Expert Interview with Natasha Herman of Redbone Bindery

Natasha Herman of Redbone Bindery in Amsterdam explains the joys and risks of conserving antiquarian books for private collectors and museums. Her clients include the Royal University of Groningen and the Canadian Photography Institute.

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Manoj Phatak

About Natasha Herman of Redbone Bindery

Natasha Herman Redbone Bindery Headshot

Natasha Herman has been conserving and restoring antiquarian books since 1996 and established her atelier Redbone Bindery in Amsterdam in 2002.  Clients include The Canadian Photography Institute, The Museum of Groningen, The Royal University of Groningen, The Canadian Parliamentary Library as well as established international antiquarian booksellers and private collectors across Europe and North America. Natasha is co-designer and director of STILT® book cradles. Natasha has taught at the National Library of Australia, the Canadian Museum of History as well as at the University of Amsterdam, the Reinwardt Academy and at the Royal University of Groningen as guest lecturer.  She holds a Diplôme d’Etudes Collegiales in science from Marianopolis College in Montréal and a Fine Arts degree with honours from Concordia University in Montréal.  Natasha is a sitting member of the Dutch conservation accreditation advisory committee and she represents Dutch restorer-conservators in The Central College of Experts in Restoration Quality. Natasha sits on the board of directors for the Northern Dutch Association of Conservators.

1. What is the greatest risk to antiquarian books in your experience, and what is the cause of this risk?

It is easy to advise people to safely tuck away their antiquarian book and content themselves with the digital version. Great advances in the science of preventive conservation offer ready-made default solutions to keeping our books out of harm’s way. The most obvious preventive conservation tip is: If you don’t use it, it won’t break!  Of course, for many bibliophiles, it is the act of actually reading a book that gives it its meaning and value.  Books can be used in all sorts of ways, too.  We use a book when we exhibit it behind glass, we use it when we put it back on the bookshelf. The challenge for me is to figure out how to balance the safe and reasonable use of a book with the preservation of its materiality.

If a book is badly damaged – and by badly damaged I mean when the spine and covers are falling off or the pages are torn, excessively brittle or falling out – opening it is only going to make it worse. Some books are inherently brittle, a phenomenon very typical of book materials produced in the second half of the 19th century. No amount of attention from me can reverse this unfortunate degradation process and continued use can wreak serious damage. However, many of our antiquarian books are in perfect health for their age and are safe to use with the same care we would give to our own aging flesh and bones.

The truly greatest risk to antiquarian books is poor storage conditions. I always tell my clients to keep their collections out of basements and attics, away from poorly insulated external walls, away from heaters, bathrooms and kitchens and away from direct sunlight.  Fluctuating temperature, high relative humidity, poor air circulation and constant UV exposure are the biggest stealth enemies of the book. And of course, it is wise to leave your cup of coffee or glass of whiskey out of your library.

2. Could you tell us more about the engineering aspects in restoring, conserving and rebinding books?

I have recently co-founded a company, STILT®, that designs and produces archival quality, collapsible book cradles. Our cradles are built on the principles of triangular geometry. To make them work, we considered the inherent strength of the triangle, the force of gravity on a sloped surface and the counteracting forces of static friction and electromagnetics – elementary engineering concepts, all.  The magic of these invisible forces never tires – at least not for me.  It’s no wonder these ideas resurface with every new civilization.

Books, of course, are also engineered items, though they are such common objects for most of us that we don’t tend to think of them in this way.  The development across time and place of different binding styles was often spurred on by shortages or excesses of materials and labour availability at the time.  Even the implementation of import tariffs on bound books altered how books were put together.  Increase in production and supply of books due to the invention of the printing press and then again during the industrial revolution led to great innovations in book engineering.  Sometimes my job as a book conservator is to reverse-engineer these different binding structures in order to re-attach covers, spines and pages.

