ from one of the Bibles:
Basically, someone took a partial copy of one of the known authentic Bibles, separated it into individual leaves, mounted those into this presentation case, then sold those to collectors and institutions which wanted to have their own sample of the Bible. Each one is now worth on the order of $50,000.
Now, you might notice (if you dig around into the data on these images) that these are recent pictures all taken with my smartphone (and no flash). That’s because a week or so ago I brought the leaf home from Special Collections for some additional work. No big deal, honestly, just a little cleaning and a minor bit of repair. Here’s what the leaf looked like before (front and back):
And here’s what it looked like after:
Yeah, not a huge difference. But if you look closely, particularly on the lower fore-edge corner, you can see that it is notably cleaner. And there’s also an almost invisible repair in that area on the back of the page where a slight fold was weakening the corner. So I reinforced it with a bit of handmade kozo paper (from the UICB – where I trained as a conservator), and a little bit of wheatpaste. Here’s a detail of the repair in process, before the excess was trimmed off:
And here it is complete:
Almost, but not quite, invisible. That’s in keeping with current conservation practices, where you don’t want a repair to be a distraction, but you do want it to be evident to the trained eye, so they know the ‘honest’ history of the item and whether it has been treated/repaired.
To be perfectly honest in another way, working on this leaf was just completely straight-forward. Cleaning and simple kozo repairs are about the simplest conservation tasks performed, and in no way are a challenge to my abilities.
And yet …
And yet, because of what that leaf is, what it represents, I kept it locked away in the safe until I could devote a full afternoon of work to taking care of it. Until I had completely gone through a ritual cleaning of my bindery space. Until I was at the very ‘top of my game’ in terms of focus and attention. Until I was absolutely certain that I could do the tasks required with my full and total respect. Call it Zen & the Art of Conservation if you want. Or just call it a recognition that I am only one set of hands in a long chain who for a moment (once again) had a responsibility to both the future and the past.
The leaf has already been returned to the care of Special Collections.
PS: Tucked in the back of presentation case was this document from the first treatment I performed. Thought I’d share it as well, just for grins.
Filed under: Amazon, Art, Book Conservation, Connections, Failure, Feedback, Flu, Kindle, Marketing, Promotion, Publishing, Science Fiction, University of Missouri, Writing stuff | Tags: 1512, Adopt-a-book, Amazon, art, blogging, book conservation, bookbinding, Cicero, Communion of Dreams, direct publishing, free, jim downey, Kindle, Legacy Bookbindery, M.T.C. Epistolae familiares accuratius recognitae, MU, promotion, reviews, Science Fiction, writing
Most of the book conservation work I do is pretty nondescript, just workmanlike. After all, the intent isn’t to draw attention to my work, but to preserve as much of the original character and structure of the book as I can.
But now and again I get to do some ‘pretty’. And it’s nice to come across those again later, particularly when for whatever reason I’m feeling a little down. It’s a pleasant boost to my self esteem. Such it was yesterday when I was browsing through the Adopt-a-book program at MU’s Special Collections, and saw this entry:
Adopt-a-Book > Book Detail
Author: Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Published: Venetiis : Apud Aldum et Andream Socerum, 1512
Description: Take apart and resew, saving the label where possible. New leather binding
Condition / repair needed: This codex was printed by the legendary Aldine Press. It was printed during the life of Aldus Manutius, the founder of the press. The most famous dolphin and anchor printer’s mark is seen on the title page.
Thank You to Donor:J. Schweitzer, R. Drake and M. Correale
I’ll explain later why it was that I was browsing the site (it was a good reason, but I don’t want to get into it just yet).
As for why I was feeling down … No special reason, as I mentioned yesterday. Getting over the touch of the flu I had early in the week. A touch of the winter blahs. The mild feeling that I get in the middle of any project that I have bitten off more than I can chew and that I’m going to fail spectacularly.
So it’s nice to see tangible evidence that I actually can do something well.
Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, Religion, Science Fiction, University of Missouri, Writing stuff | Tags: art, Bible, blogging, book conservation, bookbinding, calligraphy, jim downey, manuscript, MU, Science Fiction, St. Cybi's Well, University of Missouri, vellum, writing
It isn’t the oldest, rarest, or most interesting item I’ve ever worked on. But it’s not everyday that a 700+ year old book comes into my shop for conservation work. This one did yesterday:
Here’s the official description of it, for those who might be interested:
Bible. Latin. [Biblia Latina] 1300. Bound in parchment ms. with neumic notation over boards ; leaf  torn with part of 1 column wanting; small stain on p. 1 partly hides incipit; trimmed, headings mostly lost. Prehumanistic minuscule script; rubricated. Lectionary? with different pen on final 2 leaves. Contents: Prol. in libros Salomonis — Proverbia — Ecclesiastes — Canticum canticorum — Sapientia — Ecclesiasticus — Joshua — Isaias –Jeremias — Ezechiel — Daniel — Osee — Joel — Amos — Abdias — Jonas –Michaeus — Nahum — Habacuc — Sophonias — Aggaeus — Zacharias — Malachias — Job – Judith — Esther — [Novum Testamentum]. Cover is a manuscript leaf of a parchment page with nuemes and a Gothic script with red initial letters from about about the same time.
