Communion Of Dreams


House horrors, part one: the uncovering.

We live  in a “Notable Historic Structure“: the house built by the first dean of the University of Missouri Medical School back in 1883. As with almost any structure this old, it’s seen a lot of alterations and additions over the years, complicating the history and the condition of the house. It’s quite literally the case that there are layers and layers of changes you uncover when you do any work on the place. About a decade ago we had the house professionally painted by someone who specializes in doing work on historic buildings, and the painter estimated that he removed about 35 layers of paint — it was about a half inch thick.

So whenever we have to do any work on the place, you expect to find … surprises. For major projects we’ll call in a crew of professional. But for smaller jobs, my wife and I will tackle it on our own. Since she’s an architect with a lot of practical construction experience, and I’m good working with tools, this usually works pretty well. Usually.

Earlier this year, a spring storm peeled back some of the roofing material off of a small porch on the west side of the house. This porch was probably put on sometime around WWII, and was just a roof over a small concrete pad, open on the sides. In the sixties it was chosen as the site to install an air conditioning unit which serves to cool about half of the first floor. Anyway, while we knew the porch roof was in need of work, we didn’t realize how bad it was until the storm revealed this:

roof

Seeing that, we planned on doing some substantial roof repairs the next time we could set aside a couple of days for it. Which turned out to be this week (hence the fall leaves in the pic above).

When you start a project like this, you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you actually start getting into it. So we got up there and stripped off the rest of the flat roofing materials, and expected to have to replace some of the original sheathing board. But after close examination, we decided that it made more sense to just replace the entire deck surface — it looked like the deck boards had probably been scavenged from some older building when they were originally put up, and all of them were in pretty poor condition.

So we got them off, and were down to the rafters:

roof2

Then closer examination of the rafters, and the support beams on the front and side of the roof indicated that they were likewise in need of replacement. Here’s a pick with the rafters removed:

rafters gone

In removing the rafters, we saw how the porch roof had been tied onto the roof of the house (seen above in shingles). This is looking down at the fascia and house roof:

fascia

Good lord.

What had been done was that they just added the 1″ wide fascia on top of the original fascia, with notches cut into the new fascia to help support the rafters. Oh, and some of the rafter ends were cut at an angle and then just nailed RIGHT ON TOP of the old house roof. Yeah, they didn’t clear it off, or anything. In fact, if you look closely, you can see that someone had just put down plywood sheathing over the old roof of cedar shakes and asphalt shingles.

So first we removed the 1″ fascia, so we could examine the original:

2nd fascia

And finding that the original was in pretty poor condition, removed it. This is what we found behind that:

behind

The horror, the horror …   That’s more of the original roof material just covered over by plywood. Sheesh.

Here’s a detail showing the end where the last porch rafter was mounted on top/through the piled mass of old shingles and shakes, along with globs of pitch to help seal the whole mess:

phd

Getting to this point was two days of work. We had allotted three days to do the entire porch repair, including time to assess the true nature of the work and get the needed materials for completion. That was because the weather forecast was for heavy storms to start late on the third day.

There was no way we were going to be able to get the whole thing finished.

So yesterday, on the third day, we got the additional materials and prepped the area for later. We also prepped it to close in securely, not with a permanent repair, but with a sufficiently solid repair to get through the bad weather of a few days time:

prepped

That temporary close-in consisted of a layer of new tar-paper tucked under the clean edge of the extant tar-paper on the house roof, then stapled down. After that, a layer of roof roll goods tucked up under the second rank of shingles shown above, and secured with roofing nails just as you would put down a new line of shingles. To make sure that the paper and roll goods were secure and would extend out sufficiently to cover & protect the exposed house rafters, we tacked down three lengths of wood to hold everything in place until the weather got better. Here’s a shot of that:

ready

And I’m *very* happy to report that the temporary work has handled the storms so far just as intended. When we get good (enough) weather again, we’ll take off the side beams and replace everything with new lumber, properly constructed. With all the old crap roof stuff out of the way we’ll be able to attach the porch roof much more securely and have a better seal/transition of the roofs as well.

