Review of "Book Repair Techniques for Special Collections," The Campbell Center, July 30 to August 2, 2012

The Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies offers valuable opportunities for conservators to update their skills, and to increase their productivity and scope of practice through its excellent series of conservation refresher courses.
Last summer I attended the new course, “Book Repair Techniques for Special Collections,” at the Campbell Center in Mount Carroll, Illinois. The four-day course provided me and the other four participants with an informative and practical immersion in the theory and ethics of rare books conservation, an overview of binding history and structures, and hands-on experience with rare books stabilization techniques.
Our instructor, Olivia Primanis, the senior book conservator at the University of Texas at Austin’s Humanities Research Center, presented the course as a combination of lectures, class discussions, technique demonstrations, and hands-on practice.
Each student filled out a condition report and treatment proposal for a damaged book they brought with them, then discussed it with the class so we could consider treatment options as a group.

Elise Calvi, conservator at the Indiana Historical Society, practiced book board reattachment with joint tacketing.    Photo credit: The Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies.
Elise Calvi, conservator at the Indiana Historical Society, practiced joint tacketing to reattach a board. Photo credit: The Campbell Center

The hands-on portion of the course included opportunities to practice testing methods, paring leather, lifting leather and cloth covers, consolidating corners, rebacking, reattaching spines and boards, and repairing damaged sewing. The small class allowed Olivia to give each student plenty of individual attention.
I found Olivia to be a gifted and inspiring teacher who excelled at teaching treatment techniques and sharing the knowledge and insights she’d gained during her career as a bookbinder, conservator, and former library conservation program instructor.
An aspect of the class that I found especially valuable was Olivia’s emphasis on treatment decision-making and being aware of the factors that influence our decisions, such as time available for the treatment or the conservator’s knowledge of techniques. She spoke about how preferred treatment approaches have evolved over time, corresponding with changing bias in book conservation, and challenged us to consider how our current biases might be viewed by conservators in the future.
Olivia discussed the importance of determining the cause of the failure or damage before treating the book, considering whether the planned treatment would transfer the stress to a different location, and recognizing when repairing broken book structures might not be best for the book. Certain types of physical and bibliographic evidence may need to be preserved, such as wax in a liturgical book or a historical patina and fingerprints indicating use.
She reminded us that each step of the conservation treatment influenced the way the book moved. We had the opportunity to explore this for ourselves by handling an identical set of books she had treated using different techniques, and by trying the techniques during the hands-on practice.
The Campbell Center’s remote yet charming small town location could have been a disadvantage, but the staff and instructors worked hard to build community among concurrent classes through optional trips in the evenings to area restaurants and the Raven’s Grin, the town’s unique haunted house. The course fee included housing in the Campbell Center campus dormitory, communal breakfasts and lunches, and access to the library’s computers and wireless internet.
The informal, collaborative environment encouraged students and instructors from different classes to share and learn from each other. Our class was treated to an excellent guest lecture on leather and parchment when Dr. Sheila Fairbrass-Siegler, a conservator and chemist who taught the concurrent “Introduction to Organic and Inorganic Materials” course, offered to present the talk for us one afternoon.
Olivia’s course gave me the opportunity to learn and practice new treatment techniques, and to focus deeply on why and how we treat rare books, including the consequences of our treatment decisions.
“Book Repair Techniques for Special Collections” will benefit general collections conservators, conservation technicians, library bookbinders, and conservators of paper and photographs who wish to expand their skills.
The workshop will be offered again on July 24 to 27, 2013 at the Campbell Center. In addition, Dr. Fairbrass-Siegler will teach a new “Parchment Conservation” workshop at the center from July 17 to 20, 2013. A limited number of $300 FAIC scholarships are available. For more information, visit