Conservation Conversations in Copenhagen: Lessons Learned

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting my work on Marguerite Duprez Lahey and the rebinding of books at the seminar on Care and Conservation of Manuscripts in Copenhagen. It was my first time in Denmark, and although I didn’t have time for much more than the conference, I had a wonderful time.


A street in Copenhagen

I had heard that this conference tends to have great talks, and it did not disappoint. Topics ranged from digitization management to x-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy analysis of Ethiopian manuscripts in remote churches. A Harvard colleague talked about treating English manor rolls, while a former colleague from the Columbia University spoke about incorporating the conservation of a particular book into a graduate class on historical musicology. (Abstracts of all talks are available here).

My own presentation was well attended and I received lots of questions, some of which suggested new avenues for exploration. This was my first professional presentation outside of graduate school, and while it went well, it was definitely a learning experience. I had begun preparing for the presentation well in advance — but I learned that there is no such thing as beginning too early! Unexpected obligations came up and took precedence over the presentation, and  despite my early start, I still found myself having to scramble a bit to put it all together at the end.

I also reaffirmed the value of having other people critique one’s work. I ran my script by a mentor, and several colleagues in the Weissman Preservation Center sat through the first couple of versions of my talk. Their feedback made all the difference in making my presentation more streamlined and easy to follow.

Finally, and this is somewhat related: I learned the value of asking for help. I presented both a paper and a poster, and the latter required a diagram to illustrate my experimental set-up. Putting together something that looked professional would have taken me time I didn’t really have — I can manage relatively simple images, like collation charts, but this required a little more finesse. I finally swallowed my pride and asked for help from a good friend who dabbles in graphic design. A few hours later, I had my diagram, and my friend’s help meant I had more time to focus on all the other things I had to do (like practicing my talk!)


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Marguerite Duprez Lahey: A Collector’s Bookbinder

Marguerite Duprez Lahey. Image credit: Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Marguerite Duprez Lahey. Image credit: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 31, 1912.

The research I’ll be presenting at the conferences mentioned in my last post focuses on the person of a charming young woman from Brooklyn: Marguerite Duprez Lahey. Born in 1880, Marguerite became the first primary contract bookbinder at the Pierpont Morgan Library. Receiving her first commission around 1908, she eventually moved into the library building, and worked for the institution until her death in 1958. She was revered as the best bookbinder in America during her lifetime, and exhibited her work — much of which centered on rebinding books in the Morgan collection — throughout New York.

I am absolutely fascinated by this woman. It’s true that women were taking up bookbinding at that point in history, particularly wealthy women like Marguerite. However, for most of them, bookbinding was a genteel hobby that passed the time until marriage. In contrast, Marguerite pursued bookbinding with a passion, seeking teachers at home and abroad and achieving a social recognition that bookbinders today can only dream of. Her scrapbook, located in the Morgan Library & Museum archives, is filled with newspaper clippings marveling that the girlish Miss Lahey is so at home with giant book presses (which the writers seem to believe require great strength to operate!).

Despite all of this press during her lifetime, Marguerite Duprez Lahey is practically unknown today, even though the books she treated are tagged in the Morgan catalog with her name. This is partially the reason for my excitement about presenting on her life and work — she was an important figure in the history of bookbinding, and in the history of women bookbinders in particular.

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I’m back!

After having let this blog languish for far too long, I’m back, with renewed good intentions to keep it updated. The past year has been a whirlwind of activity. In September, I moved to Cambridge for a final year internship at the Weissman Preservation Center at Harvard University, where I have become significantly more comfortable working with parchment, and have had the opportunity to treat a (probably 19th-century) silk binding. I had no experience treating textiles before, so it’s been a learning experience, of which my major take away so far has been that it is infinitely more difficult to dye fabric than it is to tone either leather or paper!

Part of the reason for my absence has been due to the acceptance of a paper and a poster for presentation at two different conferences: the seminar for the Care and Conservation of Manuscripts in Copenhagen, and the American Institute for Conservation Annual Meeting. The past six months have been consumed not just with new treatments but with the creation of presentations, posters, and grant applications to assist with conference attendance. The Care and Conservation of Manuscripts seminar will take place next week, and I’m very excited to share my research with my international colleagues.

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Sobering Statistics Concerning Book Conservation

Sobering statistics indeed, via Jeff Peachey’s fantastic blog.

jeff peachey

There are some sobering statistics in The FY2014 Preservation Statistics Report, by Annie Peterson, Holly Robertson, and Nick Szydlowski.  Eighty-seven cultural institutions responded; primarily academic libraries. Although the authors caution about extrapolating the data since the respondents were self-selecting, I find it difficult not to view the results as roughly indicative of general trends in libraries. The most striking finding is the steady decline in the money spent for bound volumes.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 8.58.13 AM Source: Page 10.

The treatments reported tend to be quite utilitarian, more aimed at circulating rather than special collections. For example, a Level 1 treatment takes less than 15 minutes, a Level 2 between 15 and 120 minutes, a level 3 more than 120 minutes. Most conservation treatments for special collections materials take much longer than 120 minutes.

