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



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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You’re history.

The actor James Gandolfini died this week, from a massive heart attack. He was 51.

I did not know him.

 

* * * * * * *

Recently I met with an institutional client about some book conservation work which needed to be done. I’ve done work with this client off and on for a number of years. He’s a smart guy, well educated, and very much an experienced professional with decades of work in his field. His responsibilities include oversight of a very large collection which includes books, documents, records, artwork, and physical plant. In working with him, I’ve always been impressed with how conscientious he is about collection management.  The items entrusted to his care are important historical and artistic treasures, and he is doing his level best to make sure that they are preserved and protected for future generations.

As it happens, the physical plant of the collection needs some work. This necessitates moving a large number of items into safe storage for the duration, and he is handling all of that with his usual skill. After we had discussed the specific needs of the books I had been called in to evaluate, and that business was done, we were just chatting a bit. And I noticed a large sketchbook (18″x24″) on a desk in his office.

Seeing my attention thus directed, he smiled and picked up the sketchbook, opened it. Each page was a scale drawing of each of the rooms which needed to be closed, showing the exact location of each of the pieces of art, with notation as to which item it was, how it was positioned (if a wall piece, how high off the floor, etc.). Just a simple drawing, done with a ballpoint pen and a ruler.

“I want to make sure we get everything back to where it belongs,” he said.

 

* * * * * * *

In a profile last year of my friend and papermaking instructor, Tim Barrett, there’s this passage:

Barrett’s connection to the old papers was becoming more than simply technical. It was emotional. He detected life in them. He once found the imprint of a person’s thumb on a page in a Renaissance book. “Maybe the papermaker was rushing to fill an order, and grabbed the corner of the sheet too firmly,” he said. “To me, that fingerprint marked the sheet with the humanity of the person who made it. I could feel his presence.”

I’ve heard him tell that same story. Several times. You might say that it made an impression.

 

* * * * * * *

“I want to make sure we get everything back to where it belongs,” he said.

I nodded. “You know, you should get some deacidification spray and treat each page. Also, make a note as to when you drew them, and sign them.”

He looked at me like I was nuts. Deacidification spray is expensive. “Why, they’re just sketches for my own use.”

I smiled. “No, they are wonderful documentation of exactly how each of these rooms was arranged in early 2013.”

“So?”

“So now you use them, treat them, and then file them away in one of your flat files. They’ve just become part of the history of this place, and in a couple hundred years some researcher will delight in holding these simple drawings of yours.”

He looked down at the sketches in his hand. “Huh.”

“Yeah, you’re history.”

 

* * * * * * *

The actor James Gandolfini died this week, from a massive heart attack. He was 51.

I did not know him.

But I did know Paul. He was an old friend of mine, though in the last few years we’d only been in sporadic contact. I woke this morning to the news that Paul died last night from a massive heart attack. He was about my age.

I turn 55 in a couple weeks. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve got a couple health issues which need ongoing attention and treatment, but in general I’m not doing too bad. Particularly with as hard as I’ve been on my body.

But I could have a massive heart attack tonight. Or get hit by a truck tomorrow. People die, unexpectedly, every day.

I don’t dwell on this, though it has been an emotional reality for me since I was 11. But on occasions like today, after just losing a friend and reading all the tributes to that person online, I am perhaps more aware of it than usual.

Because whether we prepare for it or not, we’re all history.

 

Jim Downey



Goodbye, Herr Gutenberg.

My wife came through the kitchen, past the back door, and stepped into my bindery. I was in the process of gathering and folding the sections for the limited edition of Communion of Dreams. I paused, looked up.

“Did you see Annie’s email?” she asked.

I sighed. “Yeah, just a few moments ago.”

* * * * * * *

Because of the crazy weather we’ve had this spring, it seems like everything has been out of kilter in the garden. As a result, I’m just now getting around to doing the usual spring maintenance on the raised strawberry bed. Yesterday, as I was finishing up the weeding, having removed a couple bushel baskets worth of henbit and no small amount of rogue grass, I decided to see if I could get out the entire root of some large and nasty prickly thing.

To do this, I dug down into the surrounding soil with a weeding tool, then grasped the base of the plant with a large pair of old pliers. These plants are tenacious, and this is about the only way I have found to get most of their roots out of the ground without resorting to explosives. Anyway, I got a good grip on the root with the pliers, positioned myself, and pulled mightily.

The root started to come out. But then it snapped off suddenly. My right hand, grasping the pliers, flew free. For about 8 inches. Then it encountered the back edge of the concrete block used in construction of the raised bed. I knew I had broken the fourth metacarpal (the bone in the hand which goes from the wrist to your little finger) before I even raised my hand to look at it.

* * * * * * *

I met him by accident, and it changed my life. It’s a story I’ve told many times, but I don’t recall writing about it before.

