Communion Of Dreams


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:

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And here it is complete:

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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:

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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



#2, so I’ll try harder.

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.

It was.

* * * * * * *

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”.

Huh.

* * * * * * *

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.

Jim Downey




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