Blimey, what a job.

Jim Downey



Original 1480 binding.

Been a little while since I did a book conservation post. So let’s have some fun.

Recently I had this item come in for some minor work:  Summa contra gentiles by Thomas Aquinas, printed in Venice in 1480. That makes it an incunabula, one of the relatively rare books published before 1501 (in this case, just a quarter century or so after the Gutenberg Bible).  Even more noteworthy, this book is still in its original binding. And that binding is in remarkably good condition.

Here’s a pic of the outside of the binding:

Full front

Lovely. And an excellent example of bindings of that period. That’s the front cover, a nice very deep red (almost a dark brown to the eye) in goatskin. What I love is the way the binder used fairly simple tools to create an elaborate cover design. Here’s a detail:

Front detail

And the hardware is wonderful, too. Here’s a detail of the front clasp hardware:

Front hardware

That clasp was designed to receive a simple hook attached to a leather strap mounted on the back, here:

Rear hardware

Also, take note of the delightful small brass strip mounted on the corners:

Front corner

There’s a similar strip mounted to the bottom (called the “tail” in bookbinding) edge of the covers, near the spine of the book on both the front and rear. That protects the cover from excessive wear when the book would be resting in a lectern or something similar for reading (books in this time period were usually shelved on their side):

Rear bottom edge

Cool, eh? But the real treasure of this binding was revealed when I removed the (probably) 19th century endpapers which had been added. Under that was the original structure of the book, showing both the original boards (probably quarter-sawn oak) as well as the way the supporting strips of alum-tawed goatskin of the sewing structure was laced into those boards. Here’s an overview:

Interior full

And here’s a detail showing how the supporting strips were lain within a small channel carved into the wooden board covers, and then pinned in place using a softer wood or (in this case) other leather:

Interior mounting

But equally cool is a detail shot showing the simplicity of how the leather cover comes around the corner of the board:

Interior board detail

Lastly, here’s a little detail from one sheet inside:

Interior vellum

It’s a little hard to tell what it is you’re seeing there, so let me explain. The darker strip is the outside edge of a piece of vellum which has been adhered to the spine of the text block. This was added *before* the supporting strips of alum-tawed goatskin were laced into the wooden covers, and just serves to help protect the exposed sewing thread.

So, there you have it: a perfect example of late 15th century binding. Just like all the history books (and book conservation training) says it should be, but exposed by me today for the first time in probably 200 years or so.

Fun stuff. Have I mentioned recently how cool my job is?

 

Jim Downey

 



Turn over an old leaf.

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.

So, yeah, I do get to see, handle, and work on some pretty cool stuff, some of which I have documented here and over on my professional site.

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:

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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,[1] 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:

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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):

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Front of page before treatment.

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Back of page before treatment.

 

And here’s what it looked like after:

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Front of page after treatment.

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Back of page after treatment.

 

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:

G7

And here it is complete:

G8

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.

 

Jim Downey

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.

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Revisiting a very old friend.

My profession of being a book conservator is fairly unusual, and since I write about it and post images occasionally, I tend to get questions about it fairly often. The other day I got a nice query from graduate student Aaron Hain at the University of North Texas about a research assignment which included this:

The assignment is to include “a general discussion of major theories and practices and the controversies” in relation to dealing with different historic bindings. As the paper is only about 4-5 pages long, it’s obviously only able to be either very general or to cover only a couple of binding types. Could you give maybe a brief coverage of how you would deal with the conservation/preservation of a couple of different binding types and possible issues that you can run into when dealing with those bindings? In particular, the 1518 Ovid in limp vellum on your projects page caught my attention and was the one that got me to e-mail you.

 

Since it’s been 5+ years since I last posted about that, I thought I would share my brief response here.

* * *

Current practice in book conservation is to respect both the original structure as well as the history of what the book has had done to it over time. Basically, that means that I seldom try to remove all traces of damage, or rebinding, or repairs, or notes from a book and try to turn it into some pristine example of what it was when first made. Usually I try to accommodate those changes, to preserve the character of the book insofar as possible. They are, after all, part of the book’s provenance, and can teach us a great deal.

