Craftsmanship in a Digital Age

By Chen Shen

Book conservators don’t wear gloves. They stitch hundreds years’ old parchment with slices of Japanese tissue. They glue leather cover onto oak boards with mix of PVA and Methyl Cellulose. They wash maps and prints in purified water. All the work in conservation labs is done with bare hands. Like surgeons, book conservators always keep their hands clean. This is easier done without gloves.

Stepping into a conservation lab, either it was the classroom in North Bennet Street School, the lab behind the glass door in the basement of Boston Athenaeum, or the stuffy room on the rear end of the second floor corridor in the Boston Public Library McKim Building, one feels getting back to the past immediately. The display of all the strange tools made of wood or metal and atmosphere of crafts workshops inside those labs all triggered the feeling.

Although named as “labs”, the conservation labs at North Bennet Street School and Boston Public Library look more like little workshops or art studios. Cedarn workstations separated by shelves of tools, oak book press machines and rolls of different foils and paper leant against the wall. Knives, chisels, bone folders and brushes scattered all around family pictures and handmade pendants clipped right on the lamp.

The conservation lab in Boston Athenaeum is more like a real “lab”. It’s tidy and well organized. Although located in the basement, there are huge windows opened to the Boston Common Park, lights in the room are adjusted perfectly. Fancy tools and machines wiped clean and shiny, assigned one by one on shelves. Chisels and other edge tools hung on walls. Only books and tools are laid on the worktable. No soft toy, photos or travel souvenir can be spotted in the working environment.

Conservators love to show first comers how they wash the paper. When people heard that they would see 150 years’ old newspaper being washed, most of them would think they have listening problems to fix. A huge amount of daily work in a conservation lab in the library, either in Boston Athenaeum or in Boston Public Library, is washing the old paper trying to remove the stains and old yellow color. As the matter of book and document conservation, there’s not too much book binding involved.

Evan Knight is the confederate imprints conservator at Boston Athenaeum. His job is to wash prints produced during the American Civil War.

“Washing and neutralization is not like what people imagined, just soak paper then rinse it. It is a complex aqueous treatment that aims to remove the acidic products from the paper,” said Knight, who has been accustomed to people’s first reaction when they heard about what he do to preserve the historical documents.

The process began with spritzing purified water mixed with fifty percent alcohol all over the paper until it became completely wet. Two pieces of Japanese paper called tengujo were brushed tightly on each side, absorbing extra water and preventing the paper from dissembling during the process. Sometimes Knight added ammonia or alkali salt in the water, intending to neutralize the pH range and remove the stains by dissolving the ions. “The amount depends on the type and condition of the object I’m bathing. The whole process from repairing to drying can take days,” said Knight, who was carefully spreading layers of felts on a print he just cleaned. His movement of stretching the felts was so careful and gentle that it looked like he was putting his baby daughter into bed.

An outlier comparing to the majority of the conservation community in Boston area who are all somewhat affiliated to the bookbinding program at North Bennet Street School, Knight learnt how to do his work from University of Texas at Austin then practiced his techniques at Northeast Document Conservation Center and the Library of Congress.

Looked like a 30-year-old doctorate student studying mathematics or physics, Knight was quiet most of the time. The shaggy hair covered his eyes when he bent over to focus on what he was doing. He wore sneakers and torn jeans. He looked like a genius kid living in the lab trying to figure out some Millennium Prize Problems.

Knight’s table was dispersed with glass tubes, bottles and jars filled with different colored fluid and powders. The sound caused by scissors landing on the metal plate was the only sign showing he was still in room.

“If the piece is not important, no one is going to even see it, why are we doing it?” Knight explained how he felt about his work with a philosophical question. He buried his face deep in the sink, trying to attach a slice of Japanese tissue to a tiny little hole in the center of a print, “we think about where our efforts are best spent and how can they support our collections best.

Knowing how to treat the things that really deserve the treatment, understanding how to allocate our efforts is really tough,” said Knight, whose voice deepened when he talked about what he thinks is the essence of his job.

At the open house in North Bennet Street School and conservation panel at Boston Athenaeum, there seemed to be the same group of people hanging around all the time. Those people developed a small and young book conservation community in Boston, half of which are students learning bookbinding and conservation, the other half are conservators as well as teachers and mentors from various institutes.

“We sometimes think our jobs are like chaos managers. What we are trying to do is slowing chemical changes down,” said Dawn Walus, chief conservator at Boston Athenaeum.

“We only treat special collections. Things we think that are really important, we want to collect these and preserve them forever, because they are so valuable, so unique, so part of our culture,” said Walus, who was the only conservator I met that wore designer dress and jewels with black oversized cat eye glasses.

“This is what we are committed to. Applying skills in the right way, knowing when to not do much and to leave things that way is tough,” said Walus, wearing smiles when she looked into my eyes during the whole conversation, which was quite different from other conservators’ mumbling talking style.

Walus and Knight are different from all the other conservators or students I met with. Neither of them went to North Bennet Street School or any other book binding workshops. They both held degrees of arts chemistry and arts conservation from different institutes out of Boston. Their presence at the Boston Athenaeum made the place more cosmopolitan and sophisticated than the conservation labs in North Bennet Street School and Boston Public Library.

One of the unique courses taught at North Bennet Street School is how to make all of those tools people use in the bookbinding process. Students learn how to make bone folders, paring knives, spokeshaves and all other tools needed in the bookmaking an repairing process.

In the conservation lab that congested with book covers and antique book leafs, assistant conservator at Boston Public Library Chris Letizia proudly showed me all the tools he made, which were basically every single piece he used.

