Communion Of Dreams


“You write for the joy of writing.”

Another gem of a video from Open Culture:

The whole thing (about 4 minutes of actual interview, done as an impromptu chat in the back of a car about 40 years ago) is worth enjoying, but this bit in particular will resonate for anyone who writes:

If you can’t resist, if the typewriter is like candy to you, you train yourself for a lifetime. Every single day of your life, some wild new thing to be done. You write to please yourself. You write for the joy of writing. Then your public reads you and it begins to gather around your selling a potato peeler in an alley, you know. The enthusiasm, the joy itself draws me.

The joy, and the sublime struggle to understand. Like all art.

 

Jim Downey



Another take on book conservation.

Via Open Culture, here’s an interesting 10 minute video about my Japanese counterpart, doing a nice job on refurbishing a small dictionary. It’s entirely in Japanese, but that doesn’t matter too much — the images are all pretty self-explanatory.

If you want a glimpse into the processes involved in my work, this is a good one.

But it’s interesting to note the differences in his approach from my own. Most of it involves fairly arcane techniques which I’m not going to go into. And there may be reasons given in the narration which explain some of his choices, so I’m just going to make a couple of observations and leave it at that.

One, I was surprised at just how much he trimmed the edges of the book. Particularly on the fore-edge, you can see where the trimming has cut off part of the index icons. That’s a lot more aggressive than I usually am when I have to resort to trimming.

And two, the cover material seems to be an artificial or “bonded” leather, though that’s not entirely easy to determine from the video. While that would have been the original cover material, I would advise the client to go with something which would hold up much better over time, or the book will soon be back in the same condition that it was at the start of the video.

Again, there may be good reasons to make those choices, explained in the narration. So this isn’t intended as a criticism, just an observation.

And I like his little pink iron. It’s too cute. So how could I possibly criticize him? :)

Jim Downey



“Uh, he’s already got one, you see.”

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has rightly been called one of the most important scientific tools in human history. It has brought the cosmos closer to us, just as it has helped to drive home an understanding of precisely how far away those twinkling lights in the sky actually are … and connected to that, just how old our universe is:

The depth of Hubble’s data, however, has touched or rewritten nearly every area of astrophysics. Ever since the discovery of the expanding universe in the 1920s, astronomers had struggled with the rate of expansion and what it means. The so-called Hubble constant, the universal rate of expansion, was much in doubt, with two factions arguing very different conclusions from the data. The Hubble constant is also inversely proportional to the age of the universe, another key holy grail of science. One of the primary goals of Hubble was to measure the Hubble constant accurately, using a variety of distance indicators, and by the turn of the 21st century, this helped define a relatively accurate Hubble constant of 72±8 and an age of the universe, which the more recent European Planck satellite has refined further to 13.8±0.04 billion years.

 

It’s an amazing piece of technology.

But I can’t help remembering that even as amazing as it is, a few years ago it was revealed that it was considered so … obsolete … that US spy agencies had just given NASA two other surplus Hubble-type instruments they no longer wanted to bother to store. As I noted at the time:

…we’ve just found out that what we thought was at the limits of our technology is so obsolete that it can be handed off as so much surplus junk. And the implication is that while NASA is currently without the means to launch and service something like Hubble, that there are plenty other agencies within our government which are not so inconvenienced.

 

Which brings me around to the title of this blog post. Monty Python fans may recognize it from this scene in the Holy Grail:

Which I just happened to watch this week, and snickered over, remembering the news item about the HST from 2012. Though of course, in this case I hope that the National Reconnaissance Office wasn’t *quite* so taunting of NASA …

 

Jim Downey



Here’s the skinny.

I’ve previously mentioned that I do document conservation, such as a single leaf of the Gutenberg Bible. That item is paper, but one of the materials commonly used historically for important documents was parchment – an animal skin which is also called vellum. That was commonly used for grants of land or titles, affixed with one or more big wax seals. Such documents evolved over time, and the formal diplomas for college and graduate degrees you see today are their descendents — that’s why the term “sheepskin” is still used to refer to a diploma, because historically they were written/printed on actual sheepskin (or calfskin) parchment/vellum.

Parchment is still a wonderful material to write on, though it is expensive to produce and has one particular quality which needs to be taken into consideration: it is very hygroscopic — it reacts strongly to changes in humidity. Basically, when exposed to humidity that nice flat sheet of parchment wants to go back to being the shape of the animal it came from.  So when it is used for a document you want to frame and display, that needs to be accommodated in some way.

Here’s one way it used to be done:

Side before

Yup, the parchment was just folded over a wood frame and nailed down.

