Coronavirus Update: Our team is here to help our clients and readers navigate these difficult times. Visit our Resources page now »

Skip to Main Content

Book Conservators

History

In order to understand the history of book conservation as a field, it is important to learn something about the evolution of books and bookbinding. Early books were not bound, but rather rolled, such as ancient Egyptian papyrus rolls and early Christian parchment rolls. Eventually the rolls were cut into a number of flat panels sewn together along one edge, thus allowing for a book that was more convenient, portable, and enduring. Early Latin codex manuscripts were made up of folded sheets gathered into signatures, or groups of folded pages, and sewn together. Wooden boards were then placed on either side of the sewn signatures. In time, the entire volume was covered with leather or other animal skins to hide the sewing cords and provide protection to the pages. The basic constructional elements of bookbinding have changed little in the past 1,800 years, but the materials and methods used have matured considerably.

Before the invention of the printing press, religious orders were often charged with copying texts by hand. These same monastic groups also assumed the roles of bookbinder and conservator. One of the main goals in creating books is the conservation and dissemination of knowledge.

In order to pass that knowledge on to future generations, many early bookbinders began the legacy of conservation by using high-quality materials and excellent craftsmanship. A book that is well crafted in the first place will need less invasive conservation as the material ages. Historically, then, those who created the books had the specialized knowledge to conserve them.

Conservators today are often from the same mold as early bookbinders. They have the specialized knowledge of how books have traditionally been crafted, and they use technologically advanced adhesives, papers, and binding techniques to ensure that materials created centuries ago will be around for years to come.

The establishment of book conservation as a career field apart from bookbinding probably began when the first courses in conservation and preservation were taught at a library school, or when a professional library association first addressed the topic. Thus, although early bookbinders dealt with issues of material longevity, conservation as a field has only been around for 110 years or so.