Where do you locate the fuzzy, gray line between conservation and restoration? According to Paul Banks’ Ten Rules of Conservation, “Conservation treatment is interpretation.” It is too simplistic to say that restoration is aesthetically driven, while conservation is purely functional. Aesthetics do matter in conservation: aesthetics affect how a book is perceived, how it is experienced, and even how it is treated by its readers. Likewise, restoration must also be functional: how could a book be considered “restored” if it is not stable enough to be handled and used? If restoration and conservation represent indeterminate locations on a single continuum, I often struggle with where one leaves off and the other begins.
These semantic concerns have been freshly stirred up by a current conservation treatment for ISU Special Collections. Frankly, I may be suffering from guilt over the aesthetic gratification of discarding the discordant 18th century (possibly English) rebinding of a 16th century Italian textblock in order to rebind the textblock in a style more sympathetic to the original. Usually, I would advocate leaving such a book in its anachronistic binding, because the binding has become a part of the volume’s history, speaking to provenance, that long journey across countries and centuries which this book has experienced. While the 18th century rebinding has destroyed the evidence of the book’s original binding, it tells its own story, one which would be lost, in turn, if the volume were rebound again now.
My reasons for committing this arguably severe act, in this case, center on the poor design and execution of the 18th century rebinding. The oversewn tightback could not be opened safely more than about 60 degrees, making access to the book’s content uncomfortable for both reader and textblock. The first few leaves of the textblock had detached at some point after its rebinding, and the loose pages were clumsily tipped-in with large splotches of animal glue, which had stuck the leaves together awkwardly, creating tension, tearing, and crumpling along the gutter edge. This crumpling did not allow the book to close properly, contributing to the splaying of the front board. The Special Collections Librarian and I collaboratively made the decision to do a complete rebind. Some evidence of the 18th century rebinding will be preserved in the before-treatment written and photographic documentation.
Our rebinding will aim to be more sympathetic, in appearance and materials, to the book’s time period and region of publication. However, I’m reminded of Nicholas Pickwoad’s sound observation that “entirely new bindings on early textblocks do not need to follow slavishly an original that has inbuilt weaknesses which will result in the early collapse of that structure.” So, while 16th century Italian aesthetics will guide our interpretation, they will be balanced with 21st century American conservation best practices.