Thursday, March 29, 2012

Portraits in Preservation - Martha Little

I'm pleased to be posting yet another fascinating profile. With this being the sixth in this series it's interesting to notice some threads and themes beginning to emerge. (And thanks to the many readers who have suggested people to be included in this project. Many of them have said yes! Please continue suggesting people - including yourself.)

Bio: Martha Little is a book conservator and hand bookbinder in private practice in Northern California, and a part-time book conservator at the UC Berkeley Library. She began her training 35 years ago with Jane Greenfield at the Yale Conservation Studio, where she worked as a book conservator for seven years, taking a leave of absence in 1978 to intern with Roger Powell in England. In 1983 she was hired as Head of Conservation at the University of Michigan Libraries, where she designed and set up the library’s first conservation lab. After leaving Michigan she participated in the entire lifespan of the First Institute of Fine Binding and Book Conservation at the University of Texas at Austin in 1987, with two months of full-time master classes with Tony Cains and two months with James Brockman. She has had her own book conservation business for the last 25 years, first in Santa Fe, New Mexico and now in Petaluma, California, working for institutions and individuals from around the country. In 2008 and 2009 she participated in a survey project of books in the Islamic Manuscript collection of the National Library of Egypt in Cairo, for the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation. She has taught regionally and nationally including workshops at the Paper and Book Intensive, the Oregon College of Art and Craft, and the Arrowmont School, and was a presenter (“Book Forensics – Interpreting Evidence of Structure”) at the 2010 Guild of Book Workers Standards Seminar.

Describe an experience that was particularly influential in your professional development.

In the late 1970’s there was no formal book conservation program to go to in this country. I started volunteering at the Yale University Conservation Lab under Jane Greenfield, the Head Conservator at that time. (She accepted me only because of a misunderstanding - the Director of the Beinecke Rare Book Library called her while I was in his office and asked her if she took interns, and she thought he was making a personal request. In fact I’d only minutes before bumbled into his office saying I wanted to work with books.) Things must have gone all right because she hired me three months later. From the very beginning I learned by handling and observing old books every day, since Greenfield started me right off working on the rare books. She was keenly interested in early book structures, and insisted that I spend time simply looking at as many books as I could, noticing details and developing a familiarity with not just the quantifiable characteristics of different binding styles, but also the more elusive qualities that make up the character of a particular book. By setting me loose in those amazing book collections and showing me how to pay attention, Greenfield slowly taught me to recognize what we conservators vaguely call the “integrity” of a book. And that’s what we do, it turns out. We try to identify the components or qualities, both obvious and subtle, that make up the complex essence of a particular book, so that we can choose a treatment that will preserve that essence as much as possible.

How do you think working in preservation has shaped or changed your worldview?

Working with very old objects, especially ones that tell me their own history through handling grime, repairs, early annotations, etc., has given me a longer view of time and an awareness of how tiny my own lifespan is. But at the same time I’m now hyper-aware of how much damage I have the power to do with a small act. If my treatment of a book shows up a century from now as just one of its many small unobtrusive signs of historical interference (or perhaps as a charming clumsy folk repair that should be preserved as part of the book’s history!) I’ll be doing well. In spite of my longer vision I still can’t see what my treatment of the book will look like in the long run, because I’m limited by my own time’s perspective. What we think of as neutral may look jarring to a future viewer. Or it may become harmful with age. In the end, ironically, all these thoughts have made me less of a compulsively conservative person than I was when I started out. All you can do put in your best effort with the knowledge you have.

What part of your preservation work most excites and engages you? Give specific examples.

I remember handling a manuscript book of Wordsworth’s poems soon after I started my training. The curator told me that the folded pages had been sewn together by Dorothy, the poet’s sister, who had been an amateur bookbinder. It was the first time I had that experience of feeling time suddenly telescope so that I was brought right up close to the binder who had left those threads, as if we were together in the same room. That’s a feeling that still excites me. Every book potentially reveals its own story through little tracks left behind by the binder, as well as by all the other people who have ever had the book in their care. When I see knife marks left on the boards by the binder to tell himself where to make lacing holes, or even when I see the place where in some moment long ago someone like me missed the fold with his needle, I feel a shivery sense of kinship, and then a kind of responsibility to do well by this thing he made that’s now in my trust.

