No gordian solution for the resilient conservator

Stepan from I-Bookbinding has started a set of interviews to bookbinders and conservators, and he has virtually popped in to the studio. Here’s a tour to the conservation lab, a chat about books, bindings, conservation and current projects. Come and join us!

After showing the few study cases it is clear that ethical considerations are probably the most difficult task  for a book conservator. Find below three different struggles: with the customer, with a most weakened original sewing and with the inherent damages caused by an original structre:

1) Ethics in conservation, or persuading your customer not to trim a book that does not fit in the shelf:

The owner had a clear idea on what to be done, and I myself had a solid opinion on what not to do. The collector has gathered a complete set of the Encyclopédie (the very first one, by d’Alembert and Diderot): 35 volumes. Most of them are a first edition (1751), full bound in cat’s paw calf (*), sewn endbands and red coloured edges.
To his despair two of them are a shameful 3rd edition (1759), but rather than miniding the dates I only have eyes for a ravishing semi-limp parchment binding, with gorgeous marbled edges, starch marbled endpapers, exquisit green sewn endbands and generous gutter and margins. This paper generousity results into a significantly larger format compared to the first-edition predecessors. That’s why he insisted on having the parchment volumes trimmed and re-bound, in order to have an aligned and uniformed army of encyclopaedies on the shelf.

Limp vellum bindinggs, marbled edges, sewn endbands on parchment core.

Limp vellum bindings, marbled edges, sewn endbands on parchment core. The bindings from the 3rd edition were quite damaged, but were’nt they worth keeping?!

It was awfully hard to make him see my point: an uneven collection with such beautiful original bindings is always much worth than a full set all alike with a few insiders wearing contemporary bindings.
Since the main issue was the homogeneous appearance of the spines on the library shelf, he agreed to have the larger ones hidden behind a leather dust jacket imitating the neighbouring leather volumes. He did not dislike the idea, but neither over the moon about it  because the books would still be larger, which means the sprinkled edges remain intact… and the conservator happy and in peace of mind.
There was still another larger volume that had a regular early 20th century binding -already loose- and I was the one who agreed to rebind this time. The new binding has the cat’s paw decoration, labels, endbands and coloured edges like the first editions’.

This story reminds me an anecdot a of a recently passed away bookbinder whom I think of when I am puzzled in decision making. An elderly widow brought him a book and told him she wanted it fixed. Since the book had belonged to her husband her desire was to keep the binding despite its poor condition.
No worries! He said, then did a strategic cut with to dettach the binding from the text-block. Gave her the covers and said: You keep the boards and I shall make you a proper new binding for the book.
I often envy that bookbinder for all the concerns he never had, trimming dilemmas like the cut on the gordian knot (**). A sharpness deffinetly not easily found in a conservator’s brain!
2) To my great regret, in this medieval limp vellum binding we did a bit like the aforementioned bookbinder, because we could see no way to keep the original rolled sewing and at the same time enable the strengthness of the structure, so we delivered the sewing components aside, in a comfy custom-made conservation housing (inner parchment tackets, outer leather tackets remnants and the rolled parchment thread):

Rolled sewing on medieval limp vellum binding, before and after conservation
Medieval manuscript on rag paper with limp vellum binding, before and after conservation
Rolled sewing on medieval limp vellum binding, before and after conservation
Rolled sewing of a medieval limp vellum binding, fragments on a conservation housing

3) In the editor’s bindings and sewn on drawn-on covers bindings the original materials are fully kept, but doing drastic changes on the orginal structure (from tight back to hollow) for the sake of usability. Here’s the explanation of the conservation treatment:


(*)Cat’s paw is a type of leather decoration on calfskin bindings. The pattern resembles the paw marks of a cat, and it is done by tapping copperas (a green hydrated ferrous sulfate) on the leather. See here a really nice explanation of the cat’s paw technique or some examples of cat’s paw bindings. Reference: Roberts & Etherington. Bookbinding and the conservation of books. Library of Congress (1982).

(**): According to the greek legend, whoever untied the tangled Gordias’ knot would become the ruler of Asia. Many wise men had unsuccessfully tried before. Alexander the Great faced the issue cutting it with his sword and said “It is the same to cut than to untie”, (and he did conquer Orient).

Aknowledgement and dedicatory:

I am most grateful to Stepan Chizhov for the wonderful online interview and for his patience doing all the editings of the video. Thanks a lot!

I also thank the owners of the books you’ve seen, for their trust and for allowing me to share the images (Library of the ETSEIB -Superior School of Engeneering, Polythecnical University of Catalonia-, Municipal Archive of Figueres (Girona, Spain); Regional Archive of Baix Ebre (Torstosa, Tarragona, Spain) and the private collectors of the drawing, the print, and most specially the encyclopedia, for challenging my skills and ethics, and being always ready for a dialog).

Speaking of ethics, it would be inconsistent tha I didn’t credit all the efforts of the conservators who worked on the books shown in the interview:  Kristiina Mosel (parchment encylopaedia), Clàulia Callau (cat’s paw binding and leather dust jackets for the encylopaedia). Maria Correa (limp vellum binding and register books), Sandra Vílchez (register books), Pere Sacot (register books binding, and gilding the labels of the encyclopaedia), and Se Hee Song (all the books seen in the video, except the encyclopaedia).

I am dedicating this post to Se Hee, excellent conservator from Korea. Among the always complex decision making in conservation, the dedicatory came out without hesitation. She is very much into ethics in conservation, she has worked on -almost- all the books shown in the interview and above all because it has been a pleaseure to haver her at the studio.  You are much missed, Se Hee!

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