Bio: John Townsend now operates a small hand-bookbinding and conservation workshop in Sharon Springs, NY, known as “Anonymous Bookbinder.” He has been a bookbinder for over 35 years, but a librarian, a conservator and an administrator for nearly as long. He began his professional career as head of the Conservation Lab at the New York Public Library immediately after graduating in the first class of Columbia University's Library Conservation and Preservation Program. He has also served as head of the NY State Conservation/Preservation Program, and as a preservation planning and evaluation consultant for SOLINET, the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), the National Library of Indonesia, the World Bank Global Environmental Facility, and for many other organizations and institutions. Immediately before starting Anonymous Bookbinder, he ended his administrative career working in information technology, digital information access and related fields as executive director of the New York State Higher Education Initiative.
1. Describe an experience that was particularly influential in your professional development.
Past experiences are sometimes more colored by present attitudes than we admit, but one very early one does stand out. I've referred to it so often that it must have something to do with why I turned out the way I did (professionally speaking). Before I was a binder or knew in any certain way what one was, I tried to repair a favorite book, much used and battered. This was somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea aboard a U.S. Navy tanker and my repair materials were limited to masking and scotch tape, manilla card cut from folders, and clear self-adhesive contact paper. I made a very neat and tidy job of it—everything cut square, evenly applied and trimmed—but discovered afterward that it would not open, at least not in a way that anyone intent on reading it would expect.
Back in the US and in port, I went to the Norfolk Public Library to see what I could find out about what was wrong. I left with books by Cockerell, Diehl and (I think) Corderoy. (I also found a ten dollar bill on the floor by the check out and turned it in to the librarian, who later sent it to me since it remained unclaimed. The first money I made from binding.) I knew nothing, but these books were an “open sesame,” if not an actual revelation. What I realized, immediately and intuitively, was that books are articulated mechanical structures with a logical relationship between materials, components and functional parameters. It is a built object that can perform certain functions if well designed and constructed, or fail if not. Of course, the words to describe what I understood only came later.
This preoccupation with structure (“without one mention of decoration”, as Gary Frost would later say) set me on the path to becoming a binder and, eventually, a conservator. I think it also helped establish a habit of looking into the inner workings of things—the relationships among parts, whether physical, social, institutional or personal—that played a big part in my administrative career, as a preservation consultant, certainly, but even in my time working with more recently evolved information technologies.
2. How do you think working in preservation has shaped or changed your worldview?
We all work on the basis of cultural assumptions about who we are, what we do, and how we do it. Even if these assumptions are unknown and unexamined they are there, underpinning the way we think and act—our worldview. On my first trip to Indonesia as a preservation consultant I was still a young, evangelical preservation librarian—that is to say, I was inspired by an untested, irrational and ultimately unworkable certainty that we not only knew what we were doing but had the final answers to all the burning questions of conservation and preservation within our reach, if not already firmly in hand. When I left all of these convictions and many of my cultural assumptions had been challenged and some had been destroyed or abandoned utterly.
Put simply, it was a different place and different cultural assumptions prevailed—the rug had been pulled from under me. I could have ignored this (as I have witnessed many consultants do) and, when confronted with “familiar” issues and problems, I could easily have provided what were for us (i.e., those sharing my cultural assumptions) standard advice, protocols, and solutions. But they would have been useless. To be of any use at all, my work had to at least be aware of these differences and I had to work with my patient Indonesian counterparts to translate what I knew or thought I knew into a new place, new conditions, and new assumptions. I began to ask myself over and over, why do we do what we do, and why do we do it the way that we do it? This has become a mantra of sorts in all my work. I believe these are metaphysical questions, that is to say, they are fundamental, practical questions about how we relate to our work, our selves, and our fellows. This has likely prevented, to some degree, the cultural arrogance of my early evangelical preservation self from overwhelming the rest of my work and my “worldview.” Not that I am now devoid of cultural arrogance or that I have anything that can be codified as a worldview . . . But I know for certain that I don't know it all, which I once thought I did, or acted as if I thought I did.
3. What part of your preservation work most excites and engages you? Give specific examples.
Problem solving; digging down to the root of an issue and devising an accommodation that doesn't further complicate things. These days that mostly means treatment problems at the bench but I think it is equally true of my earlier consulting and administrative work. Learning how to make something well is solving a problem, building a workable relationship between materials, components and functional requirements, whether its a book, a house, a photovoltaic power system or a garden (to name my other obsessions). Or sorting out the unholy mess of multiple previous “repairs” to make a volume functional again. Or modifying a “standard” board reattachment to better suit the quirks of the item in hand. The same can be true of research—piecing together a puzzle by the slow accretion of bits of information, as when digging through past binding practices to see if they don't still have something useful to say. Administrative work can also be seen as problem solving, but there are often so many institutional pathologies between you and the real issue at hand that it can be difficult to stay focused, let along move forward. Still, it can be interesting. For a while.
4. If you were teaching what you do to a student, what would you say is the most important thing to learn in order to do your job well?
“Most people do not take heed of the things they encounter, nor do they grasp them even when they have learned about them, although they suppose they do.” Heraclitus fragment 57 (6th century BC).
5. Bonus question (optional) - What do you preserve and why?
I don't think I believe that preservation can in any way be considered a “higher calling,” even if it in some measure contributes to the common good. It is simply something that I can do as a result of some combination of nature and nurture. I became interested in binding and preservation because I was interested in the content of books. There was stuff there I didn't know; I wanted to know it and at some point the books would need some physical help to keep that stuff accessible.
Access to information is what book and library preservation are about. It is also what information technologies are about. Not that we know all about physical preservation yet, but there are perhaps still more questions than answers on the IT side of the equation. Again, these are fundamental and practical questions, which is to say that they are metaphysical questions. Much of the difficulty of trying to answer them seems to be that we have so far tended to confuse the tool with the goal. Perhaps this is why one friend referred to my time working in IT as “John's time on the dark side.” Yet both sides are concerned with the same things. To borrow from Elizabeth Eisenstein on the printing press, they are both about dissemination, standardization, organization, data collection and preservation of information. We just have to figure out what works.