On a recent trip to Kansas City, MO, I dined at a trendy, downtown gastropub where the server brought the check to the table not in one of those ubiquitous pleather folders or on a tray, but rather, tucked between the pages of a cloth publisher’s binding ca. 1910.  I was simultaneously charmed and aghast.  The experience recalled the mix of emotions I feel every time I see books repurposed, whether as objets d’art or as alternatively functional items.

A cloth publisher’s binding from the turn of the 20th century holds the check at Gram & Dun, Kansas City, MO.

As a book conservator, my mind is ever bent toward protecting the book not only as a container for intellectual content, but as a physical artifact which holds evidence of material culture.  I feel strangely torn to see books cleverly repurposed as purses, coasters, and furniture, valued neither for their textual content, nor for their binding structure, but merely as raw material.

Photo credit: Design Every Day Blog. Click image to visit original post.

My inner dilemma arises from the fact that such projects destroy the primary function of a book, and as a conservator, my role is always to preserve and protect that function.  I feel torn because I often genuinely appreciate the result of such projects, and somehow, a project constructed of books still speaks to the constructor’s love of books, albeit for aesthetic rather than informational purposes.  And let’s face it — if a book is no longer valued as a work of textual transmission, if its binding is not unique or rare, then why not give it a second life as some other type of artifact?

Photo Credit: Rookie Magazine. Click image to visit original post.

My devotion to the history of the nineteenth century publisher’s binding (a category of book I consider “medium rare” — not quite Special Collections material yet, but heading in that direction with the passage of time) motivates my strongest caveat in the repurposing of books.  Many of these significant bindings have been lost over time, particularly as a result of commercial binding practices at academic libraries.  While not every publisher’s binding from ca. 1830 to ca. 1920 may be significant as an historical exemplar, the popularity of this type of binding for repurposing chafes my conservation ethos.  And yet… I am still tempted to make myself one of those nifty book purses — with a modern, mass-printed discard, of course!

The BookBook Shelf from design firm Not Tom. Click to view article at Design Buzz.

Preservation professionals, what’s your take on the repurposing of “old” books for new DIY projects?  Librarians? Artists/makers?

Click image to visit the website of artist Brian Dettmer, who transforms books into narrative sculptures.

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