But a rigid mount like that usually tears loose over time, like this:

Top before

To repair it, you have to slowly humidify the document in a controlled environment (without actually having it come in contact with liquid water), allow the skin to relax, then dry it under mild restraint. Usually a couple of cycles of doing that will result in a satisfactory return to “flat”, though to remove all the distortions can require many hours of labor — not typically what a client wants to do, unless the item is of great historical value. Here’s what the above item looks like after a couple of cycles of flattening:

Front after

Now it is ready for proper mounting and framing, using one of several possible framing treatments which will allow the document to ‘move’ due to changes in humidity without trying to rip itself apart.

But a lot of frame shops don’t know that they need to handle parchment/vellum documents a certain way. In fact, many places don’t know that there is such a thing as animal skin parchment/vellum … that’s because a century or so ago, paper manufacturers started to produce types of paper which supposedly had the same qualities for writing/printing as real parchment, and they called that paper “vegetable parchment”. It was a marketing ploy which worked entirely too well, to the point where people became confused about the differences between the two materials, and many people forgot (or never learned) that there was such a thing as animal skin parchment/vellum.

Now, when you have something printed on paper, and if that paper becomes distorted by humidity, one quick and easy way to flatten it is by ironing it. So long as it is done with a mild heat, and a brief exposure, it’s not *that* bad for most papers. After all, one of the ways modern paper is made is by running the sheets between heated rollers to dry and finish them. So if you take a document to a frame shop, and they find that document is a little warped/cockled, they may plug in the iron and see about flattening it.

But if you do that to animal skin parchment/vellum, it’s like cooking the skin. It doesn’t flatten out. It does this:

scan0001

Sorry, that’s not a very good image. It’s what the client sent me via email*, asking if there was any hope for fixing it. I didn’t think to take my own ‘before’ image. I told the client that I wasn’t very hopeful, because heat damage can be permanent. But I agreed to try, and he brought it to me.

So I gave it the treatment outlined above, but with *very* slight restraint — I wanted to allow the skin to slowly try and relax. Here’s a pic after the first try:

Diploma

You can already see improvement, even as bad as it still looks. That gave me hope that I could get the document mostly back into its original condition. The client asked me to try. Here it is after two more cycles of humidification and drying under restraint, using a little more pressure each time:

Diploma 2

By no means perfect, but pretty good for a modest amount of labor. There’s always a trade-off with such work, between what is possible to do and what is reasonable to spend doing it. The client was very pleased with the result. So was I.

Just thought I’d share that.

 

Jim Downey

*Since the diploma is a private document for a living person, I asked the client’s permission to use and display these images. That permission was kindly granted.

 

 

 



Preserving something nicer.

Other than the Hitler book, it’s been a while since I shared any pics of my conservation work. So, here’s something a little nicer: the family bible of Missouri’s first Governor, Alexander McNair.

The date on the bible is 1848, and the inscription on the flyleaf is 1851. So this was evidently owned by Governor McNair’s children. This is actually a fairly common pattern you see across the US, where the first generation of settlers on the frontier don’t have these kinds of family artifacts — it’s their children who do.

Anyway, this is how the book came to me:

Cover before

You can’t tell from the image, but the sewing structure was also broken, which meant that the whole book needed to be disassembled, repairs done as needed, and then resewn before remounting into the extant covers, saving the endpapers because they have inscriptions on them.

Here it is after:

Cover after

Cover has been cleaned, redyed, and protective consolidation done on the edges and corners. There’s a new piece of leather (goatskin) providing a new structure to the spine. If you look closely, you’ll see that the spine is wider than it was originally – that’s because in resewing the book, due to the age of the paper, I had to do it in a way which gave it strength and support – but that meant more “swelling” of the spine. It’s a trade-off you have to make: either more fragile, or slightly bigger. Usually in conservation work the choice is for more strength.

Here’s a pic of the inside front cover, showing an inscription on the fly-leaf. If you look closely you can also see a gap along the spine. That’s where the original hinge is broken, and the cover partially detached.

Inside before

 

This sort of inscription was common during that era, where a husband (or father) would give the book to his wife (or daughter) with wishes that she will study it and live according to it. If you look along the edges, you’ll see damage from handling.

Here’s the inside front cover and fly-leaf after treatment:

 

Inside after

The flyleaf has been de-acidified, with kozo repairs to the tears along the edge of the page, and then trimmed slightly. Again, it’s hard to see, but there’s a new hinge and the cover has been securely mounted to the resewn text block. The original endpaper has been lifted up, and the new hinge has been inserted under it. This maintains the original appearance as much as possible, but gives the book a secure structure.

And if you like, you can see it in person at the First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site.

 

Jim Downey



Taking the long view.

