Communion Of Dreams


That’s a new one.

I find all kinds of things in family bibles and similar heirloom books & albums. Photographs. Locks of hair. Newspaper clippings. Flowers. It’s all stuff someone wanted to keep safe, so when I come across it, I set it aside and give it to the client, recommend that if they want to keep it, to do so somewhere other than stuck in the book (because it causes problems for both the binding and the paper).

I’ve seen all kinds of stuff over the years. But this was a new one today:

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I checked with the client, who was quite surprised to hear that it was in there. They decided that they didn’t need to keep it as part of the family history.

Does make you wonder, though, what the story is behind it. Hmm.

Jim Downey



A chronicle of the repair of The Book of Chronicles

I’ve had the pleasure to work on a number of very significant items from public and private collections. Here’s the most recent one:

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That’s the Liber chronicarum, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the most significant books in the history of printing. There’s a good basic description of why the book is important in the Wikipedia article, but suffice it to say that it was one of the first really successful integrations of both illustrations and type, and so a big step in printing technology. Here’s a good idea of what the illustrations look like:

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This copy of the Liber chronicarum belongs to the University of Missouri system, and needed a little help, as you can see in these images:

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Basically, the current binding, as nice as it is, was breaking along the hinge of the front cover. The rear cover was also showing signs of similar aging. This is a very common problem, particularly in large & heavy books. And my estimate is that the binding was probably 100+ years old, so showing a bit of age is understandable.

Typically, there are two basic repair options for dealing with such a problem. The first is to reinforce the hinge inside and out with Kozo dyed to match the leather. This is minimally invasive to the original binding. It’s a good repair for smaller books, but it doesn’t have a great deal of strength, and if a book is very heavy or is going to get a lot of use, doesn’t hold up as well as you would like. And to do it properly on this binding, it would have covered over a significant amount of the nice gold tooling.

The second common repair strategy is to “reback” the book in new leather. This includes removing the original spine, completely rebuilding the liners & hinges, putting new leather on the spine and then remounting the original spine onto the new structure. It’s a strong repair and  works well, but tends to be much more time consuming and apparent than the Kozo repair, changing the visual character of the book more.

After discussing the matter with the folks at MU Special Collections, we decided that I would attempt to do a Kozo repair, but one which had elements of the how the leather rebacking is normally done. This was something of an experiment, as is often the case in doing conservation work; you almost always have to blend techniques to meet the specific problems and needs of the item being treated.

I selected a very heavy Kozo paper and dyed it to match the leather. Then I carefully lifted up the leather along the spine, just enough to insert about a half inch of Kozo. Here’s how that looked:

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Note that the pieces of Kozo are only between the heavy bands — those bands are part of the sewing structure, and I didn’t want to impinge on how it worked mechanically.

Then I lifted up the leather along the edge of the front cover, pasted out the length of the exposed interior, and brought the two together, inserting the Kozo tabs under the leather. Once that was all positioned, I wrapped it in wide elastic bands and added weight all along the joint:

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Then I left it alone overnight to allow the adhesive to set properly. Leaving it alone is always the hardest part of this process, but you have to trust that you did it right, because if you try and look before the adhesive sets, it’s probable that you’ll cause the joint to be out of position.

Here’s what I found the next day:

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That’s a nearly perfect joint. I was very pleased.

But I wasn’t finished yet. Now that the cover was properly aligned and partially attached, I needed to strengthen the joint from the inside of the cover.

I opened the book and removed the detached marbled endpaper:

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Previously I had carefully used lifting knives to get under the cloth joint cover and lift up the marbled paste-down:

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Now I peeled further back the marbled paste-down on the front cover, and applied a wide band of heavy undyed Kozo to function as an internal hinge:

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Then I put fresh adhesive on the exposed paste-down marbled paper and put it back into position, thereby securing the joint:

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Then I remounted the marbled endpaper with a narrow strip of Kozo on the back:

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Lastly, I put down a narrow strip of dyed Kozo on the outside of the cover to mask the broken joint and protect it. This was largely cosmetic, but helped to give the book a finished appearance. After an application of leather preservative and a bit of buffing, the book was finished:

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It’s a good repair. Eventually, the book will need to be rebacked in leather properly, but for now we’ve been able to stabilize the book and again make it available for classes and researchers at the University of Missouri.