It’s been a while since I shared any images from my conservation work, so thought I would.
Have a great weekend!
Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, Politics, Publishing, Society, U of Iowa Ctr for the Book, University of Missouri, Writing stuff
Earlier this year I got a nice note from the Director of Libraries at MU, asking whether I would be able to attend the Library Society annual dinner. As part of the evening’s event they were going to have on display some of the more noteworthy items from Special Collections Adopt-a-Book Program – work I had done, supported by donations – and they wanted to introduce me to their membership. Director Cogswell kindly offered to have my wife and I attend the fundraiser as guests of the Library Society.
* * * * * * *
It’s been a long week. I was sorely disappointed in the outcome of our local elections held on Tuesday, which saw a shift from Smart Growth advocates to a more “pro-development” slate of candidates for our city council/mayoral positions.
I’ve been involved in local politics at a very low level the last couple of years, mostly in trying to make sure that there was some balance between neighborhood interests and development. I’ve served as our neighborhood association president, and that has led to my participation in a variety of training workshops, as well as keeping a weather eye on development & rezoning issues in our area. I’m not against development – hardly – but I think it ought to be done with some intelligence and awareness of how it serves a community rather than just the bank account of a developer.
* * * * * * *
I confirmed that my Good Lady Wife and I would be happy to attend the Library Society dinner, though I preferred to pay the modest fund-raising donation for the dinner, and that I likewise would enjoy chatting with anyone in the Society who had an interest in my work. I’ve always been willing to do this sort of thing, meeting with donors, explaining the work I do and why it is important. In one sense, it’s self-serving – the donors are helping me earn a living – but beyond that my motivation is to help make sure the historically valuable books in these collections get the care they need.
It may sound a bit odd, but I’m actually fairly passionate about that. Yes, I do get paid for my conservation work, and it is a business – but I have always done a lot more work on rare books than I actually bill for. I don’t make a big deal out of this, it’s just my way of contributing something to the community and culture. If I were financially independent I would probably continue to do my conservation work, just as an in-kind donation to appropriate collections.
* * * * * * *
After Tuesday’s depressing election results, I had the last in a series of workshops scheduled on Wednesday to attend. The topic was “infill development” – a series set up by our Department of Planning to help explain why utilizing unused or neglected property within the city was a good strategy, and what the various issues pertaining to this kind of development were, and how development in cooperation with an established neighborhood could be to everyone’s benefit.
Let me tell you, it was damned hard to work up the motivation to attend that session. But I went, and was glad I did so.
* * * * * * *
The featured speaker for the Library Society dinner was to be Peter Hessler. Cool – I’ve read some of his work, heard him in interviews, respected his intelligence and humor. That alone would be worth the price of admission.
* * * * * * *
Thursday night there was another public event I needed to attend. It was the 2010 Neighborhood Leadership class. I had been in the 2009 class (the first one), and had been asked to sit in on a panel discussion about my actual experiences with building my neighborhood association. The other panel member is a fellow I know, like, and respect for the things he has done in his (much larger) neighborhood in this regard, and I knew that we would make a good team discussing this topic.
It went really well. I did a variation of my “don’t be afraid of failure” spiel in saying that each neighborhood would present a unique set of challenges and would need a unique set of solutions – that the neighborhood leaders would need to experiment, innovate, risk failure if they were to find the set of solutions that worked for them.
But like all such public speaking situations, it left me pretty much wrung out and a bit jittery after. Being an introvert is hell, sometimes.
* * * * * * *
We got to the pre-dinner reception, and it didn’t take very long to figure out that what I thought was going to be just a bit of a mention and some chatting with donors was actually a bigger deal than that.
These sorts of functions usually have assigned seating, with the ‘top table’ reserved for the emcee and featured speaker, a few Really Important muckity-mucks, right in front of whatever podium is being used. Well, my Good Lady Wife and I got our name tags, and discovered that we were assigned to table #2. And that our assigned seats were in perfect sight-line to the podium. And that we had the honor of sitting with the much-beloved chancellor-emeritus of the University, a couple of Deans, and assorted other Pretty Important People.
