Image: Bolton, The elements of armories, At London : Printed by George Eld, 1610 STC 3220, Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

On October 27, 2014 conservator Alexis Hagadorn gave a Brown Bag Lunch Talk at the Bard Graduate Center entitled “Unbinding Conservation: Observations on the Past, Present, and Future of Rare Book Treatment.” Hagadorn is currently the Head of Conservation for the Columbia University Libraries, where she has worked as a rare books and special collections conservator since 1997, and is a member of the visiting faculty at the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science, and the Conservation Center of the Institute of fine Arts at New York University.

In her talk, Hagadorn highlighted the importance of bookbinding as evidence of cultural practices and explored historic bookbinding practices. Among the issues addressed were relationship between the book as an aesthetic object and a carrier of a textual information. While presenting a case study from her own work as a conservator at the Columbia University Libraries, she further explored the practice of books as furnishings and the traditional reuse of bindings and rebinding.

Hagadorn presented book conservation as a field that presents unique challenges. She stressed the necessity to maintain the craft of bookbinding to treat historic manuscripts. According to her, bookbindings are relevant in relation to their contents and necessary access to the text means manipulation of the bindings. Conservators need to understand the mechanics of how the bindings function in order to create the best conservation treatment possible.

To illustrate this point, Hagadorn gave the example of medieval manuscripts on parchment that had wooden boards with clasps as their covers. This binding functioned like a press and kept the pages from expanding and contracting with changes in temperature and humidity. Book collectors through the centuries had these manuscripts rebound with contemporary bindings not appropriate to works on parchment, and, without their wooden board-clasp structure, the parchment pages expanded and splayed out of their covers.

Hagadorn stated that it is easy to argue for the preservation of the binding of a lovely tooled gilt cover but, to a conservator more mundane bindings are equally worthy of treatment as they also reflect a book’s history and provenance. Elements of bookbinding can be used to identify culture of origin, time period, and in some cases bookbinders workshops like fingerprints.

Early 20th century conservation practices involved more drastic intervention than conservation today. This changed beginning with the work to rescue the books damaged in the flood in Florence in 1966. Work with damaged books led to insights in historical construction practices. Conservators recognized that traditional craft techniques were needed to assess and make repair to the binding structures. In current conservation practice the trend is to implement treatments that involve minimal intervention and acknowledge the potential importance of all the different stages in the life of a book. Book conservators’ knowledge of bookbinding is a valuable resource for current and future humanities research by conservators and academics from other disciplines.