Book conservation by very remote control
by John Westwood
This story has not been told before. Many SoB [Society of Bookbinders] members will remember the flooding of the city of Florence, years ago, when river water, diesel oil, and sewage drenched thousands of archival books in library basements. Rescue work and skilled emergency treatment on a vast scale was needed immediately, with Europe-wide aid.
I was then Head of Typographic Design at HMSO in London, and knew that HMSO by some odd historical accident managed the Bindery at the British Museum, where great conservation skills were practised. From my position in middle management, I was too modest to dare suggest to the august Controller of HMSO that he might sponsor sending a team of binders from the BM to Florence, to help. But could I try to persuade him indirectly?
That evening, at home, I telephoned the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum at his home, and, having explained the potential, suggested that he might speak to the Controller; remind him that he commanded the relevant skills; and (without mentioning my name!) suggest how he, the Controller, could help Florence?
The Director listened. The penny dropped...all the way. And so, soon after, a team went to Florence; it was a really mucky job. Would they have thanked me, if they had known that a student bookbinder under Douglas Cockerell in 1941 had remotely engineered their mission? Even the Controller of HMSO never knew, either.
I still enjoy problem-solving!
John Westwood, Goring on Thames, August 2007