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.

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