This framed item has been on the wall of my bindery (at various locations) since I started work in 1992:

pledge

Here’s the same text, taken from the Services Offered page of my business website:

I am dedicated to preserving the legacy of books and documents that we have inherited.  To the best of my knowledge and ability I use techniques and materials that will last for generations.  Whenever possible, the materials are of archival quality:  acid-free and buffered papers & board, inert and reversible adhesives, unbleached linen thread, et cetera.  The techniques I use for binding and conservation work are likewise archivally oriented, non-damaging, and reversible in the event the book or document requires additional attention in the future.  All work is, of course, unconditionally guaranteed.

 

That last line sometimes surprises people. But it is extremely important, and has stood me in very good stead over the years I have been in business.  As I told a client by email this morning, concerning work on a recently-completed project (a 1910 D.A.R. charter on natural vellum which had been poorly framed and stored):

Well, I’ve done all that can be done, I think. The document is flat, the remaining wrinkling is where it was once wet and then dried in contact with the glass.

But as it says on my website: my work is unconditionally guaranteed. I want to wait until you have a chance to see the condition of the charter, and if you’re not satisfied with the work, just don’t send me payment (or if payment has already been sent, I’ll hold onto the check until you have the charter and can judge for yourself). Seriously, it is much more important to me that you be satisfied with the work than the few hours of labor I have invested in this project. I have always operated by this policy, and it has been by far the best thing for my customers and reputation.

 

You might think that people would take advantage of such a policy to try and screw me out of deserved payment. And maybe a couple have in my 23+ years of business. But I think the vast majority of people are honest and well-intentioned; if I think that a client isn’t trustworthy, I just don’t take the job. That has probably filtered out a few potential problems. And the others I chalk up to being a cost of doing business. Because when I tell a client that if they are not satisfied with the work, and I will either do what is necessary to make them satisfied or there’s no charge, they see that I’m not trying to cheat them in any way. And having that reputation as a craftsman is priceless.

Recently I was helping out a local NFP arts organization, by getting information together for some renovation work they need to have done. I met with several contractors, walked them through the facility so they could see the scope of the work, and then asked them to provide estimates for what needed to be done and at what cost, so that the NFP Board and Executive could seek funding.

With the first two contractors, things went exactly as expected. However, when the third contractor went through the facility, he saw something which caught his attention  and he started reconsidering the whole project (one of the other contractors had noticed the same thing and remarked on it, but didn’t investigate further). By the time we were done, he turned to me, shook his head and said something along the lines of: “I’m going to talk myself out of a job, but I think that the problem you’re having isn’t the one you think you’re having. I think you should get a qualified structural engineer in to do a formal check, but I don’t think you need me to do the work you asked me to bid on. That’s just a symptom of what is really going on, and it’d be cheaper and easier to correct the actual source of the trouble.”

This was a construction job which was going to run into the low five-digits, so it wasn’t just some little thing. For a small contractor, walking away from that sort of job isn’t done lightly. Particularly when it would have been very easy for him to just bid, do the work, and then figure the repairs would hold up long enough that nothing would come back to haunt him in the future.

That, my friends, is integrity.

I reached out my hand to the contractor, thanked him for his honesty, and told him that from now on if I knew of anyone who needed the kind of work done that he did, that I would have no hesitation in recommending him as honest and trustworthy.

That’s why I have the policy I do for my conservation work. And yeah, I am convinced that it is far and away the best possible policy I could have.

 

Jim Downey

 



Hey, it’s a kind of magic.*
February 26, 2015, 12:02 pm
Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, movies | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Man, that is so weird.

I just spent a chunk of time reviewing a bunch of short video clips we’ve been making over the last couple of months, in preparation for putting together some promotional videos for a series of bookbinding & conservation workshops I’m going to offer.

Intentionally, all the clips are close-ups of my hands doing different conservation techniques on actual projects. They’re not intended to be instructional, just illustrative of the things I will be teaching.

But it was so very weird to see my hands working like that, and from a different, disembodied perspective. Always, when I am doing conservation work, I am not at all focused on what my hands look like — I’m entirely focused on doing the specific task correctly.

And … well, this is going to sound a little self-promoting, and I apologize for that … it was just cool to see how magical the work is. My hands are moving with certainty and deliberation, the kind of self-confidence which comes from decades of experience. And the repairs just … happen. Right there before your eyes. It’s just plain cool. I never see things from that perspective.

Once I have the ability to transfer the video from the camera to the computer, I’ll put up a full clip for people to see. But I just wanted to share the odd experience while it was fresh.

 

Jim Downey

*With apologies to Mr. MacLeod.




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 338 other followers