I was a couple semesters into work on my MA in English Lit at the University of Iowa. I was looking to get a drop/add slip signed, and opened the wrong door.

See, there were these two doors, side by side. The one on the left went where I intended to go. The one on the right led into the Windhover Press, the fine letterpress at Iowa. But I didn’t notice the sign on the door, and didn’t realize my mistake until I was already a step or two inside.

A short, greying man wearing thick glasses was busy doing … something … behind a piece of machinery I didn’t recognize. He looked over the top rim of his glasses, and gruffly asked: “Can I help you?”

It should have been my cue to stammer out an apology for interrupting him, then turn and leave.

Instead, I stopped, looked around more. It started to sink in what it was I was looking at. “Wow, what *is* this place?”

My appreciation for tools and fine equipment must’ve shown on my face.  He smiled. Just a little. And stepped out from behind the Vandercook proof press he was working at, wiping his hands on the  (once) white apron he was wearing. “Like it says on the door, this is the Windhover Press. The fine letterpress. We make books here. By hand.”

“People still do that?” Well, I knew that they did. In the abstract. But being confronted with the no-nonsense reality of it had me a bit stunned.

“Yeah. Let me show you around.”

He did. I was fascinated. I did drop the class I was planning on dropping, but rather than some class on literary theory I added in a class on “The Hand Printed Book”.

* * * * * * *

‘He’ was Kim Merker. I spent two semesters taking his class. And I learned a lot about letterpress printing, about paper, about ink. And a bit about bookbinding. I also met one of my closest friends, Annie, who was Kim’s assistant at the press and who usually referred to him as “Herr Gutenberg”. Actually, it was Annie who taught me a lot of what I learned there.

Because Kim was gone a lot. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was busy putting together something new. Something which necessitated a lot of meetings, a lot of schmoozing, a lot of travel. That something was the embryonic Iowa Center for the Book.

So Kim and I never became particularly close. Oh, I got along with him just fine, and was always happy to see him in the press when I went there for one of my ‘classes’. And he did teach me a lot, himself.

But I found I was more interested in the simple bookbinding techniques I learned, and shifted my attention to doing more of that as time went on, moving on to taking other classes, learning from other artisans who had been brought together for this new and somewhat vague ‘program’ called the UICB.

Still, without him allowing his work to be interrupted and taking the time to show a gob-smacked grad student around, I never would have become a book conservator and book artist.

* * * * * * *

I felt the sharp pain that comes with a bone break. Dropping the pliers, I lifted my hand and looked at the back of it. There was already a knob there at the point of impact. I felt it. Flexed my fingers. Couldn’t feel any shifting of bone or fragments. And while it hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, there was no additional pain from moving my fingers. Just a weakness in my grip in the little finger.

Yeah, I broke the metacarpal. I was certain of it. I finished up the last few bits of the weeding I hadn’t done, using my left hand, and then replaced the boxwire panels which protect the strawberry plants from birds and critters.

I came inside, washed my hands, and again did an assessment. Was there any reason to seek medical attention? Not really. I’ve broken enough bones and had enough other injuries to be able to tell when I should see a doctor or head to the ER. In fact, I’ve broken four metacarpals in my life, and this was actually the second break for this particular one. Only for the first one was a cast needed — because I had shattered the bone when I was 16. (That was the last time I hit anything in anger.)

As I explained to a friend: I prefer to lead a somewhat rough & tumble life rather than a completely safe one. Sure, there are more hurts that come along with that, but the risks are generally worth it.

* * * * * * *

My wife came through the kitchen, past the back door, and stepped into my bindery. I was in the process of gathering and folding the sections for the limited edition of Communion of Dreams. I paused, looked up.

“Did you see Annie’s email?” she asked.

I sighed. “Yeah, just a few moments ago.”

Kim Merker had passed away two weeks ago. Word was just now getting out beyond his family and those who knew him best.  There was a statement up on the UICB website.

I had looked at the dates of his life. And counted the years to when I first met him. I’m almost the same age as he was then.

“I’m going to want to try and attend the memorial service they have for him this fall,” I said.

My wife nodded. I went back to gathering and folding sheets.

 

Jim Downey



Honor thy mentor.

This item from the Getty on making illuminated manuscripts is making the rounds among my friends who are into things medieval.  It’s relatively short, quite good, and covers the basics nicely.

But I particularly wanted to share it because when it gets to the bookbinding part (at about 4:30) it shows my bookbinding mentor, the late Bill Anthony, doing the work.

