Communion Of Dreams


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

 

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