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?”

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