Sunday, April 8, 2012

Portraits in Preservation - Gary Frost

I must confess this Portraits in Preservation project is perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences of my preservation life. I'll also confess to being a bit giddy about getting Gary Frost as my latest profile. I'm always intrigued to hear what he has to say. Not only does he "connect the dots" in ways I hadn't imagined, he connects dots I didn't even know were on the page. Enjoy.

from University of Iowa Libraries
Bio: [Largely excerpted from a 2006 ALCTS press release announcing Frost as winter of the Banks/Harris Preservation award.] Frost's professional career began after he completed a master's of fine arts at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1969. That year he joined the staff of the Newberry Library under the supervision of Paul Banks and Norvell Jones. When he left the Newberry in 1981, he was managing the conservation program. Beginning his formal teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1972, Frost has served as a role model for a generation of conservators and preservation librarians. He joined the faculty of the School of Library Service at Columbia University in the Preservation/Conservation training program founded by Paul Banks in 1981. In 1983, he helped begin the Book and Paper Intensive (PBI) and still serves PBI as an advisor and teacher. The Preservation/Conservation training program moved to the University of Texas at Austin Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and Frost joined the faculty from 1992 to 1999. He is the emeritus university conservator at the University of Iowa, and co-founder of Iowa Book Works.

As a writer and thinker, Frost's numerous publications range from the theoretical to the practical. His classic publications include “A Brief History of Western Bookbinding without One Mention of Decoration,” “Historical Paper Case Binding and Conservation Rebinding,” “Structure and Action in Hand Bookbinding,” and “Digital Preservation in the Context of Changing Reading Behaviors and Reading Methods.” He also writes on a range of related topics on his blog, which began in 2000.

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

Early on my teacher, Paul Banks, sent me on a two-month internship to the book section of the preservation department of the Library of Congress. I think it was still called the Restoration Office and Frazer Poole was the Director.

That was in the summer of 1974 when [Chris] Clarkson, [Don] Etherington and [Peter] Waters were on staff. It was all a wonderland. I remain grateful for the many experiences, including [President] Nixon’s resignation. Paul was a smart teacher to realize that his student would be receptive to some one else’s instruction.

Chris, Don and Peter did not skimp on instruction. These were general staff tutorials and I was entranced. There was lettering and design by Peter, tool handling and covering technique by Don and historical binding projects with Chris. I took a pilgrimage to the Council on Library Resources to study Chris’ awesome Limp Vellum Binding project that was a treasure chest of models, materials, films and photographs. I copied long extracts.

The whole experience was an adventure for hands and mind. I returned much better able to learn.

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

A noetic view (that causality resides in principles of consciousness) projected into library preservation encompasses oscillations of oral and literal, intuitive and analytic, transmission of culture. As Walter Ong proposed, fundamentals of culture transmission can be understood by study of the evolution of the mind in relation to memory.

The richness of a noetic view of preservation arises with an awareness of the interlacing of orality and literacy, as transmission technologies, across library history. Libraries arose within oral cultures following the long advent of writing. They flourished as keepers of literary transmission during domination of literary culture transmission until the twentieth century. We are now well into Ong’s era of “secondary orality” when influences between and hybrids of memory transmission methods outweigh any unilateral domination by either orality or literacy. At the moment we are in the middle of a two-way street with strange vehicles passing in either direction. As Sharon Cumberland points out (Of Ong and Media Ecology): “The beauty of Ong’s approach is that it accounts for all paradigms of narrative, including those that have not fully emerged and those that will emerge in the future.” [Editor’s note – I found the following article a helpful introduction to Ong and his ideas, “Looking Is Not Enough: Reflections on Walter J. Ong andMedia Ecology” Paul A. Soukup, S.J., Santa Clara. University Proceedings of the Media Ecology Association, Volume 6, 2005.]

Opportunities for interpretation of a more noetic view of preservation are everywhere. For example we could approach preservation of magnetic audio media with understanding of the transmission methods of oral culture layered with literary acts of transcription. Instead we leap to an almost “tertiary” orality where purely automated analog-to-digital reformatting and computer enabled access are used. Then we wonder why unintended consequences, unseen costs, and commercial agendas spring up to subvert preservation.

The new biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson portrays a career poised between such humanist and technological ideologies. Jobs’ conscious regard for intuition over intellect, as he experienced it in rural Indian culture, offers a classic contrast between a more orally dominated culture and one more literate. That Jobs could project this experience into product fulfillment for a wider culture is just another indication of the power of the Ong premise of composite memory transmission.

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

I love the competitions between real and virtual books. As library preservation workers we must assure the continuing role of physical collections in a context of their screen delivery. The key word is “continuing.” I am particularly interested in the continuing role of real books.

My own contention is that the paper and screen book collections are interdependent and that neither will flourish without the other. This is a fairly risky and adamant proposition but there is also substantial and even eerie evidence that physical and virtual book collections do complement each other. This is apparent in an emerging balanced commerce between paper and screen book publishing as well as in the mutual enthusiasms for both ebooks and print books in education. Technologies advance all handheld reading devices of both codex and screen while print-on-demand is as digital as phone display.

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?

An important lesson is that hands prompt the mind. The problems and innovations of hand bookbinding and book conservation are infiltrated with abstractions of book structure. These abstractions can take over and obscure the experience of making books. In the same way the use of tools is not so much a technology as a bodily performance.

I am old enough to remember trade craftspeople using their hand skills. I remember them in my father’s guitar factory and later I encountered trade letterpress printers. I can also include the expert draftspersons that taught me in art school.  Conceptual context was not discussed, but they knew what they were doing.

We are now privileged to construct more comprehensive and abstract discipline and use more scientific system and computer assistance for our work in book conservation. Let us use this approach and this emphasis with the diligence of craftspeople.

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