Communion Of Dreams


Cold comfort.

Thought I’d share a small discovery I made this weekend.

I’m working on a book conservation project for an institutional client. It’s a patient ledger for a public hospital from the 1880s. It’s a large, heavy account book, and the binding structure had broken down, the original leather-covered covers have a bad case of red rot, and a number of the individual pages had been damaged. All in all, a fairly routine project; an important piece of mundane history, but not particularly interesting from a bookbinding standpoint.

So I took it apart, cleaned and repaired the individual pages, organized the folios back into sections, and set to resewing the book. Here’s the start of that process:

And here it is further along, as I’m sewing the individual sections onto ‘tapes’ as part of the new structure:

As I did this, something caught my eye I hadn’t noticed previously: here and there was the world “cold”.

Now, people don’t usually go to the hospital for a “cold”. Particularly in the 1880s, when hospitals were usually places most people avoided. So I looked a little more closely, and saw that the entries were under the column for where in the hospital patients had been put:

Here’s the top of that page:

Why on Earth would you put someone into a “cold” ward? That didn’t make sense.

Then I noticed something else, further across the page. Here’s a pic of it from a blank page, so as not to inadvertently violate someone’s privacy:

What I thought was “cold” was actually “col’d”, the abbreviation used for “Colored.”

As I’ve said previously, about another historical artifact:

So I understand the importance of preserving the artifacts of that history. And so understanding, felt that it was my responsibility to use the skills I have acquired to that end, no matter how distasteful the task. It was my small tribute to all who resisted, who persevered, who fought.

I’m not equating the two.

But it is important that we not forget either history.

 

Jim Downey

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Thoughts on this day.

I wrote this nine years ago, and posted it to this blog seven years ago. It seemed like a good time to repost it.

And as my birthday gift to everyone, Communion of Dreams is available for free download today. Please, spread the word to anyone who might enjoy it.

Jim Downey

 

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Thoughts on This Day

One birthday, when I was nine or ten, I woke with anticipation of the presents I would receive.  Still in my pajamas I rushed into the kitchen where my parents were having coffee, expecting to get the loot which was rightfully mine.  My father happily handed over a small, wrapped box.  I opened it eagerly, to find a little American flag on a wooden stick.  My father said that since my birthday was July 4th, he thought I would appreciate the gift.

Horror-struck first at not getting anything better, then a moment later at my own greed, I guiltily told my parents that I thought it was a fine gift.

After a moment, of course, my folks brought out my real presents, and there was a fair amount of good-natured teasing and laughing about the little trick they had played on me.

That was almost 40 years ago, and I can no longer tell you what presents I received that day.  But the lesson in expectations and perspective my dad taught me that morning always remained with me.  My dad had been a Marine, fought in Korea, and was a deeply patriotic cop who was killed while on duty a couple of years after that birthday.  I have no idea what happened to that little flag on a stick, but I do still have the flag taken from my father’s coffin, carefully and perfectly folded at the graveside when we buried him.

I’ve never looked at the American flag without remembering what a fine gift it really is and, as so many others have written, what it represents in terms of sacrifice.  I love my country, as any Firecracker Baby is probably destined to do.  You just can’t ignore all that early training of patriotism, fireworks, and presents all tied up together.

But that doesn’t mean that I am blinded by patriotism.  As I’ve matured and gained life experience, I’ve learned many other lessons.  Lessons about tempering expectations, living with occasional disappointment, accepting that things don’t always work out the way you plan no matter how hard you work, how good your intentions, or how deserving you are.  Still, you learn, grow, and do the best you can.  This, it seems, is also the story of America.  I believe we are an exceptional people, holding great potential, with our best years still to come.  But nothing is guaranteed.  We must honestly, and sometimes painfully, confront our failures, learn from them, and move on.  The original founders of our country were brilliant, but flawed as all humans are flawed.  Some of their errors led directly to the Civil War, that great bloody second revolution of the human spirit.  That they made mistakes does not negate their greatness; rather, it shows us our potential even though we are not perfect.  They knew, as we should know, that only we are responsible for our self-determination.  Not a king, not a God, not a ruling political class.  Us.

Today we’ve been gifted with a small box with a flag inside.  A token of our history.  Let us not take it for granted.  Let us not think that the thing itself is more important than what it represents.  Let us look on it and declare our own responsibility, our own self-determination.

Happy Independence Day.



One fourth.

Tomorrow I turn 57. Yeah, on the Fourth of July.

That might seem a little weird to someone who doesn’t have a birthday on the Fourth. Not to me. I’ve grown up with it.

But you know what seems weird to me?

That I’ve been alive for almost one-fourth of the entire time that the United States has existed. Run the numbers, and you’ll see.

It’s very odd to realize just how young our country is in some ways. And how much things have changed just in my lifetime.

I remember the early days of the Space Race. I remember the night Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon.

And I remember growing up with casual racism of the worst sort. When homophobia was so deeply ingrained and widespread that the word itself didn’t even really exist. I remember using words like n***** and f***** without a trace of embarrassment, because they were so common.

Things have changed somewhat. Not enough. But still, too much for some people. Because change can be scary. Threatening.

The length of my life will take you to the time of Sputnik. The length of another such will take you back before Kitty Hawk. And just one more will land you well before the Civil War.

Change can be hard. And the fight never ends. But have hope: progress can be made. Both for individuals and for countries. Perhaps, even, for the whole world.

 

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.

 

 

 



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



Then and now …

A lot of folks don’t know it, but I have an undergraduate degree in Economics (and another in German). And, while I haven’t really done anything with that degree, it does still largely inform how I see the world: in terms of economic forces at play.

So this nice little explanation of how the industry of making books worked during the Medieval Period … and the forces which led to it … as well as how it relates to modern publishing … well, let’s just say it ties a lot of my interests together. Here’s an excerpt:

The professionals who made books for profit were usually found near the biggest church in town. This was a well-chosen spot as canons and clerics (i.e. people who visited the church and who could read) formed an important part of the clientele. By the 14th century true communities of the book had formed in the neighborhoods around churches and cathedrals. Evidence from such cities as Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, London and Paris suggests that in these communities a diverse group of artisans interacted with clients and with each other. It was a world bound not only by the book, however, but also by profit.

The whole thing is worth a read, and it’s actually quite brief. Brief, but insightful.

 

Jim Downey