Communion Of Dreams


Knowing when to walk away.

The summer before this past one I almost lost my wife to appendicitis.

All my adult life I have known that sudden, unexpected death can strike those we love. And I have tried to live my life accordingly.

The flip side of that, of course, is that I know I could die suddenly, as well. And while I have done a number of crazy and stupid things, I’ve always tried to keep an eye on the real risks involved. It’s not smart to lose track of the fact that you’re mortal.

But being there in the hospital with my wife, as she recovered from an emergency appendectomy, reflection on my own mortality took a slightly different direction. Rather than just thinking about what I had accomplished, and whether it had been a full life, I got to thinking about what I had to offer. And one thing I started thinking about was that I had accumulated a lot of very specific experience which was fairly rare: my book conservation skills.

Now, there are some really good schools out there to train conservators. As well as professional organizations, and workshops and all the sorts of things you would expect. But not a lot. Certainly not enough to meet the need for trained conservators; a need which will only continue to grow as more and more books and articles are published only in electronic format, and the current inventory of printed material starts to age and grow fragile.

Since I have been in private practice as a conservator for 20+ years, I haven’t done a lot of just low-level routine repairs. Rather, I’ve worked on the more valuable items from both private and public collections — the sorts of things which individuals and institutions felt it was worth paying me for my expertise. In other words, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on the cream of the crop from multiple collections, as it were, which has given me the opportunity to further hone a wide range of techniques and demanded that I do my very best by the books and documents entrusted to my care. And with that experience came judgment about what techniques are appropriate in what cases, what will work and what won’t. Judgment which often isn’t even conscious, but lives in my fingertips and can only be shared by close example and repetition.

That’s what I have to offer. And that’s what would be lost were I to die suddenly.

That’s what I got to thinking.

As luck would have it, about the same time I started working with an old acquaintance who had developed an interest in medieval bookbinding. He doesn’t live close, so we had to discuss things online and over the phone, with his coming to visit for weekend training now and then. Because *nothing* compares to hands-on, face-to-face training.

And working with him reminded me of how much I enjoy sharing my skills and love for my craft. Oh, I’ve taught plenty of bookbinding classes over the years, and that has been enjoyable. But there is nothing like working with a student who shares my intense passion for caring for historical texts, rather than someone who just wants to make some blank books for Christmas gifts or needs to have another example for their arts portfolio.

So I got to thinking of how I could find another mechanism to share my skills with people who already share my passion. And I decided to sound out a local institution about perhaps training some of their staff (many large libraries and archives have one or a few preservation technicians, who do the valuable basic repair work on the collection). I knew that while the budget environment wasn’t good, there might be a way for us to work out an arrangement for long-term, careful training in depth of some of their staff, allowing me to transfer both specific skills but more importantly nuances in judgment through hands-on work of items in their collection.

The institution was certainly receptive, and for a while we worked hard to see how to bring my initial thoughts into reality within their system.  Meetings were held, brain-storming sessions conducted. Lots and lots of meetings, involving lots of different people and departments, different budget lines and facilities. The prospects were very promising, and I was very excited about the possibilities to begin a new phase of my book conservation career, teaching others part-time. But ultimately the bureaucracy proved too hard to overcome; rather than starting a long-term, fairly permanent training program, the bureaucracy could only accommodate a temporary ‘pilot’ program within its usual rules and guidelines for professional development.

And here is where the title of this post comes into play: knowing when to walk away.

Because when all was said and done, there was a chance … but only a chance … that the temporary pilot program teaching two or three people might find a home (and funding) within the institution. Maybe.

What should I do?

I considered and consulted with some close friends. After all the discussions, after all the meetings and brainstorming, I was deeply vested in seeing this work out.

But I had to take a step back and think about my initial goals, and rationally assess whether or not this would accomplish what I wanted. I decided that it didn’t — that I would be committing too much time and energy to trying to meet the needs of the bureaucracy rather than my own needs, and that I would have too little control over what I could teach.

I can’t blame the bureaucracy; it exists for a reason. Trying to change it, to get it to do something unique and risky, was probably a fools errand from the start.

So, failure.

Maybe.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, though. The bureaucracy at the institution in question, as well as the bureaucracy at many such institutions, is already set up to handle another version of training for their staff: specific workshops conducted by outside consultants, lasting from a few hours to a few days.

So that’s what I am going to do. In the next couple of months I will put together the initial offerings of training workshops for specific conservation techniques. All will have detailed descriptions of what the workshop will include. All will include plenty of hands-on practice under close supervision. All will be completely modular, so that any institution can select from the menu of offered workshops without being committed to other workshops.

I may not be able to do in-depth training of a small number of people, but I can share my skills and judgment with a much wider selection of institutions. It’ll be a lot more work on my part, but will hopefully also accomplish more.

We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted as to developments as things happen.

 

Jim Downey

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7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Jim, I know how important the hands on experience is with a trade like this, but if what you are most concerned with is preservation of the knowledge, have you considered posting a video series online to such a service, like wikiHow or eHow? It would at least give guidelines in the profession.

Comment by David Cooper

A good suggestion, and I may explore doing some of that in the future. Thanks!

Comment by James Downey

As a veteran who also offers a “menu” of workshops to interested parties, this makes a lot of sense. I made a conscious decision some years ago to move away from my model of producing single works for individuals (very rewarding but time-consuming and ultimately did not spread the rare skills very far or fast) and toward offering targeted group presentations that would be enough to create nodes of interested people over a wide geographic range who all had some level of training and who could work together to continue that work without needing my ongoing hands-on presence. It has been, I think, a better use of my time — and, like you, I made that decision based on what I wanted ultimately to accomplish in preserving and disseminating knowledge that would otherwise die with me.

Comment by bengaline

Thank you for sharing your perspective and wisdom. Forgive the phrase, but I think you’re dead-on with this … 😉

Comment by James Downey

Jim, I’m sorry it didn’t work out with the “unnamed institution.” But I believe you have much to offer, and we’re still interested in short and long term training.

Comment by Lisa

Thanks, Lisa! I’ll definitely keep you posted on developments. Hope to have the initial offerings ready after the first of the year.

Comment by James Downey

[…] last couple of months, in preparation for putting together some promotional videos for a series of bookbinding & conservation workshops I’m going to […]

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