Furthermore the Director of Development caught me shortly after we got into the room, and pointed out that the centerpiece of each table was a nice flat cake. A nice flat cake which had “before” and “after” images of conservation work I had done, complete with the name of the donor who supported that work. And the cake on the #2 table was a book of Mark Twain’s “In Honor of James T. Downey”.
* * * * * * *
Friday afternoon, before the Library Society dinner, we had another function to attend. A former employer of my Good Lady Wife’s, who is still a professional colleague and friend of hers, was celebrating his 70th birthday.
We got to the party late (it was being done as an Open House at the offices of his architecture firm), knowing that the evening event would take at least a fair amount of energy. This was a good decision.
Oh, it wasn’t riotous or anything, but there were a lot of people in attendance – current and former employees, other architects and engineers in the community. It was relaxed and informal, and I felt a little out of place in a suit & tie (we were going directly from this party to the Library Society event). I hate feeling out of place. But at least I wasn’t under-dressed for the occasion.
We chatted, enjoyed ourselves. People asked what we were doing these days. It was a good warm-up for me.
* * * * * * *
I went over to the display of the rare books, said hello to Mike Holland, who is the University Archivist, Director of Special Collections. One of his staff people was there as well, and they were doing a fine job of talking about the books on display. I joined in – introducing myself to the donors who were looking, explaining some of my working methods and materials, and so forth. It was exactly what I expected, and thanks to my previous socializing at the birthday party, I was already past my nervousness and in full “GalleryMan” mode. I had several very nice conversations.
Then we were called to take our seats so the evening festivities could begin.
The program listed my Good Lady Wife and I among the ‘sponsors’ of the dinner. I did indeed get a very nice introduction to the crowd, and a round of applause for my work. During the course of dinner several people came by the table to talk with me further, ask opinions and advice about books they owned, et cetera. We had delightful dinner conversation with our table mates. It was, all in all, a very affirming experience that helped me see that my efforts have been worthwhile and appreciated.
So, as I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation by Peter Hessler after dinner, it was easy to not feel any jealousy for his recognition as a writer and author. Yeah, I did flash on how fun it would be to return to that dinner in a couple of years as the “noted author and featured speaker” of the event, but I could see that as just a fantasy. Knowing that if I got hit by a truck tomorrow my life would not have been in any sense wasted was extremely rewarding.
We all need that, now and again.
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Alzheimer's, Art, Ballistics, Guns, Humor, Music, Publishing, RKBA, University of Missouri, Writing stuff
“Hello. Can I speak with Karen?”
“Karen? Who are you calling?”
“Is this Legacy Art & BookWorks?”
*sigh* “Legacy Art & BookWorks closed over 5 years ago. Karen had moved almost four years before that. Your database is at least 9 years out of date.”
>laughter< "Oh, sorry . . . "
* * * * * * *
Yesterday morning I finished work on "November" – the 11th chapter of the care-giving book I have been working on, tentatively titled Her Final Year. The conceit is that the book is divided into the months of a year, which track the progression of the Alzheimer’s and our experience in caring. The bulk of the material for the book is drawn from my posts here (and from my co-author’s similar blog posts about his experience in caring for his mother-in-law), supplemented with emails that my wife and I sent the family and friends, discussing the day-to-day realities of what was happening.
Anyway, November is dealing with the end-of-life experience, those final months of what we went through (not the actual passing – that is appropriately enough the final chapter). So I’ve been going through and editing/tweaking material from two years ago, when we were in the deepest and most intense part of caring for Martha Sr. Just reading that stuff leaves an emotional impact, calling up echoes and ghosts.
* * * * * * *
“So, Jim, what do you do?”
We were at the big dinner for my wife’s High School reunion this past Saturday. I went as supportive spouse. Another spouse across the table was trying to make small talk. I already knew that he was an engineer – he and my wife have worked together professionally, and they had exhausted that material for discussion.
How to answer that? I am sometimes amused at the options.
“I’m a book & document conservator.” I like this answer.
“I repair rare books and documents. Mostly historical stuff.”
* * * * * * *
We got an invitation to an opening reception over at the University of Missouri, for a show of portraits which included work of a friend. It was a good excuse to get out of the house a bit.
An interesting show, pairing up historical portraits with more modern work by notable artists. It was good to see our friend and his wife, some other artists that we know.
But I spent most of the time there talking with others about how much they missed my art gallery. It’s been five years, but still everyone wants to talk about how great it was, how much of a shame it was that we had to close it.
