The Beauty of Destruction

I have taken pictures of these stock books before because I find them remarkable. Remarkable that they are on the shelf like this, and in the beautiful way they are self destructing due to being overstuffed. We will soon be doing something with them, so I need to take my pics while I can.


5 Responses to “The Beauty of Destruction”

  1. 1 Tom
    April 12, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    “Doing something with…” By which I take it you mean “making them so that are no longer like they are.” Finding a new way to preserve and store the stock certificates means destroying the books? Will you preserve the books themselves, as a record of an outmoded practice, if nothing else?

    • April 13, 2012 at 6:09 am

      Your interpretation of “doing something with” makes it sound rather like I am destroying cultural property. I would interpret “doing something with” as making this item usable for researchers while also maintaining the integrity of the item’s provenance and original materials, and protecting the item and ensuring we do not lose any loose parts when moving them off site in preparation for renovation. This particular item is in our ledgers section, which we are currently re-housing to ready them for moving off site. If you follow Preservation Underground, you will see our projects. This ledger obviously cannot move in it’s current state. Likely we will build a custom enclosure for it so that it can travel safely. I doubt we have the time to repair it before we need to move it (we have an estimated 85,000+ items to review and ready for the move by the end of the year…we just can’t do a lot of repair for this project). The options may be to either box it as is, or remove the stocks and folder them. What we end up doing will depend a lot on resources (fiscal, time and personnel), priorities across the whole of the library, value (not simply monetary but as part of the entirety of a collection), use (in this case, extremely low), and risk (in this case extremely high).

      As a researcher I know you are very concerned about the original item and its provenance, as am I. I advocate for saving original bindings if at all possible (as do our librarians), even for “pedestrian” items like scrapbooks and ledgers. If we cannot re-use the parts because they are too damaged (or they would continue to damage contents), then we put the old binding inside the box with the new binding so researchers can at least see what the original looked like. We also take before-treatment images to document the item as it was when it came to the lab. So yes, the practice (or at least this instance) of keeping stocks in this way would be visually if not physically documented. All this documentation is available to any researcher who would like to see it. We put the unique ID of the project inside the enclosure so it can be easily found in our files. No researcher has yet asked for treatment documentation, but it exists for them, and for future conservators who may one day have it in their lab for treatment.

      In this specific case if we were asked to repair it, it is hard to imagine being able to use the original boards and spine due to their deterioration. The front is in fact missing half the board and the spine and hinges are damaged and the leather deteriorating. The text paper is brittle enough that resewing may not be an option, but we wouldn’t be able to tell that until we got into the spine to see what structural integrity is left in the paper. The stocks have been stuffed inside to the point that the text has expanded by three times, yet the spine cannot flex so it is self destructing and completely unusable without further damaging the binding. I think the viable option, if we were to prioritize this repair, would be to rebind these in a method that would compensate for the thickness of the inserts. We would bind it in a similar style as the original, but we would use conservation-quality materials so that it would hold up to use.

      Let me ask you this Tom, if the original parts were too damaged, acidic or in fact missing, would you as a researcher rather see something like this rebound in a contemporary (to the date of the object, not as in 21st century) binding and be able to use it as a book? or would you prefer that the stocks are removed and put in folders (which is a very real option for this sort of thing from a librarian’s standpoint as they are the most valuable part of this object to the library and the resources to folder are far less than those to repair it)? I’m not asking as a way to challenge you, but to hear your opinion as someone who uses primary resources like this. I realize the answer depends on what you are studying (the history of the business these stocks represent, the history of ledger bindings, etc.) but I’m curious as to how you look at bindings and what you do when you realize something has been repaired or disbound? have you ever asked to see treatment documentation?

      • 3 Tom
        April 13, 2012 at 7:27 am

        Wow, Beth–Such a long response!

        I didn’t mean to suggest “destroying” as much as altering–but even stabilization is alteration, and of course you are right that some alterations are necessary.

        I am glad to hear your top choice is to preserve the whole of the artifact, and not just the contents, which is what I was worried about. I know that acidic paper especially causes real difficulties. But as my own terms here suggest, I’m as interested in this object (and books in general, in principle) as artifacts, as I am in books as containers. And I recognize that archivists might legitimately wish to prioritize contents, even while I think that archives often have a greater respect for the physicality of materials than libraries sometimes do. And, no, I have never asked to see treatment documentation, but (depending on my future) I can imagine doing so: I am very interested in the practice of recycling medieval manuscript fragments in later bindings, and (in the past, at least) these have often been saved, but separated from any link to the books whose bindings they come from. Rebinding these stock books puts their contents into a more useable container, it sounds like, but one thing that (perhaps necessarily) is lost is the physical, tactile, and visual impact of the current artifact: saving the binding cannot really preserve that feel, I worry. But of course, you are right: the history of books and libraries is always complicated by the tension between preservation and the necessity of making books useable and allowing access to them. If preserving the visual impact means making the stock certificates inaccessible, that’s a problem, too.

        And I am a mere academic: worried about the utopian issues of what is best in the ideal world: you work in the nitty-gritty real world itself!

      • April 13, 2012 at 8:00 pm

        Interesting you should say “archives often have a greater respect for the physicality of materials than libraries.” I find the opposite to be true. I often have to work twice as hard with archivists to make the case for saving original bindings, especially ephemeral ones like ledgers and scrapbooks. Although I’m encouraged with our new university archivist, she seems to get it.

        I think the real tension within the library is balancing resources with reality. The fact is, we cannot (and maybe should not) save everything. So what gets conserved? what gets only a protective enclosure? and what is simply given a good environment and a safe place to sit on the shelf until it is used, thus putting repair decisions off until sometime in the future (this is often called “benign neglect,” I prefer to call it deferred treatment).

        Lastly, I understand that stabilization is alteration, but so is use. Every time you touch a book you leave fingerprints (whether you see them or not), when you open it you strain and stretch the sewing and distort the spine just a little, adhesives and skin cracks with flexion. Books are mechanical objects made with organic materials, they are never in the same physical shape from one day to another (or even one moment to the next at the molecular level). We strive to do our best to honor their materiality, provenance, current state and aesthetics while making sure they can be used, read and loved by anyone who wants to see them. It’s a balancing act, but one that I think we win more than we lose. A beautifully executed, sympathetic and conservationally-sound repair allows that item to be used again often for decades if not generations to come. I think it is a fair trade off most times and we don’t make those treatment decisions alone. We always start the treatment cycle in consultation with and with approval from the curators (those discussions are some of my favorite ones to have).

        Oh, and somewhere in our rare books library is a list of books that we have found that have manuscript scraps used as spine linings. You should come visit! And definitely let me know if/when you ask for treatment docs, because I’m very interested in how researchers can benefit from all the documentation we do.

  2. April 14, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Fascinating conversation between you two! I have nothing intelligent to add, alas, but I enjoyed reading this exchange.

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