3. What do you mean by ‘ethical conservation’?

Just as there are collective values and corresponding ethics shared by health practitioners or journalists, book conservators also adhere to a code of ethics.  Our code includes principles that address how to make decisions about preserving original material when we treat a book. We are also required to work in such a way that our interventions will not be misconstrued as being original. We are compelled by our ethical code to consider the stability of any new materials we add to an antiquarian book as well as the possibility of being able to reverse any changes we make, should our treatment be deemed unacceptable to future generations.  In the ethical arena, dilemmas are inevitable. We try to mitigate these dilemmas by recording all of our decision-making in a written report, which hopefully helps future generations to understand our reasoning and our choices.

What I find fascinating about the field of conservation is the challenge of thinking in the fourth dimension with 3-dimensional objects.  I have to know how to trace the story of a book through its past by examining the scars and clues from its materiality.  I have to listen very closely to the stakeholders of the object as well as understand my own abilities and limitations in the present moment.  After all, it is only in the present moment that decisions are made.  And of course, we have to get good at guessing the future.  What is likely to cause damage to the book in the future and what is a likely scenario for maintaining stability and preserving value?  All of this analysis happens in the endlessly complex context of human culture and our physical world. 

Ethical paradoxes lie around every corner when you move something in a complex context through time.  Take the use vs. freeze-frame polarity: if you don’t use it, it won’t break.  It may also be true that if it doesn’t get used, its value will change and may in fact deteriorate.  After all, it is human beings who attribute value to these objects.  What is their inherent value in the absence of the human gaze? For me, conservation ethics is an endless and engaging thought puzzle.

4. Do you find yourself working more with public museums or private collections, and which is more challenging?

I work with both and find them equally exciting in their own ways.  The challenge with private collections is that the books are more likely to be used, which, as a reader and lover of the materiality and mechanical nature of the book, I find very satisfying.  The one-on-one contact with book collectors is a bit like sitting down to dinner next to the most interesting person in the room. Book collectors are experts in a particular aspect of inscribed knowledge, and they are often only too happy to share what they know.  

In the museum or special collections library setting, the use aspect of books may be a little less prominent – especially nowadays when most information is available online and more and more special collections books are being digitalized.  

Your average library visitor does not have easy access to the material treasures that are stored in library special collections unless one of these books happens to be part of a public exhibition. And if a book is exhibited behind glass, visual and tactile access is frustratingly limited. The codex form – otherwise a brilliantly efficient way of storing lots of information in a small space – is suddenly inaccessible except for that one chosen freeze-framed spread.

Though use is less prominent in the museum context, the fun challenge for me is to help to uncover the multiple other values that we, the wider public, attribute to our book heritage.  Do we keep books because of the information they contain? Because of their beauty? Because of their particular provenances?  As icons of the flow and development of ideas and discoveries within our cultures?  To what degree are we preserving the individual book and to what degree is it the collection that holds the value? Who has a say in which aspects of which books are valuable?  When we exhibit a book, what is it about the materiality of that book that is telling the story? In the public sphere of museums and libraries, the internet has thrown the book into a deep identity crisis… which is exactly what makes it so interesting.

5. If you were asked to select only one item to be exhibited in a new luxury hotel in space, which would you choose and why?

My son and I have been watching space movies during this pandemic, so I feel reasonably qualified to answer this question!  Hollywood’s idea of the surface of the moon and Mars, and the interior of a space station is metallic and barren.  Just watching these films, I already start to miss the scents, colours and textures of organic materials. If you wanted to draw the crowds on Mars, you’d be wise to showcase things rich in organic colours and textures, things that could be touched and used without excessive caution.  

Older bindings are often composed of much more robust materials than their more recent counterparts, paradoxical as that seems. So, I would choose a late 15th century leather-over-wooden-boards binding. The text would be a combination of manuscript parchment with hand-illuminated initials for richness of colour and printed handmade rag paper so I could see and feel the punch of the printing. 

The binding would be slightly worn. It’s in the damaged areas that you see the richness of material textures and beguiling layering of construction.  And of course, this book would be exhibited on a pedestal under a custom-made glass case. The glass case would have hinges so that it could be opened.  Visitors to this space hotel museum could lift the book from its case, like you would lift a baby from a cradle, to stare in wonder at the creative ingenuity – or perverse anxiety – of human beings to record things they otherwise might forget.

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