* * * * * * *
“So, where do you go shooting?” I asked the engineer, after he had mentioned that he and his son had been out that morning.
“Yeah, a bit.” I looked up with a smile. It’s always fun to see how guys will react to this. The more macho types will sometime use it as a cue to start talking about their big, powerful guns, or bragging in some other way. But I figured this engineer would be more subtle. “Handguns, mostly, for me.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I do a fair amount of that, too. Even reload.”
Reloading is a measure of a fairly serious shooter, and someone who has the patience and attention to detail necessary. I nodded. “Yeah, me too.”
His eyebrows went up a bit. I took a business card out of my jacket pocket, flipped it over and wrote down a url on the back. I passed it across the table to him. “You might be interested in this.”
“Ballistics by the inch dot com, huh?”
I smiled, explained.
* * * * * * *
“This is James Downey.”
“Um, is this Legacy Bookbindery?”
“Same thing. What can I help you with?”
“I wasn’t sure this number was any good. I got it out of a magazine article from 1993. Do you still do book conservation?”
“I do indeed. What can I help you with?”
* * * * * * *
Last night I finished the revisions for Chapter 11 of Communion of Dreams. Trimmed another 1,449 words from the text, bringing the total I have edited out in this rewrite to over 17,500. It still takes a lot of attention to get through it, but from here on there will be fewer actual sections/passages trimmed out.
* * * * * * *
He flipped over the card before he put it in his pocket. “Communion of Dreams?”
“Yeah, a novel I wrote.”
“Well, not yet – not conventionally, though I have a publisher interested. But over 19,000 people have downloaded it.”
He looked at me.
I shrugged. “I’ve led an odd life.”
* * * * * * *
*With apologies to Ian and the gang.
Filed under: Ballistics, Book Conservation, Flu, Health, Publishing, Science Fiction, Star Wars, University of Missouri, Writing stuff
I had business over on the MU campus early in the week – needed to check something out at the bookstore.
So, of course, the next day I started coming down with some viral infection.
Yesterday I had a previously scheduled appointment with my doctor, just a follow-up for my blood pressure treatment. When she came into the exam room, she asked how I was doing. I told her I had to go over to campus, so of course I now had whatever hideous plague was making the rounds. She nodded knowingly, said “oh, yeah, and there’s a *lot* of stuff going around over there.”
Anyway, the bp remains under control. And I likely have some mild variation of H1N1. But I did share it with my good lady wife. Not exactly the 22nd anniversary present I had in mind. Oh well.
Things, however, continue. Now through Chapter 10 of Communion of Dreams on the revisions, and have trimmed over 16,000 words from the text. Also about 3/4 of the way through my editing of my content for the care-giving book. Downloads of CoD continue, and we’re now past 18,500 of those. And of course the BBTI project keeps plugging along, with again more than 100k hits in September, bringing us to over one & a third million hits total since we launched the site 10 months ago. I am behind a bit on my conservation work, but not horribly so.
So, I suppose a mild case of flu isn’t much to complain about. But still . . .
Expect to hear from me when you do.
Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, General Musings, University of Missouri
A weird thing: in the middle of a very serious economic downturn, my personal economic situation continues to rise. We sent all our tax information to our accountant this past week, and I was somewhat suprised to note that I had earned roughly twice as much last year as I have earned in, well, many years. It’s still solidly under the household average for the nation, but nonetheless is a significant bump up.
And this year I could easily earn twice again as much, if I stay on top of my work demand. This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, for a long long time I was of the opinion that it was almost impossible to actually earn a living – let alone a decent one – as a book conservator in private practice. I still wanted to do it, and found ways to make that work, but for a very long time I earned very little.
Well, time. My reputation got more established. But more than that, just time. If I tell someone I’ve been doing this for 17 years, they figure I must be good at it. And having some grey in my beard helps a great deal as well. No, seriously.
That, and I made some changes in how I handle my fees when I closed the gallery and started working from home. Yeah, I increased them, but most people find that acceptable – with time and reputation, they expect your fees to go up. What I think is more important is that I established a minimum charge of two hours labor, meaning that people had to be fairly serious about wanting my services. It’s curious, but this actually helped a great deal.
See, when I first opened my shop, I would charge $25 an hour, with no minimum. And I would constantly get people coming in, wanting this little thing done or that little thing done, and wanting to only pay me for ten or fifteen minutes of work. It drove me nuts, but I thought I had to do it in order to keep the work coming in. Truth is, it took more time to deal with this stuff and track it than it was worth. Eventually I established a minimum half hour charge, but even that was pretty marginal. And people would constantly balk about the half hour charge, particularly when they just wanted some work done on a paperback or personal bible that could easily be replaced for a nominal cost. They saw me only as an alternative to buying a new book and getting on with life.