If you were teaching what you do to a student, what would you say is the most important thing to learn in order to do your job well?

Don’t ever think you’ve finally learned how to do something. Talking with other colleagues about what they do, visiting other labs, studying with other teachers, should be a career-long practice.

Bonus question (optional) - What do you preserve and why?

A new answer to that question has to be figured out again and again – that’s what keeps conservation work interesting. What we try to preserve is the integrity of a book, which we think of as something we can keep even after making some alterations, so it often means something different from authenticity (which can’t be substituted with anything else and still be there). But there are different kinds of integrity – mechanical, artifactual, aesthetic, to name three – and they often contradict each other. A new decision has to be made each time as to which ones are most important for that particular book. It could be that no element can be changed without losing the integrity of the book. That’s why a conservator has to develop an inner sense that can only come from looking at and handling lots and lots of books, in somewhat the same way we learn to recognize the emotions on faces by relating to lots and lots of different people.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Portraits in Preservation - Eric Alstrom

I’m very pleased that the next Portrait in Preservation is from Eric Alstrom. Eric is my nearest colleague – our libraries are only a few miles down the road from each other – and I did a conservation practicum with Eric during my library school days, so some of what he says has influenced how I approach my work.

Bio: Eric Alstrom received his MILS in 1989 at the University of Michigan School of Information and Library Studies. After graduation, he apprenticed under James Craven at the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library for four years. He continued his training at the Bessenberg Bindery, a private hand bindery, in Ann Arbor, working both on the production side (bound journals and dissertations) and in book repair (conservation and restoration).

After a year of working at the University of Michigan's Special Collections Library to gain the perspective of the rare book librarian and curator, he moved to Athens, Ohio in 1994 to take on duties as Ohio University Library's Collections Conservator. In 1998, Eric moved to New England to become Dartmouth College's first book conservator. While at Dartmouth he expanded the popular Book Arts Workshop, which had focused solely on printing, into binding and artists books.

Currently, Eric is Head of Conservation at Michigan State University. When not fulfilling his administrative duties or designing a new conservation lab (he is currently designing his fourth), Eric works on the bench focusing on rare and valuable books from MSU’s Special Collections Library. He also teaches book arts and binding for MSU’s Residential College for Art and Humanities’ Book Arts Seminars and at Hollander’s in Ann Arbor and other studios regionally and nationally.

To view some of Eric’s design bindings, artists books and conservation work, please visit

Describe an experience that was particularly influential in your professional development.

I was in library school studying archival management when three things happened which changed my career path. First, I got a job at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. Second, I sort of randomly choose to take a seminar on something called “preservation” because it sounded kind of interesting. Third, because of my love of history (it is what I studied for my bachelor’s degree), I took a class that same semester with noted book historian Leila Avrin on the history of the book. During this class, we took a tour of the basement of the Bentley Library where this mysterious man did something with books. His name was Jim Craven and he showed us some books he was disbinding, one where he was washing the pages, another he was sewing, and yet another he was covering in full leather.

It clicked that what he was doing was not just fixing historical books, but he was preserving them and I understood what that meant because of the preservation seminar I was taking. Somehow, I talked my way into an internship with him. Jim told me that he’d take me on, and if I wasn’t any good at the book stuff, I could wash the sinks and mop the floor for the semester.

Well, I must have done something right because Jim took me on as an apprentice and it was from him I learned my fundamental binding and conservation skills and the philosophy of preservation I still adhere to today. Jim and I are still in touch today and I still turn to him for advice, as any good apprentice turns to his master in his time of need.

How do you think working in preservation has shaped or changed your worldview?

