Book Conservation in the Twenty-First Century
Camielle Fitzmaurice was recently awarded a George Alexander Foundation Fellowship through the International Specialised Skills Institute. Camielle is a paper and book conservator and graduate of the Master of Cultural Materials Conservation. In this interview by Samantha Rogers, Camielle discusses her role as book and paper conservator and how her work with Karen Hamner, an internationally renowned bookbinder, will inform her conservation practice.
What led you to the field of book conservation?
At university, I specialised in paper conservation and my first jobs after graduation were in this field. I moved into book conservation as part of a new role that I later took up at the National Library of Australia [NLA], when I began to be tasked with book repair and other work with books, such as the interpretation of book structures.
Paper conservators usually work only on flat paper objects, which in itself can be extremely challenging; but in book conservation, you’re tasked with stabilising 3D structures, and this takes special skills. It’s almost like a journeyman apprenticeship – you need to know the artisan craft in order to be able to understand how to approach the repair. You need to undertake it in a way that is grounded in historical research and sympathetic repair using the appropriate materials and techniques. I’m also a trained historian, and I had always been attracted to bound volumes as documentary heritage objects. This took on new meaning through my job at the NLA.
It’s not possible to obtain a formal qualification in book conservation anywhere in Australia, and, so, I had no experience with book repair. My role at the NLA pushed me into both on-the-job and extracurricular book conservation training. I knew I had to work hard to upskill to complement my on-the-job training so as to become more confident in my skills and decision-making at work.
When you’re intervening in the life and story of an object, there is so much you need to consider before undertaking treatment, or even treatment planning. First, you need to know what you don’t know – what gaps you may have in your skills, what additional historical and cultural information you may need to inform your treatment, and where you might need to ask for help.
For example, many books published in early Australia are bound in what we call ‘publisher’s bindings’ – that is, original and temporary bindings, usually quite simple in appearance and intended to be replaced later by clients purchasing the books, who would then take them elsewhere for permanent custom-made binding.
Sometimes publisher’s bindings survive for one reason or another. In the past, restorers and hobbyists would often take these publisher’s bindings apart and re-bind the books in a more sophisticated manner. However, what we lose when we do this is the insight that the original bindings can offer into the history of the publishing trade and binding types. So, this is just one example of how a book text and its binding may need various considerations before planning or undertaking a treatment.
There are also various ethical issues involving in working with bound volumes as a form of cultural heritage. In Australia, conservation ethics are governed by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Burra Charter, and the Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) Code of Ethics. These two documents are the basis for professional conduct, assessment and treatment decisions.
One of the aims of your fellowship project is to collect and disseminate book conservation knowledge in Australia. Can you explain the importance of this?
In the US, the UK and most other European countries, book conservation and paper conservation are two separate areas of specialisation, without a lot of crossover between them. In Australia, the number of experts working in book conservation is quite small, partly because there is no formal avenue for book conservation training here, and perhaps also because of a tendency to overlook the fact that even as a young country, Australia does have a lot of bound material.
Since graduating, I’ve been tasked with working in both paper and book conservation. But I’ve had to work on treatment planning and execution on many bound volumes, from the likes of sixteenth-century vellum-bound books through to Victorian photo albums, scrapbooks, artist books, zines and so much more.
Once I started getting serious about book conservation training, I began to see how different a flat paper versus a book/bound volume perspective can really be. When you work with a bound volume, the worlds of book and paper conservation collide. When planning and undertaking a treatment, I have to think about the engineering – about stress, strain, flex, inherent vice. This is the case even when it comes to a basic task like choosing the correct book support to adequately protect the binding and joints during a treatment on the flat paper inside. Books are dynamic objects. It’s not just about making sure that they are chemically stable or aesthetically integrated; you also need to ensure that they are able to function as originally intended.
I really think it’s important to learn from and collect and preserve knowledge that has informed, informs and will continue to inform approaches to book and bound volume conservation in Australia. This is crucial for approaching bound volumes ethically and, also, for documenting the history of our own profession.
I’m interested in this idea about books as dynamic objects. Can you say something more about how looking at books in this way can enhance the work that conservators do?
The challenge in working with books is that they need to function – they were and are created for a purpose.
Sometimes the binding is more historically significant than the text and sometimes vice-versa; sometimes it is impossible to tell which is more significant. And sometimes the binding holds completely different stories from different times and cultures.
Bindings and their material and structure hold precious information about the people who made and used books; materials reflect trends, what was available at the time, and patterns of fiscal and knowledge trade.
Take the University’s Middle Eastern Manuscripts Collection, for instance: it holds several examples of various rebindings of ancient textblocks. A textblock is the manuscript material within a bound volume. It’s also commonly known as the book block. It contains the signatures – sometimes called sections or gathering – that make up the written material. It excludes all the items added by the bookbinder, such as the decorative or plain endpapers. Textblocks hold important information – stories about peoples and times as they were or as they have been imagined to be.
When it comes to assessing and treating bound volumes, it’s absolutely crucial to think about function, and to think about how the functionality of books has developed and changed historically over time. This is especially the case for items that are out of the realm of traditional ‘books’ – things like scrapbooks, Victorian albums and photo albums, letter books, and various ephemera like pamphlets.
Could you tell us a bit about your fellowship project?
Typically this fellowship is aimed at providing overseas training and bringing knowledge and skills back to Australia. Due to COVID, I am shaping my fellowship a little differently. The fellowship will be funding around 80 hours of one-on-one Zoom workshops with Karen Hanmer, an internationally renowned bookbinder, academic and artist. Karen works out of her studio in Chicago, where she has perfected the art of online teaching over the past 18 months. We will be working together over Zoom, creating cutaways of historical bindings.
Cutaway historical models show the bound volume at various stages of its construction. For example, one-third may show just the sewing and board attachment; the next will show the spine coverings and linings, and the third may show the leather (or other material) covering. This gives an overview of how the book is engineered and how it functions.
It would have taken me a long time to save up the money to do this training myself. I’m so grateful to have been given this opportunity. The International Specialised Skills Institute also has a really strong alumni network, and I’m excited to be part of that and to have people to call on who are really passionate about historical trades and skills.
Could you comment on the importance of fostering relationships with the international bookbinding community? How is this important for enhancing Australian conservators’ knowledge?
Bookbinding and book conservation are tactile professions. Knowledge transmission is both tactile and intangible; it can’t be written down precisely enough for us to use academic material or notes alone when approaching treatment. You learn from others as they show you the skills, their method and their approach. You work on your own skill to figure out your own preferences and your own approaches.
As a novice, I feel like my hands and body are collecting stories from these people as I watch their motions and the way they hold tools and materials – even the way they stand at a drill press or at a bench. Collecting and transmitting these stories and knowledge is so important; it will inform the future of book conservation in this country.
What advice would you give to current students in the Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation who wish to pursue specialisation in paper and book conservation?
I would advise anyone interested in this field to really commit and push forward if it is what they really see themselves doing.
I would also say that conservation is not always a glamorous field where you will be working on sixteenth-century books or fine artworks or big blockbuster complex treatments for exhibitions. There are lots of other things involved in the job, like mould remediation, cleaning, preventive care and disaster management. You really can expect it all! But this is one of the things I love about it.
The International Specialised Skills Institute provides educational fellowships with an aim to promote specialised skills in Australia. These fellowships provide the opportunity for those with skills in specialised areas to undertake applied research internationally with a view to disseminating this research in Australia.