When I switched over to the gallery, with the bindery business as part of that, this sort of stuff dropped off some, but not altogether. Why? Because people were coming into an art gallery – a nice one at that – where they would feel a little foolish complaining about a $15 charge (my rates were then $30 an hour). This taught me a lesson, though I would still work long hours trying to keep the cash flow positive, dealing with every little project that came in. When I closed the gallery 8 years later, I knew one of the things I wanted to do was to set my fee schedule such that it forced people to respect my work right up front. I raised my rates (over the course of the time I was at the gallery they had gone up, but I basically doubled them again) and implemented the two hour minimum. I put that information on my voice mail and right on my website, and it is the first thing I’ll tell someone who calls me asking about binding work.
Now, during the period I was being a care provider, I didn’t have much time to do any conservation work. My time really was valuable to me, even though money was tight. So I wasn’t willing to try and fit in this or that small job, just to keep the money coming in. The temptation to go back on my fee schedule was minimized. It took a while, but soon I stopped getting the bulk of the calls wanting me to work on this or that easily-replaceable book. Instead, people now see my work as highly skilled labor, priced appropriately for the service, and suitable for care of rare and valuable books. I won’t get rich doing what I do, but I should be able to start paying off my debts from all those years of not earning much. Just not struggling is a very nice feeling for a change.
And there is the very big benefit that now I get to regularly work on really cool books and documents. As a friend noted this morning, following discussion of a set of volumes I had just done and told him about:
That is so cool. What an interesting job you have. Every project is different, fun stuff to look at. Very neat.
Indeed. It took a long time to get here, and I wouldn’t recommend the path to others. But I like where I’ve wound up.
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Alzheimer's, Ballistics, Book Conservation, General Musings, Health, Hospice, Marketing, Predictions, Promotion, Publishing, Sleep, University of Missouri, Writing stuff, YouTube
I took some books back to Special Collections yesterday afternoon. As I was unpacking items, one of the staff members asked how I was doing.
“Pretty well. Been busy.”
She looked at me for a long moment. “You look – rested.”
* * * * * * *
On Wednesday, in response to a friend who asked what I had going on, I sent this email reply:
Need to do some blogging this morning, then get settled into the next batch of books for a client. Print out some invoices. Also need to track down some camera software and get it loaded onto this machine, and finish tweaking things here so I can shift over the last of the data from the old system and send it on its way. Need to work on learning some video editing, and start uploading clips from our ballistics testing project to YouTube. Then I can get going on creating the rest of the content for *that* website. Play with the dog. Should touch base with my collaborator on the Alz book, see where he is on some transcriptions he is working on. And then prep dinner. In other words, mostly routine. Yeah, I lead an odd life.
An odd life, indeed.
But here’s a taste of some of the documentation about the ballistics project that I have been working on:
That’s me wearing the blue flannel overshirt. Man, I’m heavy. I hope video of me now would look better.
* * * * * * *
The chaos continues. Yeah, we’re still in the process of completely re-arranging the house, and of seeing to the distribution of Martha Sr’s things. Looks like there’ll be an estate auction in our future sometime next month. But that’s good – it means that things are moving forward, heading towards some kind of resolution.
As mentioned in passing in the email cited above, I’ve been shifting over to a new computer system I got last week. My old system was starting to lose components, and was becoming increasingly incapable of doing things I need to be able to do. Well, hell, it was 7 years old, and was at least one iteration behind the cutting edge at the time I bought it. Thanks to the help of my good lady wife, this has been a relatively painless transition – though one which has still taken a lot of work and time to see through.
And one more complication, just to keep things interesting: My wife is moving her business practice home. This had been the tentative plan all along, once Martha Sr was gone, and for a variety of reasons it made sense to take this step now. She’ll be able to devote more of her energy to seeing to her mom’s estate, hastening that process. And she’s going to take on the task of shopping my book around agencies and publishers. Now that there have been over 10,000 downloads (actually, over 11,000 and moving towards 12,000), it would seem to be a good time to make a devoted push to getting the thing conventionally published, in spite of the problems in the industry. We’re hoping that she’ll be better able to weather the multiple rejections that it will take, and I’ll have more time and energy for working on the next book (and blogging, and the ballistics project, and – oh, yeah – earning money for a change).
* * * * * * *
She looked at me for a long moment. “You look – rested.”
It says something that with all I’ve been doing (as described above has been fairly typical, recently), I look more rested now than I have in years.
Actually, it says a lot.