preservation and persistence of the changing book

Founding Futurist of the Book

Paul Banks, 2000-

Paul was always ahead of his time. This is especially remarkable when you consider how much his working context changed. From hot metal, to cold type, to cyberspace, Paul’s career was positioned at a wild time in the history of the book. Yet he assimilated and even prefigured all this change.

Paul worked as a book designer in the late 50’s for the Viking Press and Clark & Way in New York City. In 1960 the journal Book Production published his article; “A controversial view of The Extra Binder in America”. In this item we see an early version of his vision of the future when bindings will be tough, well designed, unique and affordable, all at the same time. This was a book “on-demand” vision in which binding structure would convey many of the important qualities of a book. The inset photo shows the author in crew cut, plastic glasses and thin tie.

The field of book conservation is a perfect extension of such an interest in the future of the paper book and so Paul largely invented that field. After his involvement with the Florence flood recovery effort he stressed the collection approach to book conservation. A 1967 example of this idea is his talk; “The Scientist, the Scholar and the Book Conservator: Some Thoughts on Book Conservation as a Profession”. Here he introduced an important abstraction to the field of conservation in general; that while most books are not individually of great value, “yet they are in aggregate of great importance to our future”. From this idea the logic both of production collection conservation and the concept of a more complex “object” of treatment emerges. Today this concept of the “aggregate” is most important to span the multiple media of library collections.

Another of Paul’s initiatives brought scientific and engineering focus to the preservation effect of long term, collection storage conditions. His 1970’s research of this topic informed the construction of the Newberry Library stack building which separated collection storage from reader services. This project lead to a national standard for collection storage environment at the same time that it prefigured trends of remote storage of originals augmented by modes of digital access.

Early in the eighties Paul foresaw that “library automation” would reshape the role of library conservation. In a talk in 1983 at the New York University Conservation Center, “A Library Is Not a Museum”, he contradicts a conventional future role for libraries as “museums of the book”. Instead he sees the important mediation between collections in the humanities, mainly in traditional formats, and collections in the sciences and technology that are maintained on-line, as an avant-guard role for libraries. He also warned that automation funding priorities could be skewed away from the preservation function, exactly at the moment of its increased relevance.

Perhaps Paul’s greatest legacy to the future has been and will be his library school based training program for preservation administrators and library conservators. In this he was almost ahead of himself. To this day we have not realized the outcome of preservation as a fundamental influence on library and information science. But the momentum of forces he set in motion will either change or crash our culture. His hundreds of students, now active in the in the preservation fields, will see the outcome.

The last day that I spent with Paul was near the end. In a particularly, long, quiet and motionless period I distinctly saw his face relax. He then fluttered his fingers, exactly as he always did when he was leaving. I then distinctly saw a glint of a smile. It was either the aura of some Poulanc keyboard work that he once heard in an obscure Parisian chapel or it was a glint of a smile at some other treat of life. It could even have been dying itself that amused him. He was always a little ahead of his time!

I worked with him and learned from him for thirty two years but I have no idea how old he was. I never heard him mention either his father or his mother. Somehow he seems to me to be an orphan of the future of the book and the future of libraries.

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