Amy Crist Associate Conservator of Books and Paper
It is said that more information is available to us through our smartphones than any previous generation ever had access to anywhere. So why then is it still important to preserve our printed media? After all, conservation, whether of old master paintings or books, requires a substantial investment. It takes time, space, specialized equipment, and skilled staff. We are firmly in the digital era, with millions of books available online and most journals accessible electronically. And yet the museum’s Ingalls Library has decided to implement a program aimed at preserving its huge collection of printed books.
The reason for this is simple. Books—physical books of paper, ink, leather, cloth, and parchment—are not just important, they are irreplaceable. Despite high-tech alternatives, an old-fashioned book remains the most efficient, effective, and effortless reading source. Can you describe the experience of reading this article? Yes, your brain recognizes the letters, which create words, which when strung together convey a meaning. But what other, more subtle bits of information do your senses detect? The weight of the magazine? The texture and smell of the pages and ink? The reflection of light off the paper? The thickness of the pages in your left hand compared to those in your right?
What conclusions has your brain drawn based on this sensory input? Without giving it much conscious thought, you know a lot about this magazine. You don’t have to check the date on the cover to have some clue as to how old it is. You know how many pages you’ve looked at compared to how many remain. You have a pretty intuitive sense of how long it takes to read a page, so you know whether you have time to finish the entire magazine now, or need to return to it later. Now consider how much of this valuable, but peripheral information would be less accessible or even missing if you were reading this text on a screen, tablet, or e-reader.
As electronic reading devices become more ubiquitous, researchers have begun studying how the process of reading screens differs from reading books. Imagine a favorite passage from a favorite book. You probably have a memory of where that passage was physically located in the book, even if you read it years ago. This phenomenon of being able to recall such an insignificant detail might relate to how our brains work. Different regions of our brains process different sensory information. When we are reading a physical book, our brains are more fully engaged because physical books provide a more sensory-rich experience in which we continuously use our vision as well as our senses of touch, smell, and hearing. This may be the reason researchers are discovering that people retain information more readily from physical books than from e-books.
Now imagine that you are a curator preparing for a major exhibition. During years of planning, you have pored over hundreds of sources—from historic auction catalogues to hand-typed PhD theses to enormous portfolios containing 19th-century collotype reproductions. The unique physical attributes of the materials enhance your comprehension without conscious effort. The physical books can be arranged on the shelf in an order that makes sense, and with a quick glance you can take stock of your sources. The book with the red cloth spine is unreadable, but it has an excellent bibliography. The small black book with the speckled edges has a footnote that needs to be investigated further. The thick, glossy exhibition catalogue has the best images. There are no analogous mnemonic processes for e-books.
Fortunately for our patrons, the Ingalls Library has more than half a million printed books, from 15th-century incunabula to the most current exhibition catalogues. In January 2014, I became the first conservator in the library’s 99-year history charged with the preservation and conservation of its collections. My position is unique in that I work in two departments: the Ingalls Library as well as the conservation department, where I am one of the conservators who cares for the art collection. There are some interesting differences in the nature of these two responsibilities, and those differences relate mainly to how the materials are used.
Art museums are in the business of beauty, and libraries are in the business of information. We appreciate paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings with our eyes and without touching them. With very few exceptions, we make every item in the library collection accessible to readers. This includes very old books, very expensive books, very small books, and extremely massive books. Most books have cloth covers, some have leather covers, and a few even have metal covers.
Preventing potential damage is so much more important than repairing existing damage, and this is one of the great advantages of having a staff conservator who is part of the library’s normal workflow. Understanding the structure of the library and how work is accomplished was an initial priority, enabling me to implement new policies that corrected problems or improved upon already good habits. Some of the improvements included amassing a better collection of book supports for readers to use when studying rare or fragile materials, creating more thorough guidelines for readers studying rare books, and updating our disaster recovery plan.
Another significant preventive measure under way involves improving and expanding our use of protective enclosures. Books with fragile surfaces need protection so they are not damaged when taken from and returned to the shelves. A four-flap wrapper is a common style of enclosure appropriate for small or thin items. The construction of these enclosures has been modified, so now they are not only quicker and less expensive to make, they also function better. For larger books, a different style of box, sometimes called a “clamshell” box made of high-quality corrugated cardboard, is the appropriate choice. Thanks to automated box-making machines, several companies now offer custom-size clamshell boxes at affordable prices. This April we measured more than 700 individual items in the rare collection for custom boxes. This will greatly improve the long-term health of our most prized materials.
Enclosures A corrugated clamshell box in the back, and a custom box for an unusual “book”—a shot glass, which is an issue of TR Ericsson’s Thirst Magazine (Thirst Magazine, Issue No. 9, 2014; 5.1 x 6.4 x 5.1 cm; courtesy of the artist). See it in TR Ericsson: Crackle & Drag at the Transformer Station.
Being an art research library, some of the “books” we collect stretch the definition of a book—a shot glass, a chess set, a plastic pillow. Despite their odd formats, they still must be cataloged and shelved with the other books. In these cases, I construct highly customized boxes that protect the items, make them suitable for shelving, and aid in safe handling. This is particularly helpful to the circulation assistants, who retrieve thousands of books a year. Our new board shear (imagine a paper trimmer on steroids) makes it possible to construct these boxes. Its 55-inch blade easily makes perfect parallel and perpendicular cuts on thick boards.
Policies and boxes aside, the work that people usually think of when they think of book conservation is repairing broken books. This highlights another big difference between my conservation duties for the art collection and those for the library collection. The monetary value of a broken library item is considered when proposing a treatment; some books are widely available, new or used but in excellent condition, for an amount of money not commensurate with the effort that would be required to fix a broken copy. In these cases, the broken book is replaced, not repaired. In other cases, the value of a broken book is purely informational, so if it does not have a high market value and is widely available at other institutions, the appropriate choice is to have it rebound at a commercial bindery. What remains are the books that I treat.
Books tend to break in similar ways—joints loosen, boards detach, and text blocks break—and there are ways of fixing all these problems. When repairing a book, restoring its structural functioning is of primary importance. It doesn’t matter whether the surfaces are pristine if the cover falls off when a reader opens it. Conveniently, when a book’s structure functions, its overall aesthetic impression tends to be pleasing as well. Like a handsome but weathered face, we accept signs of wear due to age and use.
Tome Repair Two books in the process of being repaired. The text block of one book is in a lying press, which is used to hold the spine upright, allowing the spine to be relined with an over-wide hinge, which will be used to reattach the separated cover boards.
Some problems, however, are almost impossible to repair, and these stem from the use of very poor quality materials, typically from the late 19th and early 20th century. The worst of these inherently bad materials are papers that have become so brittle that the book is almost impossible to touch without fracturing the pages. Replacement is not an option since the same edition of the book was likely printed on the same quality paper. In these cases, digitization is the solution. Fortunately, the Ingalls Library is also beginning a digitization program, with a full-time digital processing technician and a state-of-the-art book scanner.
Despite the ways library conservation differs from art conservation, the impetus is the same: two priceless, irreplaceable collections that must be cared for. Just as we would never stop exhibiting works of art even though photographs of them can be viewed online, we will not stop using books even though we can now read electronic versions. Nothing can replace the richness of experiencing the real thing.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2015