I have just come back from Argentina where I went on a tango vacation. Thanks to some foward planning and the help of the Argentinian Embassy, I was able to take time out to visit with the preservation team at the Biblioteca Nacional de Argentina in the posh suburb of Recoleta.
The building is an interesting modern design of unrendered concrete; in a city filled with beautiful colonial architecture it is definately an acquired taste. It is probably as large as the National Library, just a different shape: 6 storeys high and about 3 sublevels. And as with all government buildings, HR and security sections are the same the world over, as are the behind-the-scenes corridors.
I had made an appointment and unfortunately the head of preservation was off sick. The staff were very helpful with my somewhat broken spanish and keen to show me around and ask me questions. The section was located in the sub-basement, so not as airy as our section.
Their team is made up of around 14 people, generally under about 30,and all of them book binders. The workload between paper preservation and bookbinding is therefore shared around. They do the usual realm of conservation work: paper repairs to books, maps and ephemera, as well as book repairs. One of the outstanding differences is the type of book they generally work on. We tend to forget that different cultures have different binding styles. Mostly they were working on old, brittle paperbacks. Since the covers were not important, they tended to make totally new cases, whereas we tend to save the covers as much as we can, to preserve the integrity of the item. What was really interesting was how the binders cut the corners off the boards, and then would pinch the leather near the spine.
Due to a serious lack of funding, their lab was cramped and machinery lay idle due to either lack of materials or because the item was non-functioning. I asked whether they had a big mould problem, and they showed me their fume hood. It didn’t work, so I guessed they did not have an extensive problem.
We talked about the different methods we used to re bind, what materials we used. I was surprised to hear they didn’t do much leather work. Ruben showed me some of his own stash of leather he brought to work, and we talked about the difference between kangaroo and cow. All their new covers were done in buckram and cloth. Whereas I get to do quite a bit of stab sewing, they mostly fan glued and used cords. They didn’t have or use heat set, and when I tried to explain what it was they showed me a very tiny iron and shook their head.
Their lack of space also meant that their storage facilty wasn’t very adequate, with the bulk of their material simply sitting on the floor.
I meant to ask many more questions than I did, but the effort of talking in broken Spanish took the impromptuness of questions out of my head. We did manage to share ideas, and all agreed that we would love to swap places for at least a little while.
My guide Vanessa introduced me to the reformatting and digitisation section. They seem to have comparable equipment but I noticed all the cameras were missing. From what I understood, they didn’t so much service the public as copy for other regional libraries. Mostly they digitised and filmed dailies. I saw one girl whose job was to clean up the dark spots from the digitised images.
They asked me why I was in Buenos Aires, and I told them I’d come for the tango. Ruben was a bit of a dancer, so we had a little dance around the preservation floor. I spent nearly 3 hours with them. At the end of the day as conservators/preservation people, we shared the same concerns, and worked towards getting the most out of the little we have, in the interest of the collection.
This visit came as a bit of a shock to me. Even though I knew that Argentina’s economic situation had been in somewhat of an upheaval over the last few years, I had not expected this level of “make do and mend” situation. The previous day I had visited a second hand book dealer. There was a young man there and I asked if they had any books about Australia. As conversation flowed I told him I was a book binder. He went to another cupboard and showed me a beautiful new binding of an argentinian text. He told me his brother was also a book binder. He then called an old man over. This turned out to be his father, and from there I was shown beautiful restored bindings, and some of his son’s newer work. His son lived and worked in Paris.
I suppose I had some high expectations when I went to the Biblioteca. They began in 1810 and have an impressive collection of colonial South American literature, as well as contemporary writings. I thought that I might learn something extraordinary; I consider myself quite new in this field. This visit made me realise how much I have learnt on the job here, how good my training actually is, and that I could possibly have taught them a thing or two. I would love to go back there and share my knowledge more thoroughly with them.