I am much more aware of the impermanence of things… really everything. Of course being “older and wiser” may play into that, but I think working in conservation has shown me how fragile the world around us is, including ourselves. I know one of the goals of preservation is to make things last for the indefinite future so this awareness of impermanence almost seems contradictory. But I think having this sense of how materials break down and objects deteriorate guides me as I make decisions on conservation treatments by making me realize that no matter what I do, someday it will have to be redone or the book will still disappear despite my best efforts. My job is just another step in increasing the books longevity, but someday the path will still come to an end.

What part of your preservation work most excites and engages you? Give specific examples.

I became interested in conservation because of the way it combines the collecting of books (i.e. librarianship), a knowledge of history, and an artistic sense. It was a way to use my hands to create a tangible product, but also use the mind for problem solving and to put what one is doing in a broader context. While I still enjoy the philosophical background of conservation, what has engaged me most over the years is much more mundane and physical: the engineering and problem solving. Most of my work has been in collections conservation, where I am working with more than one item at a time. How can we take this tall stack of cloth-bound books with torn spines and create the most efficient workflow to repair them? What is the best way to protect new paperback books as they enter the library? Is there a more cost efficient way to handle pamphlet binding other than buying pre-made binders that are expensive and never the right size? For all of these situations I have created workflows, jigs and new binding techniques to solve the problems and help protect the library’s books.

If you were teaching what you do to a student, what would you say is the most important thing to learn in order to do your job well?

Since I do a lot of teaching and currently have an intern, this is something I think a lot about. Of course there are the mechanics: the hand skills and how to use the tools and how the various materials work. But that comes with practice and time. Each individual, no matter how influential the teacher is, will develop their own style and methods. I think it is more important to impart a sense of the importance and essential nature of the work we do; more of the philosophical side of conserving and preserving. Ideas such as “First, do no harm” and “Save as much as you can” must not only be followed, but understood, in order to become successful in the field.

Bonus question (optional) - What do you preserve and why?

To be trite, I preserve books because I love books. I love the way the open, the way they smell, the history and mechanics that make up their essence. Perhaps if my mother hadn’t been a librarian and I had taken a painting class in high school, I might have ended up as a painting conservator. But it was books and not art so this is what I do. But regardless of the medium, I preserve things because I want our past to be present in our future. I find this thinking permeates much of what I do whether at work or at home or while making an artists book. Even though I know all this stuff is impermanent (as I mentioned earlier), I am still ever hopeful that it will somehow survive, just like us humans will somehow survive, and future generations can look back and say: “This is what they used to do and see how it influences us even today.” And perhaps they will even say “I wonder who helped save this book and what was his life like?”

Monday, March 12, 2012

Portraits in Preservation - Michèle Cloonan

I am happy to be posting another portrait in preservation and thrilled that it is Michele Cloonan. Her writing often inspires me and her 2001 Library Trends article "W(h)ither Preservation" continues to be one of my favorite things written for the preservation field.

Bio: Michèle V. Cloonan is Dean and Professor of the Graduate School of Library & Information Science at Simmons College.  Prior to that she was Chair and Associate Professor, Department of Information Studies, UCLA.  She has written widely in the areas of preservation, book trade history, and bibliography.  Her most recent publications have concerned the preservation of digital media and the ethical, social, and political aspects of preservation.  Before she began her teaching career, she designed the preservation program at Brown University.  Dean Cloonan has held a variety of offices in the American Library Association, served on the board of the American Printing History Association, and is immediate past  Chair of the Board of Directors of the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC).  She has also served on the editorial boards of Libraries & Culture, Library Quarterly, and Libri.  Long interested in international preservation education, she was a member of the Preservation and Conservation Section of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) from 2006-09.  From 2004-07 she coordinated a Simmons College/Harvard University/UCLA Libraries initiative to train Iraqi librarians.  Michèle was president of the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) in 2008-09. She is the recipient of the 2010 Paul Banks and Carolyn Harris Preservation Award of the American Library Association.

Describe an experience that was particularly influential in your professional development.

