Friday, April 29, 2011

“Old family bible”

As I tweeted earlier today, 3 of the most challenging words for this book conservator to hear are “old family bible”. It’s not that I don’t like to hear them, although the truth is I probably don’t, but I find it a challenge to adequately respond to those words.

When people ask what I do and if I feel the need to go beyond “I’m a librarian” I usually add a line about conservation, or fixing old books and maps, or something like that, because I know that usually engages or impresses people. (I seldom reply that I catalog and archive electronic government documents, or manage interlibrary loan – both of which are true, or were, but mentioning them also tends to elicit blank stares.)

The challenge/opportunity when people start knowing you as the book repair guy, is they start telling you about, or bringing to you, their books. (It seems everyone has books, and nearly everyone has old books.) It’s not uncommon for my work phone to ring with one of my colleagues on the other end saying, “There is someone here at the reference desk, or on the line, who would like to talk to you.” I agree, because I’m a nice guy, and then the next sentence I hear begins “I have this…” which I complete in my head, with a groan, “old family bible.” I guess I’m right 75% of the time.

The “old family bible” may be the most ubiquitous object in the United States. Most of the ones I encounter are the late 19th century behemoths. They are large, they are elaborately decorated, they are impressive, and they are, well, everywhere. (Oh, and the boards are always detached.)

I sometimes ponder people’s relationships with these books. It seems these books often come out of a recently deceased grandmother’s house, often stored in a garbage bag, and people seem to assign to them an intriguing value. They have sentimental value but not a lot. (They are not on the top 10 list of things to pull out of a burning house.) They are so large, and ornate, and unlike modern books that people presume they must be of monetary value. (They are usually of insignificant financial value. Here’s a good column about the cash value of these books. )

So, when I get approached by someone with one of these books I am challenged with a variety of responses. Inwardly I do groan, but I also remember the fascination I felt when I first encountered one of these bibles – they are impressive – and I try to express some sympathy for their enthusiasm. I talk a bit about the history of these bibles – how they were often sold by traveling salesmen and you could purchase additional features like sheets for genealogical records, etc. I try to talk gently but realistically about their preservation challenges with the old leather and the heavy weight. Then, my usual response is twofold: it would be best kept in a box, or at least wrapped in acid free paper; and the most personally significant part of the bible is probably any pages that record family names, dates, etc, and I suggest making and mounting good color copies of these pages. I also give them a couple handouts with information, the AIC “How To Protect Your Books” handout, and a sheet I’ve created with suggested websites, suppliers, books, and a list of Michigan binders & conservators. People are usually happy with this response – I think many are happy just to have someone pay attention to their family memorabilia. And, I’m glad when my conversation about another “old family bible” is complete and hope the next conversation doesn’t come too soon.

(Picture of bible from Wonderlane.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Preserving the Presence of the Book

Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht.

For those who don't recall, or haven't read my initial post for this blog - the project I am undertaking is reading and reflecting on a bunch of books in an effort to gain a better understanding of a theory of (library) preservation as well as the place of libraries in the larger cultural heritage world. I've got a bibliography of books that I'm working through, but one of the very nice things about this project is I'm not beholden to anyone or any final product so I can go off on whatever tangents seem intriguing. (It's a bit like endlessly researching a paper that you never have to actually sit down and write.) This post is such a tangent.

I should have a rule about the books I am reading. If I had the rule it would read, ‘Upon the 2nd mention of Heidegger, put the book down and walk away.’ I should have that rule, but I don't, and after encountering several mentions of Heidegger (as well as Gadamer and Foucault) I kept on reading Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey. I read the book, and feel compelled to try and write about it, but I'm not sure the final result will do any body any good.

I arrived at this book in an effort to understand how the materiality of a book affects our experience/understanding of the book. Or, rather, what is the effect of reading a text held within the pages of a book, as compared to the effect of reading text displayed on a screen. Or, what is it about physical texts that deserve preserving. (It began by my Googling "How does a book mean" with no particularly helpful results. It was through Amazon that I happened across a listing for this book and thought it might at least move me in the right direction.)

This book is not about preserving books; it is not even about cultural heritage; it is about being; it is about that which is not interpreted; it is about presence, and the effects of presence. (or at least that's my best guess.)

Gumbrecht uses the example of the Eucharist to portray the shift from a middle ages "body" focus to a modern "mind" focus. In the middle ages - and current Catholic church - the elements of the Eucharist become and are something real - the body and blood. (Its called transubstantiation.) But with the beginning of the modern world and the beginning of Protestantism the elements no longer are or become something, but point to or call one to remember something. In a protestant Eucharist - keeping in line with western thought and Descartes centrality of cognition - its all about meaning, and the physicality of the elements is immaterial. The Quakers go so far as to completely away with physical symbols of the Eucharist.