But sometimes it is necessary and appropriate to remove previous bindings/repairs, if they themselves extensively damage or threaten the continued existence of the original book. When I encounter such a book I will confer with the client and discuss options. One such case about five years ago was a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses printed in Venice and dated 1518. I have documented the work performed here: 1518 copy of Ovid

As you can see, we decided to put the book into a limp vellum structure, which was fairly typical for a simple and relatively inexpensive binding at that time.

Why this choice? The 19th century binding the book had been in was completely breaking down. The sewing structure was failing. The leather was deteriorated. There was nothing particularly noteworthy to the style or type of binding, and the materials it was made of would continue to cause damage to the text block. So the client elected to remove that binding, though I believe that they have kept it (separately) as part of the book’s history.

But since we had no records of what the book would have looked like its binding originally, we decided to go with a very simple and neutral structure. A blank slate, as it were, so as not to suggest a false history to future readers/custodians/conservators. While the style and material of the limp vellum binding are fairly timeless in themselves, the archival endpapers I added would clearly date the era when that binding had been created, without imposing an early-21st century aesthetic on the book. And if need be, all or part of the structure and materials could be easily removed in the future.

* * *

Just thought I’d share that. And I do love how that binding turned out.

 

If you haven’t yet, be sure to take a few minutes to enjoy the full set of pictures and text about the project.

 

Jim Downey

 



The beauty of the old.

If you are at all interested in rare/old books and documents, particularly of the medieval period, you owe it to yourself to check out the Medieval Fragments blog occasionally. In particular, I always enjoy the posts by Erik Kwakkel, such as the recent one titled “The Beauty of the Injured Book“. Here’s a particular image and excerpt:

4. Touched by a human

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

 

Books are made for reading and thus for being handled by human hands. The margins facilitate an easy grip of the book without your fingers blocking the view on the text. However, if you hold a book with dirty hands, you may leave your mark behind as a reader. While such stains are often subtle, the person that handled this twelfth-century manuscript had inky fingers: he left a fingerprint behind. Judging from the colour – a shiny, deep kind of black – it concerns printing ink, which puts this manuscript in the hands of a printer. He did not bother to wash his hands. It was, after all, one of those old-fashioned handwritten manuscripts, which had been long overtaken by the modern and spiffy printed book.

 

As I noted on Facebook this morning when I linked to that blog post, often old books are beautiful entirely because of their age and use. Sometimes clients are surprised when I tell them to just leave the damned thing alone and enjoy it.  There’s no need to rob a book of the character which it has developed through centuries of sharing life with humans. I’ve touched on this before:

Much of my life is predicated on this idea. When someone brings me an antique book for conservation work, I don’t see the notes and scrawls, the fingerprints and food stains, as something to be eradicated: they are part and parcel of the history of that book. They are scars, a record, a trace of the hands which have handled it, the lives which have loved it. We all carry our own scars, our own patina, and as long as we respect it, respect ourselves, for the record of our accomplishments, they give our age dignity. And depth.

 

And then there’s this from the introduction to a wonderful series of images:

This body of work was born out of the opportunity I had to photograph a 101 year old woman who volunteered, on her own accord, to model nude for me. It was merely an exercise in documenting her form in a beautiful way. My only instructions from her were to make sure she was not identifiable in the images. She was willing to do anything I asked of her.

When I later reviewed the images on my computer, I knew I was looking at something very special.

 

Special, indeed.

 

Jim Downey

PS.  Full disclosure: Kwakkel has featured my work previously, and so I may be biased. Link to Pottinger’s site via MetaFilter.

 

 



Before & after.

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

M.T.C. Epistolae familiares accuratius recognitae

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.

Remember, Communion of Dreams is available for free download in the Kindle edition today through Sunday.

 

Jim Downey



It’s not everyday …

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:

20130607_123543

20130607_123435

20130607_123500

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 [103] 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.

In other news: still plugging along on St. Cybi’s Well. It’s going well.

Have a great weekend!

 

Jim Downey




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