Graduated from North Bennet Street School five years ago, Letizia learnt how to sharpen English paring knives and carve bamboo heras to suit his own needs in the two years’ program. Unlike Walus and Knight who order every single piece of tool they need customized from New York, Letizia thought that making his own tools is where the real craftsmanship of book conservation lies. With conservator at BPL Stuart Walker retiring next June, Letizia started to do all the work in lab by himself. He washed stacks of Massachusetts Abolitionist for a coming anti-slavery documentation exhibition at BPL. His daily work also includes rebinding Middle Ages collections for the library digitalization program.

Wandering around the conservation lab in BPL, one must look out what they steps on. Randomly opening up a split book on top of the stack on the floor, Gothic Latin characters embellished with Middle Ages’ colorful paintings of monsters and angels would pop out.

Although hadn’t been to the two open houses events, Letizia spoke highly of the whole conservation community in Boston, “it’s a pretty small field so we keep talking to each other. It’s nice to know that I can have someone to turn to when there’s something new.

Like when I am about to handle papyrus, what shall I do? And things like that,” said Letizia, who looked more like an US Navy soldier than a scrupulous book conservator who worked behind piles of paper and books. His military hairstyle and 5′ 11″ tall figure all made him look rigid and tough.

It only took Letizia fifteen minutes to wash a piece of newspaper. The brush he used to attach the tengujo on the newspaper was four times the size of that Knight used. Instead of attaching tengujo one by one as Knight did, Letizia simply stretched out two pieces on both sides. The smell of strong alcohol Letizia sprayed on the paper was at least twice the density I smelt at Boston Athenaeum. But only in this way can he finish the workload in the Boston Public Library. The outcome of Letizia’s work was equally neat.

Letzia valued his job, claiming preserving books was what he had dreamed to do since he was very young, and working in conservation was what he had set up mind to do even before he attended North Bennet Street School.

“Conservation is a luxury. It is expensive to do. Cheap paperback is not coming to conservation lab,” said Letizia, talking about the challenges some conservation institutes are facing.

Like all the conservators I talked to, Letizia was not a big fan of technology, “If books are all going to kindles and devices like that. Information might not just be that valuable. If we are really going to memorize something, we shall write them down. That’s what human being has been doing for thousands of years. Unless the technology is incredibly better, I don’t think there will be real threat to books,” Letizia said affirmably.

The most widely used material in conservation lab is Japanese tissue made from inner bark of mulberry bush. The thin, soft, light, almost transparent yet oddly strong tissue used in every conservation lab is called kozogami. The tissue coming with different color and thickness is used for different mending tasks in book conservation. Handmade in Japan from kozo plants that are only harvested two seasons a year, a piece of A4 sized kozogami can cost some $20 to $30.  A single wash of a piece of print can cost at least six pieces of Japanese tissue. That is one of the reasons why book conservation is a luxurious service.

“It is the things that go through the conservators’ minds like why we are doing this is what is really tough,” Walus told me, “The question one must ask themselves is what’s the appropriate thing to do? Do I do that to get paid? Is that ethical?”

The code of ethics set by American Institute for Conservation, where Walus is a senior member, is taught to conservation students in almost all the institutes. It basically tells the students that they should always commit to the long-term preservation of the piece as well as the short-term value of piece. This set of rules is confronted more often in an age when everything is moving digitalized.

“My feeling is that books as objects are extremely important not only as a documentation and a historical artifact, but also there’s a tactile since that’s related to human memory and human awareness,” said 70-year-old Samuel Ellenport, who has been working as a bookbinder for over 40 years. Ellenport just sold his own bindery and retired. Studied history at Brown University and Oxford University, Ellenport is on advisory board of the North Bennet Street School. His remarks on where books are going in the digital age are shared among the book conservation community. “Paper books bring a different sense of history, continuity and human experience. I think books will never go out of favor. My feeling is though that people really have to see them and use them to get the impact of them,” said Ellenport.

Even students who said they have been reading textbooks all from e-readers and computers agreed with Ellenport.

“It’s become more important as people move to e-readers and digital media,” said first-year student at Simmons College Stephanie Warner. “There are still lots of people like the feel of paper book, especially those early works. They have to be protected, so that generations to come, when we are not printing as much, they won’t become relics,” said Warner, who declared herself a huge fan of Amazon kindle e-reader for all the convenience it brought.

Despite sneering at the power of technology, no conservator can really fight against the wave of digitalization. A concentration of work in all conservation labs is moved to digitalizing their collections. Both Boston Public Library and Boston Athenaeum have set up websites for their digitalization program. Photos are taken and put online.

Being skeptical about the technology’s power, Walus admitted that digitalization had brought them more exposure and thus more funding and donations. “The more things are digitalized, there’s more work to be done here,” said Walus, who appeared to have assorted feelings toward the technology changes. “There’s more and more work coming to us because of the digitalization. More and more people know what conservation is. That’s why we’ve been expanding the digitalization project here at Athenaeum,” said Walus.

Despite handling old objects, the community of book conservators was never old. In fact, it’s becoming younger. With the conservator at Boston Public Library Stuart Walker retiring next June, left the only assistant conservator Chris Letizia ascending. Deputy Director of Boston Athenaeum James Reid-Cunningham retired and young Dawn Walus taking the leadership in the lab. No wonder most book conservators don’t bother hiding their jeans and jewelry under the white lab coats, unless there were patrons or cameras present. The conservators are craftspeople, not artists or scientists, although what they do is sort of a mix of those two fields.

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