The authors report that “from 2000 to 2014, total conservation treatment of bound volumes declined faster than commercial binding; treatment…

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Enemies of Books

I am officially done with the academic portion of my Master’s degree: I have passed my thesis and submitted all my assignments. The next step will be an internship year, beginning in September. This, of course, means that I have finally got to time to read — i.e., get back to what originally drew me to book conservation.

Standing Press, Bookbinding and the Care of Books, by Douglas Cockerell. Image Credit: Project Gutenberg.

Unfortunately, like many of us, (especially those who live in New York City), while the desire is great, the ability is lacking. To wit, I have neither the physical space nor the financial assets to support my addiction habit reading pleasure.

Which is why I, a book conservator, a fervent believer in the wonders of the physical book, am going to talk about Project Gutenberg — my favorite source for free books. Project Gutenberg was the first provider of free ebooks — mostly books in the public domain. These range from biographies to early science fiction to murder mysteries… and more to the point, books about books.

A basic search for “bookbinding” turns up Douglas Cockerell’s seminal Bookbinding, and the Care of Books, John Cotton Dana’s Notes on Bookbinding for Libraries, and (my personal favorite) The Enemies of Books, by William Blades, which includes this tirade against meddlesome women who insist on dusting his library:

Dust! it is all a delusion. It is not the dust that makes women anxious to invade the
inmost recesses of your Sanctum—it is an ingrained curiosity. And this feminine weakness, which dates from Eve, is a common motive in the stories of our oldest literature and Folk-lore. What made Fatima so anxious to know the contents of the room forbidden her by Bluebeard? It was positively nothing to her, and its contents caused not the slightest annoyance to anybody. That story has a bad moral, and it would, in many ways, have been more satisfactory had the heroine been left to take her place in the blood-stained chamber, side by side with her peccant predecessors.

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To Light or Not to Light…

As part of my graduate program, I have to take a class on preventive conservation. This involves learning about the ways in which you can prevent damage from occurring, as opposed to acting once an object has been destroyed. This can involve everything from monitoring the environment (humidity, temperature, light, etc.) to properly housing objects, to training staff in proper handling procedures… You get the idea.

This book did not experience preventive conservation! Image Credit: http://www.mold

One of the assignments we had to do for this class was – and this is probably going to sound ridiculous – looking at an artwork that is light sensitive at varying light levels, from really well lit (200 lux) to the kind of lighting that is recommended for these objects (50 lux). Then we had to evaluate the aesthetic experience of looking at the objects under these lighting conditions.

I remember not taking the assignment very seriously until I actually did the experiment. Then, wow. It was a bit of an eye opener.

My experiment involved looking at the artwork (I chose a rather intricate Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print) at four different light levels (25, 50, 100, and 200 lux), first against a light gray background and then against a dark background. And it was really interesting to note what I saw, and didn’t see.

The Ballad Singer, by Henry Rober Morland. Image Credit: ArtStor.

The Ballad Singer, by Henry Rober Morland. Image Credit: ArtStor.

Turns out, you can’t really see details very well at the kinds of light levels that are recommended for light-sensitive objects. Or colors. And the light colored backgrounds most museums have just make colors less vivid. The print looked much better against a dark background, even at lower light levels.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed these things. Almost all of my classmates noted the same issues in their experiments.

Museums are supposed to be about aesthetic experience. As a fledgling conservator, this experiment gave me much to think about in terms of the guidelines we set, and their impact on the public we are supposed to serve. There are, of course, no simple answers, and as a conservator, my first instinct is to protect the object. But what do we sacrifice when we do so?

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Catch me if you can!

Here is the problem with a blog: one begins it assuming that the status quo will remain, and then life happens and you realize that months, if not actual years have gone by.

A quick update: At this point, I am almost done with my time at NYU. Next year is my internship year, which will take me to Cambridge, MA to the Weissman Preservation Center, where I will be one of two interns in the lab. My fellow intern is from the Buffalo art conservation program, and after having spent three weeks last summer with her at the Gary Frost workshop, I am excited to have the chance to work with her again.

(I seriously cannot overemphasize my excitement at being able to spend more time with her, as well as with another classmate of hers who will also be in Boston. They’re both awesome people and I think we’re going to enjoy ourselves immensely).

There still remain a few weeks of this term, however. My thesis is due next week and I am somehow still not sick of it. Since NYU confers a Master’s Degree in Art History, it’s primarily an art history paper, but about Marguerite Duprez Lahey, the first in-house bookbinder at the Morgan Library & Museum, who rebound many of the books in the collection in the first half of the twentieth century. In my paper, I got to delve into her biography, discuss whether her work counts as fine binding or conservation, and try to figure out who made the binding decisions – Marguerite herself or her employers. I also got to go through some of her archives at the Library, including her press clippings, which made me newly grateful for the feminists who have gone before me. Here’s a representative quote featuring Marguerite in her studio:

“Not only delicacy of touch but much physical strength is imperative,” smiled this charming girl, wielding as if it were a golf club the fifty-pound crowbar in the tightening of the press.

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