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Bookbinding & Conservation
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I am a BookbinderI know the gritty feel of old leather when it is suffering red rot, and comes off on your hands like rust. I know the sick but subtle snap of paper too far gone with acid breakdown to save. I know the sharp aroma of polyvinyl acetate like an old friend, and the soft hiss of metal on metal when the blades of my board shear are properly adjusted.
You see, I am a bookbinder and book conservator. There are not many bookbinders anymore, and fewer still who, like me, are in private practice. Most bookbinders these days work for large institutions, such as university libraries, museums, or government archives. There's a good reason for this: it is difficult to concentrate on being a good bookbinder while having to worry about running a business, even a small one such as I have. It hasn't been easy, and there have been more times than I care to recall that I have picked up the phone with a vague dread that it will be a creditor asking about a payment that I haven't been able to make. But I have managed to stay in business for three years now, have learned a lot about being both a bookbinder and a businessman, and am looking forward with just a bit of optimism to continuing in this craft.
I am not a great bookbinder and conservator. The Library of Congress will not call me in to do restoration work on the Declaration of Independence. But I try to be a good bookbinder, knowing full well that this is a craft which will take a lifetime to master, and that in the meantime I have skills I can offer, good work that I can do to help save some of the books and documents that are part of our heritage. I see myself as being like a small-town doctor, trusted in the community to meet most of the needs which will be likely to come up, but willing to refer major problems to specialists when needed.
About one third of the work I do is for one of the State institutions nearby. The University Library is just a block down the street from my shop, and the State Historical Society is in the basement of the same building. The State Archives are only 30 minutes south in the state capitol. None of these institutions can really support a full-time conservator, so it makes sense for them to send the work out when it is beyond the ability of their staff to repair.
The other two thirds of the work I do is for private individuals. Some of these individuals are book dealers and collectors, who know the value of their books in terms of dollars and cents, and make judgements about repairs in the cold calculus of money. As a businessman, I understand the need to look at the bottom line in this way. Those folks are trying to make a living, and I try and help them while earning a fair wage myself.
But most of my clients are just average people, people who, like me, love books. And they are willing to put their money into a particularly cherished thin volume of poetry, a favorite book of children's stories that they had when they were young and now wish to pass on to their children, or a thick family bible that they want to give a chance to survive for another few generations, along with the family history it contains. I look through their books, assessing paper acidity, the strength of the sewing structure, the condition of the leather or cloth on the cover. I offer estimates, suggestions, options for treatment. I always recommend saving as much of the original binding as we can, because that is a record of the book's life and part of its history as much as anything which is written inside. And I use standard archival techniques, so that if someone in the future figures out a better way of giving treatment, what I have done can easily be reversed without causing additional damage.
It's a good life. I don't have to punch a timeclock, or get the boss's approval before I leave early, though I often work weekends and evenings to stay on top of my backlog and my bills. More importantly, I feel like I am doing something that really matters, saving our history one book at a time.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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