What a fun project. I really do love doing what I do for a living, and I realize just how lucky I am to be able to say that.

Jim Downey



No escape from reality.*

For fun, and to make someone’s year a little better, I recently rebound a friend’s SF novel, converting the paperback edition into a hardcover binding.

With my bookbinding skills it’s a fairly simple and straightforward process, but not a cost-effective one (so don’t ask me to rebind your favorite paperbacks). The result is usually very satisfactory and striking, and makes for a nice little present when I am in the mood to do something different from my usual conservation work.

Anyway, I made this book and mailed it to my friend where she works. She opened it and shared it with her co-workers, who thought it was “pretty darn cool.”

Which, you know, is cool and all. But consider: making that book, that physical object, took me maybe an hour and a half actual labor time. But I’m sure that it took my friend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of labor to write that book. To conceptualize it. To make notes. To research. To stare at the blank computer screen in abject terror. To write the first draft. To edit.  To stare at the words there in horror and disgust at how horrible her writing was (I assume this happened anyway, since almost every serious writer I’ve known goes through this multiple times with any book). To write the second draft. And then the third, after getting feedback from friends and editors. Et cetera, et cetera.

But what her co-workers thought was “pretty darn cool” was a simple physical object.

Now, I’m sure that if you asked them, her co-workers would say that her book — the written words — was also pretty darn cool. And maybe some of them have even read it.** Still, the fact remains that for most people written work is mostly an abstraction, one which takes real effort and time to understand and enjoy. Whereas a tangible artifact like an artisanal hardcover book can be handled and appreciated as reality.

People are funny, aren’t we?

 

Jim Downey

*Naturally.

**A confession: I haven’t yet myself, since I am still in the middle of doing battle with St Cybi’s Well, and I just can’t read long fiction when I am trying to write it, since it just messes up my own writing. But you can bet I will when I finally finish this book.



Why yes, as it happens I *am* still alive …

The past few months have been … eventful.

* * * * * * *

A couple of weeks ago I got back to work on St Cybi’s Well. Yeah, the break since I finished Chapter 14 was much needed, as I had hinted in my last cluster of blog posts at the end of May.

Why? What happened?

Well …

… in no particular order:

  • Discovery, and subsequent treatment, of a major cardiac health problem.
  • Completion of a full course of cardiac rehab.
  • A substantial change in our financial situation resulting from the sale of property we owned.
  • A bunch of resultant legal and investment research, planning, and changes which every adult should do but few of us ever get around to actually completing. Something about almost dying tends to focus the mind on such matters.
  • A couple of extended out-of-state trips.
  • My starting to train someone from the MU library staff in proper conservation techniques a couple of afternoons a week.
  • A complete new computer system & software upgrade, with all the fun of transferring archives and working files.

And then there’s all the usual business of living and working. Having a couple of months of my life sucked up by dealing with the cardiac problems & treatment meant a lot of changes and trade-offs … but it sure as hell beats being dead from a massive sudden heart attack.

* * * * * * *

So, a couple weeks ago I went through and re-read the entire text of SCW to date, then started working to pick up the story again and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Here’s an excerpt from the next section:

Darnell looked out Megan’s bedroom window, across the little lane into the large field beside the Tanat. The field, where so recently cattle peacefully grazed, was now a small village of tents and temporary structures. Most prominent among them was a large marquee someone had found and brought from a nearby town. Make-shift walls had been constructed of large plastic-wrapped round bales of hay from down the road, their tough skin making them weather and even somewhat fire-resistant. The marquee was the main recovery center, where people would be brought from the church after healing, allowed to emerge from the deep sleep at their own pace.

