preservation vs. function

This week I have had the opportunity to view several of the pieces in the Berger-Cloonan Collection of Decorated Papers at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M University, and to hear the collectors speak of their journey and about decorated papers. It’s been fascinating.

decorated paper 1

Yes, this is a two-dimensional piece of paper.

What are decorated papers? In the very basic sense, it is paper that has been decorated in some way, and in the case of the Berger-Cloonan Collection, papers that have been decorated by hand. Berger and Cloonan have travelled the world to find papers to add to the collection, often directly from the artists themselves. The Blue Batik Zig Zags paper I used to cover my gaming binder is an example of commercial decorated paper.

decorated paper 3One thing Sid Berger said during the talk has been turning in my mind: he wants complete sheets of paper and abhors the thought of cutting any of the papers into smaller pieces.

But what are decorated papers for? In book production, these types of papers are often used for the nice end papers inside the cover of hardcopy books and special editions. To be used for this purpose, the papers must be cut to size.

As an archivist-in-training, with a touch of a hoarding impulse, I recognize the desire to keep beautiful pieces intact. But also as an archivist-in-training and historian, with a dose of pragmatism, I see the importance of letting these papers fulfill their functions: to be used, to be appreciated in the way they bring beauty to an object that brings together a variety of specialized trades. A book that has decorated paper inside, or even outside, the cover lets us know that not only was this book considered special enough to warrant beautiful paper in its binding, but also that such artisanship was valued by its makers and audience. And that is just the beginning of the insights we could learn from such an object.

decorated paper 4

An example of a piece that has been ‘marbled’ twice using a mask.

In some ways it comes down to the intention or purpose behind the object. Some of these pieces truly are works of art. Some of the artists made these papers specifically to be included in the Berger-Cloonan collection. Some of these pieces were not made to be used as end papers in books, but are intended to be kept whole. These pieces can be framed and appreciated as the works of art they clearly are.

Therein lies the distinction. The truly singular pieces, made with the intent to be viewed as a whole, intact piece, should be kept so; but the inclusion of an entire ream (hundreds of pages) of a similar, repetitive design that was made commercially perhaps would serve its purpose better by being used. Of course, I was not privy to the appraisal process and may be unaware of the reasons why reams of material were included in the collection. Nor am I an art historian nor a decorated paper aficionado. I am, however, someone who appreciates craftsmanship and the practical and the mundane made beautiful.

We have the tendency to hide away our beautiful and finely crafted things, wrapped carefully and kept safe, hidden from view. How often do we actually use that special china, or knit something from that beautiful and hand-dyed yarn, or drink that unique tea? But how well can we enjoy those things if we do not see them or use them? Yes, using them poses some risk — we might break the china, the project for the yarn might not work out, the tea will be consumed — but this risk is part of living life. Let us use the beautiful things meant to be used and enjoyed in their use.

What do you think? How do you decide what is ‘too special’ to use and what isn’t?

All images in this post are of papers included in the Berger-Cloonan Collection of Decorated Papers in the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M University. This post will be updated with the names of the individual artists once I have that information.

The British Library

Well, I’m sitting in the café of one of my favourite places in the UK (if not the world), and since I am now merely waiting until my train leaves (in four hours), I suppose I shall finally update my blog.

Where am I, that it is so lovely? Three floors of reading rooms tower above me; there are reading rooms on either side of the café, and below me is a shop, exhibition hall, and below that is a cloakroom, another exhibition room, locker room, and I don’t even know what else. From where I sit I can see most of the King’s Library collection on display. Where am I? I am in the café of the British Library.

The British Library is a wonderful place. It is a haven in the heart of London. Outside the world is busy, turbulent, always in a rush. Step but through the gates into the courtyard and at once enter the calm: in the courtyard, academics mill about on the steps or the outdoor café, chatting quietly or eating or drinking in silence, often with a book in hand. Enter the doors and you have entered a sanctuary. Oh, how airy and full of light it is! And quiet, filled only with soft murmurings rather than traffic noise. The British Library is a beautiful place filled with beautiful books and beautiful people. I love it.

Part of my trip down south has been to spend a few days here, in the manuscripts reading room of the British Library. I have been consulting the manuscript of my beloved Melusine, tenderly turning its pages and transcribing its handwritten words. Oh, the wonders of scholarship! I live in two worlds: one that holds a 15th century manuscript in its hands and which types its notes onto a laptop computer, connected to the world via wireless internet. I’m here gathering clues for an article or two, and in the meantime, reviving my love for the text of Melusine. There is nothing like paging through your favourite medieval romance manuscript to get you excited about your thesis and the life of a scholar again.

The lockers are nice to use, too.


My apologies

I am sorry, dear readers, I have been remiss: I did not forewarn you that I would be away for some days. I am still away – photos and stories upon my return, of course – but let me leave you with a tantalizing glimpse of what I’ve been up to:

I am a pro at taking clandestine photographs in libraries.

February 2012

Books read in February:

  1. Dune. Frank Herbert.
  2. The Knife of Never Letting Go. Patrick Ness.
  3. The Septembers of Shiraz. Dalia Sofer.
  4. Dealing with Dragons. Patricia C. Wrede.
  5. The Ask and the Answer. Patrick Ness.
  6. Tales from Earthsea. Ursula K. Le Guin.

Best reread: Dune
Best new read: The Knife of Never Letting Go
Best (only) anthology: Tales from Earthsea

A much better month for reading than January was! I am eagerly awaiting some books I’ve ordered from the public library to come in, particularly the final instalment in the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. Our Town’s public library is pretty abysmal, but fortunately we are networked with all of the public libraries in the county and so we can order books from other libraries. For the size of our public library and the prominence of our town, I was appalled to find that all of the books are in the room on the ground floor (I thought there were more upstairs! Nope, just a meeting room and computer lab.) and that the books were divided into Children/Juvenile, Teenage, SFF, Thriller/Crime, Paperbacks, and Novels. I would hazard a guess that my complete personal library — including my books both in the U.S. and in the UK — just might give our public library a run for its money. I am going to look into whether they take donations; if they do, then from here on out I’m taking my books to them instead of the charity book shop, as much as I support Barnardos charity. Maybe I’ll alternate. We’ll see.