Gumbrecht finds the modern western world's exclusive focus on meaning as unsatisfying and suggests there is in fact a tension between meaning and presence - between that we interpret with our mind (or within our conceptual framework) and that which is uninterpreted and encountered in space with our bodies. "The dominant human self-reference in a meaning culture is, then, the mind ... whereas the dominant self-reference in a presence culture is the body." (p.80)

Does text embedded within a book affect production of meaning. What other effects, if any, does the physicality of the book produce apart from meaning? These effects, it would seem to me, speak to the heart of preservation.

Gumbrecht briefly mentions the role of presence with regards to reading, "The meaning-dimension will always be dominant when we are reading a text -- but literary texts have ways of also bringing the presence-dimension of the typography, of the rhythm of the language, and even of the smell of the paper into play." (p. 109) (Once again with the smelling of books!)

A digitized text obviously does not have the same effects of presence that the physical text does. A challenge is understanding and communicating the value of that physical presence and then justifying its preservation.

Gary Frost, who I don't recall ever citing Heidegger yet he still manages to provide a very challenging read, has been a most influential writer for my understanding of the act of reading - an activity of encountering both the meaning-dimension of a book, as well as its presence-dimension as we physically engage and manipulate the book.

Near the end of the book Gumbrecht talks of our relation to objects from the past and that the presence of such objects helps us feel like we aren't "leaving behind" the past. And seeing as I'm developing a bit of a reputation as the death and conservation guy, I couldn't finish this post without a quote about death. "One benefit of the capacity to let ourselves quite literally be attracted by the past under these conditions may lie in the circumstances that, by crossing the life world threshold of our birth, we are turning away from the ever-threatening and ever present future of our own deaths." (p. 125)

I may have completely misunderstood and misrepresented this book, but I don't think so - or at least I hope not. I've barely scratched the surface of the book because I find it challenging to creatively reconstruct and engage a text on which I have a very tenuous grasp. Obviously, this book doesn't belong on any Intro to Conservation syllabus, or even an Advanced Conservation syllabus, but I think it provokes some interesting thoughts about how we think about, and otherwise encounter, the objects we work on.

And, for anyone who has actually made it to the end of this post, please be assured - the next book I read and write about should be much more accessible. I could use a fun, light read.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Over the years, Colorado conservator Beth Heller has been promoting the cause of the evilness of tape with her rather catchy "Tape is Evil" slogan. She even sells a variety of "Tape is Evil" paraphernalia. (An example of her fridge magnet appears on my workbench - sans red circle with a slash.)

Recently, Montana conservator Audra Loyal extended the social media reach of the Tape is Evil cause by bringing it into Facebook, and Twitter with #TapeisEvil.

Perhaps it is my Canadian heritage (we always root for the underdog because we've accepted the fact that we'll never be #1), or perhaps it is the general contrariness I've inherited from my mother (the best reason not to do something, is because everyone else is doing it) but I've taken this whole Tape is Evil thing as a personal call to celebrate the wicked awesome virtues of tape as a conservation tool. I've even rejoined twitter.

You are all invited to join me on the social medias in showing respect to the wicked awesome qualities of tape as part of your conservation toolbox   #tapeiswickedawesome

Monday, April 4, 2011

A brief reading of "Contemporary Theory of Conservation"

Contemporary Theory of Conservation By Salvador Muñoz Viñas.

I've taken my time to finish reading this book because I knew that when I finished it I would feel obligated to write about it - and this task is daunting. (This was one of the few books in the blog's reading project where I purchased my own copy, and thoroughly enjoyed scribbling all over it.)

There is much that I could comment on or converse with in this book. I've underlined, starred, commented on nearly every page. But doing this would likely result in a blog post nearly the 214 pages as long as the book - and that's just not good reading. Instead, I'll focus on what I understand as the primary theme of the book, with occasional side comments. (It's an embarrassingly slight reading of a very rich book.)

The book is a clearly written, expansive, thoughtful creation/revelation of a/the contemporary theory of conservation. His intended task is not to create a new theory but in revealing and explaining what he sees as the current theoretical framework for conservation he bears some responsibility for crafting this theory. .

While not using these categories (perhaps a wise choice), he discusses the move of conservation from modernity into post-modernity where focus moves from object to subject. This is not a transition which has uniformly been accepted by the conservation world as one will find individuals and institutions on all points of the theoretical span.