He turned and looked at his sister, who was sitting on the side of her bed. “There’s no reason for you to get up. We can handle it. Go back to sleep.”

There was a faint blue-white shimmer to her skin which never left her now. It wasn’t like she was glowing, exactly, but more like she had a permanent echo of the healing energy which she had used so much in the past couple of weeks. She shook her head. Darnell wasn’t sure whether it was in response to his comment, or just an effort to clear away cobwebs of sleep. “It’s better if it comes from me. I’m known as the Guardian of the Shrine. That carries some official weight with the Church.”

* * * * * * *

I got my garden in late this year. No surprise, given how things went with spring and the early summer. So my tomato plants were not as far along as they could have been when the first waves of heavy storms hit in June. Since then we’ve had fairly regular poundings of storms. And it looks like the tomatoes are almost at the end of their producing for this year — a full month or so early. But between what I harvested, and extra tomatoes picked up at the farmer’s market, I’ve put up about 60 pints of chopped tomatoes. Not quite as much as I would normally like to have, but not bad considering the situation.

And my habanero plants seem to be doing OK this year. Won’t be a bumper crop, but it ain’t nothing.

* * * * * * *

The past few months have been … eventful.

And a lot of things which normally get done, didn’t. Or were handled in a more superficial way than I would usually do.

But that’s OK.

 

Jim Downey



Making an impression.

My, how time flies …

I’m a little startled to discover that it’s been three years since I last posted about doing the leather bindings for the custom edition of Communion of Dreams. No, I know it’s been a while — but I have been giving this binding a lot of thought, so it seems like it was still a recent ‘pending’ project. I liked the idea of using the sewing structure to incorporate classic raised leather cords on the spine of the book, but I just didn’t like the sparseness of the rest of the cover design. The initial tests were OK, but the more I thought about them, the less satisfied I was with what the final product would be. The problem was that while the cords under leather gave a nice tactile effect, there wasn’t enough detail possible.

So I kept trying to figure out how to keep the relief I liked but to get more definition. I won’t go through all the different iterations of ideas I considered, but there were a lot, mostly along the lines of trying different ways of mounting different weights of cord/string or molding/engraving the board under the leather. But each approach failed to give me the definition I wanted. Worse, each one felt further and further removed from the image of the “Williamson Oak” by Peter Haigh I had used for the paperback/printed hardcover/website.

Then recently another bookbinding project got me to thinking about using something like a woodcut as a way to make an impression on a leather cover, and I realized that I had gotten so set on the idea of using the raised cords of the sewing structure as the basis for the rest of the cover texture I hadn’t considered the possibility of impressing the leather rather than trying to raise it. What would be required would be to make a plate which would press down most of the leather, leaving the design I wanted alone so that it would stand up (and out).

So that what I tried today. Here’s how I did a quick test:

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That’s my high-tech, fancy “polymer plate” … also known as a plastic cutting board. I did a quick sketch on it with a marker, then carved into it using a couple of different cutting heads on a Dremel tool.

Then I mounted a piece of goatskin and a piece of calfskin onto some bookboard, got it good and damp, and then pressed it quickly in one of my book presses. Here are the results:

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This was just a trial to see if my press would generate sufficient pressure, and if the plate would hold up to it. I am very happy with how well they turned out, and I learned what I need to change for the final version (such as smoothing out the surface of the plate, adding more detail and title, and — oh, yeah — reversing the image).

So, progress! Hey, it only took three years for me to get past my perceptual bias … 😉

 

Jim Downey



Bad medieval book manners.

