Communion Of Dreams

It’s all about image.
May 25, 2007, 11:35 am
Filed under: Book Conservation, General Musings, Society

This week I had cause to travel to a nearby city for business, responding to a query I’d received about my conservation services. A small private educational institution had recently acquired a large collection of books of historical interest, and they wanted me to take a look at the collection and give them some kind of estimate on what the costs might involve. This is a fairly typical request, and I’m used to discussing these matters with the appropriate staff and administrators.

However, when I got to the appointed meeting, it quickly became clear that in the mind of the administrators, “conservation care” meant exactly one thing: rebinding all the books to look new. To make the collection all nice and pretty, like one of those fake bookshelf sets in some office or as a movie prop.

Huh? Why on earth would someone want to take books ranging back to about 1500, and turn them into this kind of visual wallpaper? I mean, this sort of thing was done by rich collectors who just wanted to show off their impressive personal libraries in the 17th and 18th centuries, without care for what the books really contained. Why would a learning institution want to do such a thing?

Because, as the Vice President for Institutional Development told me, it’d be easier to get big-money donors to contribute to something that would have a strong visual impact like that. The protection and care – even the USE – of the books themselves was entirely a secondary consideration. In fact, the sort of rebinding they were wanting, if done poorly or with machine efficiency, would damage the bindings of the books and make them less usable. But that wasn’t what was important. The image of all those books in fancy cases was what was important. This, at an accredited school offering advanced graduate degrees.

They hadn’t considered – weren’t even aware that it was an option – the proper care of the books with an eye towards preserving their unique historical value as artifacts reflecting the time they were written and published, or the way those artifacts carried with them a record of their use and care over the centuries. They simply knew that the books were old, and could be just rebound to make them look “more impressive”, and to use that to leverage money out of donors. This is all about image in their minds…the image presented to get donors. Since most people don’t really give a shit about books (sad, but true), how they look on a bookshelf is more important than either functionality or even content.

So I talked with them for some length, opened up the whole new realm for them of actual conservation care. I have three bindings to work on to show them what I mean, and how it would save the historical character of the books. The chief librarian was all for my approach (no surprise there) and was relieved that it was the position I took. And I can get a couple of authorities on curatorial care of Special Collections to back me up, plus plenty of online sources. But I am somewhat skeptical that the necessary comprehension will sink in.

Still, I’ll make a good faith effort to convince them, and save their collection from the horrors of just being turned into a photo prop. We’ll see. I hate to see a real collection of books ruined.

And I hate to think what this says about the larger values of our society.

Jim Downey
(Cross posted to Daily Kos.)

4 Comments so far
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Oh, good grief! I’m appalled, Jim. But then “it’s all about image” should be used as our new national anthem, if there were truth in advertising.

I’m pleased they let you take a few to work on. If your work doesn’t change their minds (hearts?), then they’re beyond hope.

Comment by Lisa

Indeed, Lisa. I’ve known for a long time that people care more about appearance than substance, but to be slapped upside the head this way with that fact was disheartening. I may be an atheist (or, as I will usually describe myself, someone “without faith”), but to have an institution ostensibly devoted to cultivating a deeper vision of the world be so concerned with the superficial is just depressing.

Enjoy your blog! Thanks for commenting –

Jim Downey

Comment by Communion of Dreams

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