I was thrilled to be invited to teach a four week workshop on western book conservation techniques to Chinese book conservators. The program was held at the National Conservation Center for Rare Books at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. Thirty-eight professional conservators from libraries and museums all over China attended the workshop. The curriculum was designed to provide hands-on training in contemporary book conservation treatments, so lectures alternated with demonstrations.


In China, book conservators are trained in the care and repair of traditional Chinese books, which are very different from Western books. Chinese paper is very flexible and strong and resilient compared to ours. There are a limited number of common binding structures that endure over time, unlike in the west where there has been constant change and innovation over the centuries.

The Chinese conservators had very fine hand skills, especially in paper conservation, and extremely sophisticated abilities in examination of historical objects. They were perceptive and curious, with endless questions about materials and structures and processes that demonstrated a nuanced understanding of reasons that books degrade over time.

The conservation department at Sun Yat-Sen Univerity.


Chinese conservators typically perform very extensive and intrusive conservation treatments compared to their Western counterparts. Especially in the U.S., conservators use minimal treatments, often dictated by large backlogs and the imperatives of digitization projects. Western conservators have many choices of repair options for any individual western binding, ranging from enclosures or stabilization treatments to more complicated rebinding re-utilizing whatever remains of the historical book.


I worked with conservators at SYSU to develop a program to introduce Chinese conservators to contemporary Western ideas about conservation and to provide them with experience actually repairing western bindings. To begin, we bound a facsimile of an adhered-boards binding covered in paper. I provided samples of historical book papers over the last three centuries for them to repair, often using traditional Asian conservation techniques that have become the basis of paper conservation in the West over the last fifty years. They also made enclosures and explored tooling in blind and gold. Each participant conserved volumes from the University’s collection including one cloth binding and one bound in leather. We frequently discussed the causes of and remedies for chemical consolidation of degraded leather.


Conservators from Sun Yat-Sen University Library examining a 19th century leather binding from France.

Learning to tool on leather.


The workshop ended with a graduation ceremony. The workshop participants produced very fine conservation treatments, especially considering that many of them had limited experience with the mechanical issues of western bookbindings. It was a pleasure to work with them, and I am proud of all that we achieved together.


I spent an entire month with people who share my interest in books and conservation. I found China fascinating and hope to return soon.







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Cambridge MA 02140 USA 617-304-2652 james@reid-cunningham.com