Oh, this is just completely delightful! Here’s the intro, but you definitely want to go read the whole thing:

Bad medieval book manners. Part 1

Handle with care. Those who have worked with manuscripts in libraries and archives know that the casual relationship between the reader and the printed book stops at the door and a special covenant enters into force once we approach bound parchment (ok, some paper, too, mais j’en passe). ‘Be careful with that’, ‘no flash, please’, ‘don’t open it like that’, ‘use a book-rest, don’t you see you’re hurting it’ are ululations typical of a manuscript room. Needless to say, things were not quite like that in the long Middle Ages. Those manuscripts that have made it through fire and water, deliberate destruction or noxious negligence usually tell us stories of a book culture where the reader and the book were only slowly coming into a friendly bond. Historians have been telling us about book damage arising from negligence, weakness or deliberate fault, but wouldn’t it be great to hear the story from a contemporary who’s lobbied à pleins poumons for the dignity and sacrality of books? This man was Richard de Bury (1287-1345), bishop of Durham, Lord Chancellor, Treasurer and Privy Seal and author of the ‘Philobiblon’, a work that is as fascinating as it has been neglected by modern historians. It is Richard’s manifesto for bibliophilia or the love of books. In it, books take central stage, speaking to us, often through personification, about their ordeals, rewards and achievements. It is, for me, the greatest confession of faith of a bibliophile.

And part 2 is here: Bad medieval book manners. Part 2

Go read and enjoy!

(And yes, I have seen every such type of damage in my conservation practice.)

 

Jim Downey



Faith.

I wrote this back around 1993, and had it up on my archive site. Yesterday I had reason to look it up, and first looked here, figuring that at some point I must have reposted it. But a search didn’t turn it up, and I thought that I should correct that oversight.

It’s interesting to now look back to it, and to see how little my attitude/approach to the subject has changed with another 23 years of book conservation experience.

 

Jim Downey

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Mark Twain, in his early work Innocents Abroad, described how Christian craftsmen were given special dispensation to enter mosques in the Holy Land in order to install or repair the clocks which called the faithful to prayer.  Sometimes I feel like those clockmakers, and wonder how they reconciled their non-belief in Islam with the service they provided that faith.  Did they feel the grace of Allah’s touch in their craftsmanship, or in the heartfelt thanks and blessings they received from the faithful?

I am a book conservator in private practice in the Midwest, and a significant number of the books I work on are religious texts, usually but not exclusively bibles.  While I am a deeply spiritual person, largely in the Christian tradition, I do not consider myself to be a person of faith, and I have doubts about the existence of a single divine entity by whatever name.  Still, I respect the religions of others, and am comfortable working on the books that deeply religious people bring to me.

Repair of holy scripture is an odd thing for an agnostic to do.  My friends of faith say that it is part of my path of spiritual growth, perhaps the way I will be led to discovery and belief.  Perhaps.  But I consider it more that I am keeping faith with my clients.  A bible, particularly a personal bible which is used for daily prayer and inspiration, is probably more private and revealing than a diary.  I can tell from the way the binding is broken, from the wear on the pages, from the passages highlighted or notes made, what is important to the owner, what their innermost fears and hopes are.  I suspect that often I know more about these things than they do themselves.  I am a therapist of paper and glue.

These books are precious, not in a monetary sense, but in a personal one.  I can see it in their eyes when they bring the bible to me, asking me if it can be repaired, worried less about the cost than the time it will be absent from their lives.  The repair of these books is usually simple and straightforward, just an hour or two of labor.  I can fit this work in between larger projects, and get the bible back to the owner in a matter of just a few days.  This news usually comes as a relief.  But almost always the owner is still hesitant let go of the book, hands slowly passing it over as they search my face for a clue as to whether they can trust me with this part of themselves.  Just as a veterinarian receives a beloved animal who needs treatment with gentleness and grace, out of concern for the owner as much as for the pet, I receive their bibles as a sacred trust.

And when they come for their bibles, I am sometimes embarrassed.  Embarrassed because of the praise, the occasional blessings, and the overflowing joy they feel.  It is times like this that I feel that my hands are not really my own, my craftsmanship and skill not something that I can take pride in, but a rare gift that comes from outside of myself.  And I am grateful, whatever the source, for this touch of grace that enters my life.