Is it a book or an artifact?

A book and an artifact might look exactly the same. But they are completely different things and need to be treated differently.

A book is only important because of its content. The words on the page are all that matters. For that reason it is not all that important or necessary to save the binding and related materials.

An artifact is a book-as-object in which the book’s significance exists beyond its content, or even the physical object itself. Who owned it, how did they use it, where did they keep it, why did they have it, did they read it? What mattered to them?

What can be difficult is that what makes something an artifact is most often something outside the object itself. 

You might have two books on a table that look exactly the same. What are they: books or artifacts? Let’s say that one of them was owned by me. The other one went to the moon. Or one book was in Jefferson’s library and the other one belonged to an Athenaeum someplace.

Knowing that information would greatly alter the approach to the repair of the object. An artifact requires that the repair be as unobtrusive and unintrusive as possible. It requires that all (ALL!) original pieces be saved and hopefully reused. If they can’t be reused they should be stored with the object, perhaps in a box with drawer.

But it doesn’t need to have been held by Lincoln to be an artifact! A book you used as a child and want to have repaired so you can gift it to your grandchildren would also be an artifact.

Why does it matter? Because the object itself tells a story. 

How was it covered? In leather? Does that indicate the wealth of the owner? Does it indicate the culture they came from and what they valued in a binding? 

What kind of leather? That might indicate the local economy, the kinds of animals raised around there. In might say something about the leather industry in that part of the world.

This can go on and on. What kind of paper was used? How was it printed? What was the structure of the binding? What techniques were used? 

All of these questions tell stories, and all of them add up to paint a picture of a place and time and a person.

Removing an original binding erases all those elements and destroys the picture.

Of course with marginalia it’s clear how that contributes to the story. Seeing the notes of famous people shows what they were thinking when they read a particular passage. Their unguarded thoughts, who they actually were, and what triggered their reactions.

But a child’s marginalia, your marginalia from your youth, can be just as important and significant as Washington’s, at least to your family and friends. It tells a story, tells something about you.

The sad part of this story is the movement away from books to mobile devices. No covers, no paper, no marginalia. No stories for them to tell.

But what is sadder is binders putting new, overly-decorated covers on old books—books which had very nice, functional, and usable bindings that told stories, told a part of history—and then calling that work conservation. It’s not. It’s the opposite of conservation. It’s the opposite of conservation!

I recently saw a tarted-up binding done for a first edition of The Book of Mormon. The binder posted it as an example of conservation. I’m sure the owner asked for it to be done. I wonder if the binder talked to them about the value of conservation over rebinding. Of the history in the binding, perhaps of the monetary value of having the original binding repaired. Perhaps there was no cover and that wasn’t an option. Still it made me a bit sad.

As a private binder and conservator I often tell my clients the difference and then let them tell me if their item is a book or an artifact. Often they are not historically significant books in the traditional sense, but they are significant to them and their family. In that case the owners are the only ones who can make that distinction. 

But at least the question is asked and discussed. And the decision is almost always the right one because the question has been asked. It’s when the question never comes up that unfortunate things tend to happen.