When I started college, I planned to go to law school. A chance meeting in 1973 with a local bookbinder who lived in Shaftsbury, Vermont, changed my career path. Kathryn (Posy) Gerlach was an American who went to Europe to study bookbinding. While working in Leipzig with Ignatz Wiemeler she met her future husband, Gerhard Gerlach. They moved to New York City in 1934, and to Shaftsbury, Vermont some thirty years later.  I studied with Posy my last two years of college, by which time she was a widow.

My studies with Posy included more than bookbinding. She and Gerhard collaborated with Frederic Goudy, Dard Hunter, and Veronica and Rudolph Ruzicka. (Rudolph was an artist, book designer; his daughter Veronica was a cartographer an artist who made paste papers.) Posy owned examples of all of their work.  So began my initiation into the book arts. The poet and printer Claude Fredericks was my thesis advisor.  Posy was the edition binder for Claude’s Banyan Press.  Regular field trips to the special collections at Williams College introduced me to the history of the book.  All thoughts of law school soon banished.

Although I gave up bookbinding in the 1980s, my immersion in the book arts has not abated.  My husband, Sidney Berger, and I collect fine press books, artist’s books, and decorated papers. Many, many students and book artists come to our house each year to see our collections.  In this I am guided by Posy’s generosity.

How do you think working in preservation has shaped or changed your worldview?

I view the world through preservation-colored glasses.  It all started in 1976 when I went to Dublin to intern with Tony Cains in the conservation lab at Trinity College. A major controversy had just erupted in Ireland: should the Book of Kells and other important artifacts be allowed to leave the country for two years to travel around the United States as part of the blockbuster Irish Treasures exhibition?  Tony Cains lost the battle to keep the items in Ireland. I went to Dublin last spring to re-familiarize myself with the event. Re-reading the contemporary accounts in the Irish Times, reminded me how important cultural heritage issues are to the public. 

Since then, many other world events have influenced me.  At the 1991 IFLA meeting in Moscow, Susan Swartzburg and I watched protesters take down Soviet-era monuments.  Would they be preserved, we wondered.  The answer to that question has turned out to be rather complex.

After the American invasion in Baghdad in 2003, a group us of starting training programs for Iraqi librarians and educators.  For me the preservation of cultural heritage is intertwined with social justice.

I have been teaching preservation management since 1986.  I have always believed that every librarian and archivist should understand the importance of preserving the cultural record.  In this digital era Preservation awareness is more important than ever before.

What part of your preservation work most excites and engages you?

I equally love teaching preservation and writing about it.

If you were teaching what you do to a student, what would you say is the most important thing to learn in order to do your job well?

Lead with passion, discipline, and dedication. Learn patience; change doesn’t always come quickly. Find collaborators.  Preservation is an inherently multi-disciplinary field.

Bonus question (optional) - What do you preserve and why?

I have just been writing about this topic.  Preserve everything that will be of value to future researchers.  That is a reductionist answer. I am in the final stages of compiling an anthology of preservation publications, Preserving Our Heritage: Perspectives from Antiquity to the Digital Age.  It will be published by Neal Schuman later this year. The authors represent a number of disciplines and have a number of answers to that question. I learned so much by reading so widely. I can’t wait to introduce my students to authors whose work was new to me when I started this project.  So my answer is: read widely and think deeply.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The immortal book, or, the New York Times needs a fact checker

Those of you who read (and remember) what I write on this blog might not be surprised to hear that I am particularly attentive to the language of permanence when referring to library collections (or anything else for that matter). With that in mind I will acknowledge a sigh/groan/eye-roll when I read the otherwise interesting article in Saturday's New York Times about the Internet Archive's repository of physical books.

The third paragraph of the article just had to begin "Destined for immortality..." when speaking about the physical books which were arriving to be placed into storage. Apart from just being a cheap journalist cliche, this statement is factually, philosophically, chemically, and in every other way WRONG. 

The Decayed Book - by Edward Baker (edwbaker) from flickr