Wear, Tear, Permanence and Trust
Preservation Librarian, Fred Bearman, introduced us to the intricacies of rare book conservation, showing us that the book is a ‘three-dimensional mechanical object’ and one that embodies a wide variety of constituent materials and processes of making and mending. I spent a few minutes jotting down some of the materials that might have been used in the production of one of Fred’s early modern books: rags, wood pulp, water, resin, pitch, turpentine, metal, gold leaf, leather, board, cotton thread… there are presumably many more. Deconstructing the book, taking it back to its pages, printed ink, spine and cover helped us not only to understand Fred’s craft as a conservator, but also to realise the status early books expressed in their complex and costly material forms.
By contrast to Fred’s rare and decorated volumes, I had with me a collapsed paperback – liberally shedding flakes of paper with every movement – which I hoped to mend. My mechanical object was flimsy by comparison with the leather-bound texts from UCL’s Special Collections. The careful energy put into the conservation of early books by specialists such as Fred seemed incredibly important, but their effort to delay decay reminded me of the way twentieth-century paperbacks have become little more than landfill – difficult to recycle (bound as they are by glue), worthless in their multitude, and made increasingly redundant by digital technology. I think the aim of permanence and the reality of decay was making me feel uneasy. As Fred told us, in earlier centuries – when the use of parchment was being challenged by the rise of paper as a writing surface, a common mistrust of the durability of paper in contrast with parchment prevailed. Important documents continued to be penned on large sheets of parchment so that they might endure. Likewise, after parchment had had its day and paper provided all printers and letter-writers with their vehicle for text, the quality of that writing surface varied. The perfect surface would be heavily ‘sized’, made semi-resistant to ink allowing writing to fix on the paper and resist smudging or fading – attaining permanence on the page. However, when it comes to the conservation of rare books, this sized paper becomes brittle and unbending – open to deterioration. In fact, at the opposite papery extreme – the materials conservators use to treat decaying early books are feathery, fine, untreated sheets of Japanese paper. This most natural of papers is torn gently, rather than cut with scissors, to preserve its natural fibres as it is glued with starch to the requisite damaged corner of an old book. In this way, a soft, slow, reversible material process is applied to the incredibly complicated construction of an early book: a book which demands permanence but in reality can only slow the process of decay.
In considering processes of decay, emotional responses to destruction and repair became very tangible. Celia Pym dwelt on this aspect of mending in her conversation with Fred – showing us a series of textiles which had become personally resonant through her work on them: mending, darning and embroidering their worn surfaces. Celia’s descriptions of this work reminded me of the rags that were used in early modern paper-making – bits of cloth that could be turned into paper because of the way they had been softened through contact with bodies – worn, ephemeral and ready for transformation into a new form.