Bill was one hell of a craftsman, and a better bookbinder than I’ll ever be. No, that’s not false humility — I’m now just a few years younger than Bill was when he participated in making this video. But at that point in his life he had been a bookbinder for more than 40 years. I’d have to continue to work at it full time for at least another 20 years to have the same time in harness. And since I’m distracted by writing and other things, well, it’d probably take another 40 years to even have a chance to achieve the same level of proficiency. But that’s OK — I’m happy with the choices I’ve made, and the things I have accomplished (and still hope to accomplish).

Anyway, I wanted to share this.

 

Jim Downey



It’s getting better all the time.*

Just a quick follow-up to my post about the incunable legal text.

After spending most of last week cleaning up the edges of the sheets, I’ve been working on re-joining the folios. The trick with this is to make sure all the pages wind up being the same size when they’re folded and ready to be sewn — because I don’t want to trim the text block to get a clean fore-edge.

The solution is to make up a simple jig on my workbench:

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Lines drawn on the benchtop, some bookboard mounted to the edge. This will help me keep everything the right size and aligned correctly.

Down the center is some Reemay polyester fabric, which will not adhere to the Kozo repair strips.

The book originally had sections of four folios (folded sheets) per section. I can tell this because of the printing conventions of the time, which had a small counter at the bottom of each page indicating where it went in the book. Very handy. For my work, I only need to rejoin the innermost pair of sheets from each section — then the other sheets will be attached to that new center folio. This will keep everything positioned correctly, and make for a strong sewing structure.

Here’s a pic showing the positioning of a pair of sheets:

Notice the gap in the center.

Notice the gap in the center.

And here’s one with a shot of the Kozo repair strip applied. It’s a heavyweight Kozo (Japanese ‘mulberry’ paper), with a strong wheatpaste applied. Makes a great repair, but is completely reversible with a little water if anyone needs to re-do my repairs later. See:

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The next step is to iron the strip down with a small tacking iron on moderate heat. This is done with another layer of Reemay between the iron and the Kozo. This gives a clean, flat edge to mount the other sheets.

Which will be my next step.

Jim Downey

*Of course.



Against the grain.

Typically, there are many ways to accomplish a given task. Usually, some are better than others. Maybe they’re more efficient. Or less expensive. Or just work better.

And usually it seems like I always manage to find all the worst ways before finally stumbling on one of the better ones.

* * * * * * *

*against the grain 

1. Lit. across the alignment of the fibers of a piece of wood. (*Typically: be ~; Cut ~; go ~; run ~; saw ~.) You sawed it wrong. You sawed against the grain when you should have cut with grain. You went against the grain and made a mess of your sanding.
2. Fig. running counter to one’s feelings or ideas. (*Typically: be ~; go ~.) The idea of my actually taking something that is not mine goes against the grain.

* * * * * * *

We got the proofs back from the printer! Here’s some pix:

Cover sheet.

Text pages.

* * * * * * *

grain [grān]

(materials)

  • The appearance and texture of wood due to the arrangement of constituent fibers.
  • The woodlike appearance or texture of a rock, metal, or other material.
  • The direction in which most fibers lie in a sample of paper, which corresponds with the way the paper was made on the manufacturing machine.

* * * * * * *

Typically, there are many ways to accomplish a given task. Usually, some are better than others. Maybe they’re more efficient. Or less expensive. Or just work better.

And usually it seems like I always manage to find all the worst ways before finally stumbling on one of the better ones.

But fortunately, I was taught early on at the University of Iowa Center for the Book about the “grain” of paper, and how it makes a crucial difference in how a book works. This was something which actually took papermakers and printers a while to figure out, back when new mechanized papermaking techniques were developed. That’s because typical western hand-papermaking didn’t really impart much of a ‘grain’ to paper used in printing presses for the first several centuries.

But back in the middle of the 19th century papermaking was mechanized, and this left a distinct alignment of the paper fibers. And that changes how this paper behaves. Simply put, you have to make sure that the grain is aligned with the spine of the book, or the paper doesn’t drape or move properly, leading to the book being mechanically ‘unfriendly’ to the hand. Most printers these days know about this and pay attention to it, but every once in a while someone will try and cut corners and use paper stock with the wrong grain orientation, and the consumer will wind up with a book which feels very stiff and hard to open/turn the page. As a bookbinder, this is something I *very* much have to pay attention to for small edition binding, and I always caution clients about it, since most normal people don’t have any idea that paper grain matters at all.

So the first thing I noticed when I took the proof sheets out of the box was that the grain ran the wrong way.

Oops.

Turns out it was just a small miscommunication with the printer, and they’ll make sure to have the actual printed sheets for the book with the grain running the right way. My Good Lady Wife just talked with them, confirming that and giving final approval for the print run. The sheets should be ready for us to pick up the end of next week. Exciting!

Jim Downey

PS: Just a note – the usual convention with paper is to mark it “grain long” or “grain short” on the wrapping for a ream. Sometimes this is also indicated by underlining one of the numbers in the dimensions.