Saturday, November 26, 2011

Gary Frost’s "Future of the Book" book

To describe Gary Frost as the influential, emeritus conservator from the University of Iowa does not quite do him justice. Gary Frost is part conservator, part futurist, and part mystic (to name just a few of his parts.) Under his name on the title page of my copy his recent book I wrote “book shaman.”

Upon retiring he has very quickly come out with two books Adventures in Book Conservation: An Album of Investigations and Future of the Book: A Way Forward (both available from Iowa Book Works). I’ve only read the Future of the Book one, yet.

For those who read Frost’s blog, also called Future of the Book, the print book Future of the Book: A Way Forward will be familiar territory. The fact that much of this content can now be read both on screen and now in print goes to the heart of what Frost discusses in his book – the interplay between print reading and screen reading.

I once took a course on the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was a fascinating class but I found myself taking very few notes. My explanation of why this might be the case was that while note taking tends to move in a very linear direction, the professor’s thoughts and communications were better described as an interlocking web where everything was connected to everything else (at least so it seemed to the students).

Reading Frost reminds me of this class experience. In this book, a detailed description of the elegant parabola of the spine of a sewn-board volume (p. 43) is only pages away from a discussion of the “functions of self-authentication of print and self-indexing of electronic text.” (p. 46)

Frost’s world of the book is vast and detailed and it’s all interconnected. Following him as he traverses those connections is a challenging delight or a delightful challenge. There were times during my reading I found myself lost and sometimes the intricacies of his language eluded me, but I would eventually once again find his path and enjoy the adventure.

This book is Frost’s rumination on a topic of huge importance to today’s library community (whether it knows it or not) the interplay of the print book and the digital text. While he is a print apologist, it not because he feels digital is inferior, but rather his is a response to the trend within the library world to look away from print and see digital as a replacement for print.

I was intrigued to see early on in the book that he compares the transition from the print deliver of the book to screen delivery not to the creation of the printing press, as is so often done, but to the movement from primary orality to print. The scale of the change is that great. This shift should force us, as it does Frost, to give closer examination to both print and digital – how do they do what they do and what are the characteristics of the reader experience for each. “Display of a given title to both screen and print is not equivalent either in attributes of the different delivery formats or in their roles of interaction.” (p. 16)

Frost’s main argument is that digital does not replace print. Frost’s defense of print is not based on nostalgia, or as is so common, the smell of old books, but on the unique attributes of the materiality and reading experience of print. “Contrasting functionalities of the paper and screen book do not converge, but they complement each other.” (p. 17) “Print attributes of content fixity, manual navigation, and persistent access across time all pair nicely with screen attributes of live content, automated search and navigation, cloud repository, and electronic delivery.” (p. 19)

And now, to give my reader a greater sense of the experience of reading Frost’s book born out of his web of knowledge, the subsequent chapter begins with a discussion of dexterity and brain size in early hominids. Yup, it’s all connected and you’ve just got to try and keep up.

In further advancing the of the print book/reader interaction Frost discusses various binding methods and observes the interplay of the actions of these bindings with the reader’s reading of the text. Of his beloved wooden board binding he writes,
“The mind is physically positions in the content and memory and insight both are augmented by the physical location of concepts. Fingering to initiate and complete page turnings points to the particular expressions or precepts that are read. Manual transmission of leverage from the board covers to the text is so responsive that it embodies comprehension and conclusive acts of learning.” (p. 41)
Oh, and then there’s several pages about the linotype – Frost loves the linotype, and find a way to naturally weave it into his web of the book.

In light of the recent discussion at GBW standards of Tomorrow’s Past and the Bonefolder’sBind-O-Rama “Artistically Reversible: Where Conservation and Art Meet” it was interesting to read Frost declare “I have often imagined that there can be deliberate recognition of artful book conservation treatments and some definitions of an aesthetic to guide the practice.” (p. 56) The book’s section covering an aesthetic approach to conservation (pp. 54-59) deserves some in-depth engagement which is more than will happen in this review. (I would love to see some others tackle the issues discussed in these pages.)

As mentioned, Frost’s book is titled Future of the Book: A Way Forward but within Frost’s labyrinthine web of the book, the way forward may not always be forward. It may sometimes lead us inward, or outward, to the left, or to the right, and often to places that we never imaged the book would take us.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Finding the Conservator in Conservation

I think the conservator is the least studied, the least written about, and the least understood part of the conservation world.

Before this year’s Guild of BoodWorkers Standards a gathering was held to discuss the issues surrounding the Tomorrow’s Past movement and the Bonefolder’s most recent iteration of Bind-O-Rama, Artisitically Reversible – Where Conservation and Art Meet.  The aim of the Bind-O-Rama and the gathering was “to explore the movement's tenets of providing new, conservationally sound clothes to old books.” (For more context please see the article in The Bonefolder, Vol 7, by Charles Gledhill, the Tomorrow's Past web pages, and this post at the Riverlark blog entitled Old wine in new bottles.)

I think another title for the event could be Finding the Conservator in Conservation.

On the face of it, however, the conversation was about the tenets of the Tomorrow’s Past movement to provide “new, conservationally sound clothes to old books.”

“Why,” event organizer Karen Hanmer asks “in 2011 make something look like something that was done in 1500?”

