Gill Partington

IMG_3381The title of this workshop is, in the world of librarianship and special collections, nowadays something of a dirty word. Countless priceless Medieval and Renaissance volumes had their handwritten marginalia cut out and their bindings replaced with ersatz leather copies, all in the name of ‘restoration’. The tastes of Victorian bibliophiles and collectors required books to be returned to a notional pristine state by removing damage and, more crucially, expunging all signs of previous use. Current best practice centres, by contrast, around a careful ethos of preservation, repairing books so as to arrest decay and maintain their integrity. But how to deal with the legacy of these previous botched re-bindings and calamitous clean-up jobs? Should they themselves be reversed or left in place? The tatty paperback book I brought along – Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul – is unlikely to trouble book conservation experts, but nevertheless illustrates the dilemma nicely. One owner has taken Tippex to the cover to obscure the name of a predecessor. But if I remove the Tippex, then what of the writing underneath: should that be removed also?

We can never restore books to an original, untouched state. But ‘preservation’ raises questions, too. Which stage in a book’s physical evolution is the most authentic, and the state in which it should be maintained? More practically, since even the rarest are objects in use, isn’t decay and change inevitably part of a book’s life? Celia Pym’s knitting works seemed to suggest not restoration or preservation, but a third position. Rather than disguise or hide damage and holes, she treats them as an opportunity for creation, adaptation and evolution. This was the opposite of invisible mending: garments that wore their histories on their sleeve, quite literally, exhibiting themselves as patchworks and palimpsests; revealing rather than concealing their accumulated layers of use.

By the same token, could we see all physical alterations to the book (even dodgy Victorian re-bindings), not as damage or deviations from a pristine state, but as signs of its on-going circulation in the world? Books can tell other stories beyond those carried by their text, after all. My paperback, with its adolescent biro and Tippex struggles of ownership is, in its own small way, a piece of cultural history as much as Renaissance marginalia or Medieval chained library books. It is part of the history of books and of reading.  Or even the history of not reading, since the inside pages, unlike the covers, are unmarked and new-looking. It is much-handled but little-read. Its battle scars perhaps come from being brandished by more than one generation of would-be intellectuals, for whom it represented the last word in cultural sophistication but who – like me – never got beyond the first few pages. Engagements with books can be complex and varied. Marks of (mis)treatment, even bad repair jobs, might show something of the uses to which they are put, and the investments we have in them.


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