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Subject: Book conservation and ethics

Book conservation and ethics

From: Robert J. Milevski <milevski>
Date: Friday, April 1, 1994
I am in the process of writing an article and have been reviewing
DistList postings from June and July 1993, among other gangling things,
which had to do with collections conservation as well as the AIC Code of
Ethics revision.  And I have some questions for any of you to respond to
back to this list.

1.  Where does rare book conservation fit into the Code or the Standards
of Practice?  I am thinking about this in terms of AIC's definition of
conservation (Bylaws--2(a), p. 13, 1994 Directory) in relation to
"respect for the integrity of [the] object" (COE-II.A; SOP-II.A;
COE-II.C) and "limitations on aesthetic reintegration" (COE-II.F;

a.  Does rebinding and recovering a rare book violate "unswerving
respect for the aesthetic, historic and physical integrity of the
object"?  Doesn't rebinding, recovering, etc. modify the "known
character of the original"?  Is book conservation outside of the normal
meaning of the "integrity of the object" as known by, say, art

(In the following discussion I am assuming a full conservation treatment
for a "rare" book.)  It seems to me that anytime we resew a book, apply
new liners and endpapers, cover it with new boards and coverings, apply
new spine labels, that we are modifying the characteristics of the
original.  (I am not presuming this to be either a good or bad thing
here.)  And this list of possible conservation treatments doesn't
consider washing, deacidification, and mending, among other things!
Aren't we saving, then, by providing a book with a full treatment, only
the text leaves in their proper order (since they will probably be
resewn in a manner at least, at the very minimum, slightly different
from the original sewing) over preserving the original object/artifact
reaching our hands?  In addition, does/should it matter that we may/may
not have saved the original sewing thread, endbands, endpapers, spine
liners,and boards due to the reconstructive conservation surgery and
placed everything into a box, along with the newly put to life
Frankenstein book, for future bibliographical or codicological study?
For that matter, what good would photodocumentation be, other than being
a cheap and totally inadequate two-dimensional surrogate of the
original, because the photos cannot tell us how the book felt or looked
(up close) or operated prior to treatment?  Within this context I would
say that photos are not worth and are a sad analog to the words used to
describe what they are depicting.  Are we destroying evidence of its
original/aboriginal construction/reconstruction?  And what is the good
of reversible treatments when we have so altered or transmogrified the

Rare book conservation is not art restoration, at least as far as I
understand the difference or similarities between the two.  Don
Etherington has said, in a DistList posting from the same time period as
mentioned above, that alteration of the original, as it existed when the
conservator received it for treatment, is always the case with rare book
conservation.  Are book conservators acting unethically when they
practice their craft and skills, even when act with the very best of
intentions, act with the best interests of the book in mind?  Is the end
more important than the means used to achieve it?

2.  One of the posters from July's DistList suggested that book repair
and collection maintenance have nothing to do with "conservation."
Primarily because book repair and collection maintenance don't consider
conservation of the object but rather the extended usability of the
format in which the text or information is conveyed--the book/codex form
in this case.  Following this point of view, artifactual value and
physical evidence have lower importance than the mandate to place the
book back in service as soon as possible.  This goes contrary to the
treatment of other collections of materials in other cultural
institutions as well as against any real or implied AIC code of ethics
or standards of practice.  Any comments here?

I look forward to your rousing thoughts.  Sorry for "spewing" forth at
the mouth.  Isn't rational inquiry lovely?  Apologies to those who are
rolling their eyes or shedding their skins.  Doesn't someone bring this
stuff up regularly and everyone just as regularly and collectively
ignore it?  PS Don't dis your list.

Robert J. Milevski

                  Conservation DistList Instance 7:69
                   Distributed: Friday, April 1, 1994
                        Message Id: cdl-7-69-005
Received on Friday, 1 April, 1994

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