In creating a definition of conservation he first explores defining the concept in terms of actions, and then in terms of the objects worked upon. "If a chair gets broken, it is repaired. If the chair was made by Brustolon [or Stickley] it is conserved." (p. 28) There are a variety of notions or terms people have used to define what is an object of conservation - like "heritage" or "cultural property" - but ultimately, he settles on the object's communicative//symbolic qualities. "What every conservation object has in common is its symbolic nature; they all communicate something." (p. 45)

An object can communicates many meanings, but those meanings which qualify the object as a conservation object include: hi-cult meanings, group identification meanings, ideological meanings, and sentimental meanings. Over time, the meanings of a conservation object will change. One just has to think of the meanings of the Bamiyan Buddhas from the meanings for their creators to what they mean to the current conservation community. "In most conservation objects, the symbolic, communicative function takes precedence over the original, material functions it could have had." (p. 57)

With the enlightenment, science became the acceptable, preferable, and sometimes only way to analyze reality, and scientific-conservation became the acceptable model/theory of conservation. Scientific conservation is first and foremost objective, or entirely object focused, and the purpose of conservation is to reveal the "truth" of the object through the use of "hard" science. "The integrity of the object fundamentally lies in its physical features and attributes." (p. 81) While scientific-conservation became the dominant method for conservation, Muñoz Viñas notes "it is striking that no relevant theoretical effort has been made to justify the validity of this approach." (p. 71)

I will say that the author's description of scientific conservation and scientists struck this author as a bit of a caricature - a convenient foil against which to portray a different, more correct theory of conservation. I always get suspicious when disparaging adjectives start dropping into the language like "strange graphs with tiny incomprehensible labels." (p. 76) Admittedly, I have very little experience with conservation scientists, but I do have plenty of experience with scientists from other disciplines and these folks do not fit in with the closed-minded, dogmatic scientists that Muñoz Viñas portrays.

Having dispelled the 'revealing truth/objectivism' model we move on to the contemporary communication of meanings/inter-subjectivism model. Within this theory objects become conservation objects "because a number of people agree that they have desirable social, private or scientific meanings, not because of their material features." (p.153) "When the relevance of meaning is acknowledged, truth simply ceases to be the guiding criterion of conservation operations, and communicative efficiency becomes the likely substitute." (p. 153) Ultimately, it is the subjects, not the objects, which are served by conservation, and decisions as to what and how to conserve are the product of conversations and negotiations among the various stakeholders. "The best possible conservation operation is the one that provides the most satisfaction to the most people." (p. 193)

"The ultimate goal of conservation  as a whole is not to conserve the paper, but to retain or improve the meaning it has for people." (p. 213) He does not suggest a purely demagogic conservation (vote for our next conservation project by texting 'papyrus' to 12345) and accepts the authoritative value of experts, but suggest that all stakeholders negotiate conservation decisions.

How it all might relate to libraries

A while back I once something along the lines that conservators should never talk about meaning. Muñoz Viñas has proven me wrong - although he is a member of a small community who can speak intelligently about conservation, object/subject, and meanings. Never has a "conservation" book so resonated with my studies of hermeneutics during my seminary days. (While I always thought there was some connection between my studies of how we discern meaning from texts and my working in library conservation, the connection has never seemed closer than when reading this book.)

This book, though incredibly valuable, continues to highlight some challenges for me. The book primarily addresses the art/architecture world of conservation. Libraries and books receive little to no mention. This is not a fault of the book or the author, but a challenge for me as I attempt to figure out how the world of libraries and library collection fits within this understanding of conservation. I think people communicate with and derive meaning from books/library collections/libraries differently than they do art objects, and that difference should affect how conservation is approached. I am still, however, trying understand the art/book differences.

When working on defining preservation he discusses what he defines as "informational preservation" - which is certainly more familiar to library preservation interests. One interesting comment he makes about information preservation, "It is also interesting to note that the knowledge required for performing informational preservation is usually different from that of the conservator." (p. 25) Where libraries are interested in information preservation, preservation professionals need to know about things like microfilming standards, and digital imaging and preservation.

One of the disconnects I feel in the library conservation world is I seldom hear the general public talk about books as objects of meaning and I seldom hear library conservators talk about the meanings of the texts of their objects. Approaching conservation of a book with a holistic understanding of a book is a large and daunting task. Perhaps it is often not worth the effort, but never considering the book with all its stakeholders and all its meanings belittles the significance of the conservation task.

This is an important book that deserves more readers - especially by people in the library conservation world.