The Tomorrow’s Past movement is about doing good conservation using an aesthetic that may not be fully sympathetic to the period of the piece. This naturally leads to the question, where and when is it acceptable to insert the conservator’s aesthetic into our conservation work? There is a sense that the conservator is to be invisible in their work. Their conservation treatment may be visible in their work, but they should not be. This may be an illusory goal but we are uncertain as to how overt the conservator should be in putting their own stamp on their work. How does incorporating the conservator’s aesthetic fit into the AIC Code of Ethics? 

Suzy Morgan’s rebinding of a very tattered volume incorporating a spine entirely of Mylar was discussed as an example of this approach to conservation.  See links for a full gallery of pictures, and a blogdescription of the project.

There was an interesting side-bar conversation about reversibility and the increasing acknowledgment that this is an impossible goal. More satisfying alternate treatment goals of “retreatable” and “suitable” were offered.

At one point a person (sorry I don’t know who it was, but it was a woman) states what I think was the subtext, and the real heart of the conversation “We are inserting ourselves into the lives of these books, no matter how sympathetic we pretend it is.”

Conservators become intimately, physically involved with the items they work on and intentionally or not, become part of that item’s being. There is however a discomfort, as this conversation reveals, with how overt our relationship with these objects can be. Should others be able to look at a book that was conserved and recognize who did the work? I’m going to guess that some would say no – the conservator should vanish into the “woodwork” or into the grain of the paper. Is it okay for a conservator to do something in a conservation job which is not “necessary” to the conservation of the piece and reveals something of the conservator?

While I think the idea of the invisible conservator is impossible and wrong and should not be a goal, I also do not advocate for a conservator’s self-expression free-for-all. This issue of how much of our selves do we put in our work must always be held in thoughtful and professional tension.

The author, the binder, the seller, the conservator, and the reader are all part of the community that creates and interprets our written cultural heritage. Understanding who these various members are only helps deepen our understanding of this heritage.

I am thankful for those who participated in the discussion, and took the efforts to record and share itonline. I also hope we continue to discuss not only the work of conservation, but also the life of the conservator.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Family memories and film conversion

I always enjoy the opportunity to watching and listening to people who are experienced experts talk about and demonstrate their trade. I’ve had interesting conversations with the state demographer about the art and science of the census. I’ve toured and observed the operation of a small Amish chair manufacturer. I’ve learned fascinating things about insects and ecology from my two entomologist friends.

Recently, I had the great opportunity to spend a fascinating afternoon learning about the world of audio/visual materials conversion. Oh, and I heard a lot of stories.

A while ago I took on the project of digitizing my parents’ slides and when they delivered the slides there were also a handful of reels of old 8mm home movies.  I recalled that a couple years ago I had sold an antique film projector to a guy who mentioned that he did film conversion and gave me his card. After about 3 years of carrying his card in my wallet I finally had some film to convert and gave the guy a call.

Carl has been in the “business” his entire life. He is 72. He began at 11 by running the projector at the junior high. He also got in with the guys who ran the projectors at the local theaters and spent a lot of time there. His working career was in radio and tv as well as owning a few movie theaters. Now he is “retired” but maintains an impressive operation out of a cramped corner of his house.

When I made contact with him about getting the film transferred to dvd I also asked about the opportunity to see his operation. He was more than glad to oblige.

He showed me all the equipment he used, how it worked, where he got it, and the various modifications he made. In his small site he can transfer 8mm, Super8, and 16mm film, reel to reel audio, cassette tapes, and 33/45/78 records, as well as any foreign and domestic video tape format, and slides.

He then offered to do my film transfer while I was there so I could watch the whole process. I gleefully said yes. Early on in the process he said something, which I then also observed, which caught my attention. “Every inch of the film will run through my hands several times during the process.” As one who is interested in hand skills, and in training people’s hands to repair books, it was intriguing to see the role his experienced hands played in this much more technologically driven process.

The process began by him rolling the film onto a large reel as he checks the condition of the film, testing old splices, making new splices where the film is broken, and dealing with any other condition issues. Two of the smaller reels had some mold on them, and part of one reel had been fed into a projector wrong causing a very jagged edge. He was quite concerned about whether this part of the film would cause problems. He then cleaned and lubricated the film – all by hand.

Parent's wedding
After checking, fixing, and cleaning the film he loaded a reel on his 8mm transfer machine. The machine looks a bit like a film projector except the light source – an array of LEDs – is where the lens would typically be. Conversion is done in real time so my just over 600 feet of film took just under an hour to do. It was a thrill to see this film which I don’t recall ever seeing before. The film was from the early sixties and included my parent’s wedding, my older brother as an infant, and a vacation trip to South Dakota. The image quality wasn’t great, but the color was phenomenal. Carl explained that Kodachrome does a phenomenal job of retaining color, while if it was shot on Ektachrome, everything would be moving to shades of magenta.

In the audio/visual branch of the library preservation world, digitization is seen as the best hope for preservation. While paper folk may complain about acidic paper, the media we work with is in general much more stable than the various audio visual media.

The film I had transferred is now burnt on 4 dvds, and will also be copied to a hard drive or two and will be dispersed to various family members who are dispersed across the continent. So, abiding by the principle of Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe, the stuff of these family films should now have a better chance of surviving into another generation. (But really, the best part was talking to an old guy about craft and technology.)