Emilie Monson, newest member of the Underground Arts Collective, shows a 1841 Japanese book she repaired with a brand new spine. The paintings in the background were also done by Monson./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Shelf life

Local artist finds niche in restoring treasured tomes
by Shawna Bethell

“I’ve always been attracted to objects that have a feeling of a soul to them, old luggage, old books,” said conservationist and bookbinder Emilie Monson. “I’ve always been told I was a throw-back, since I was very young.”

Now Monson, who boycotted computers in the second grade, is sharing her skills of book conservation with Durango’s considerable book-loving community.  Opening a studio space at the Underground Art Collective, she is focusing on her new art with the hope of making it into a business.

“Most books are brought to me for conservation or restoration because they have a sentimental value. Some are rare, but most are cookbooks or bibles that have been handed down through a family. Books that have become part of someone’s ‘daily-ness,’” she said.

The difference between the two – conservation and restoration – is in the way the book is preserved. Conservation is noninvasive, meaning for example, it might be cleaned via a dry process as opposed to being submerged in water.  Whatever is done to the book during the process must be reversible, and the adhesives used are very specific to the delicacy of conservation.

Restoration is used when the technique is both visual and functional, making the book “practical” for use, and adhesives used are more modern in chemical make up.
For Monson, each project is a challenge, a bit of a mystery because there are many elements that go into conserving a book or paper (she has also completed an extensive project conserving a cracked and curled woodblock print from 1964).

“You take the book and open it, see how it is holding up, consider the extent of the need. You also have to understand what the owner wants, whether they want a quick fix or if they want something more involved.”

There is also the integrity of the book itself to consider, its history, Monson explains, while gently opening an exceptionally old book and laying delicate fingers along the hand-written script inside.

“Maybe the writing is in pencil,” she said.  “You have to figure out the specific materials needed to clean and repair the book, but not erase what is written there.”

Monson arrived in Durango in the summer of 2000 at the age of 23. Her parents had both been involved in the hotel construction business in Las Vegas, her father in architecture and building, her mother in interior design.  But the stress and related health concerns drove them to relocate.

“There’s a lot to not be dazzled by in Las Vegas,” said Monson of her previous hometown. But it did allow her the opportunity to attend the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts, where her theatre teacher quietly transferred the young artist from the Theatre Program into the Theatre and Arts Program after watching her paint in theatre classes.  From her early education, Monson moved on to an art degree at Fort Lewis College, where she took her first book-binding class.

“I made a book of my own and realized how many different ways books can be made, especially the old books,” said Monson.  “Each one is different.”

Those differences are also what charm her about books.

“When you see an old book made in an imperfect way, it connects you to the person who made it. It becomes obvious that somebody did this.”

Monson has had a corporate job, with “benefits, a good wage and three passwords.”  But she laughs.  “I lasted three months.”

Now she takes classes and workshops through the American Academy of Bookbinding of Telluride, where learning opportunities are offered each spring and fall by professional bookbinders and conservationists across the country. Instructors have included Renate Mesmer, the Assistant Head of Conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and the former Director of the Book and Paper Conservation Program at the Centro del bel Libro in Ascona, Switzerland.

Typically when people think of old texts and conservation, they think of Europe where the skill has painstakingly handed down via apprenticeships. But here in the United States, there are a limited number of graduate programs in the field, one of the best being Brigham Young University in Utah.
“Because of their interest in ancestry, the Mormons are very into old texts,” explained Monson.
Due to the science and chemistry aspect of the business and the evolving ideas of what people think is best for the process, book and paper conservation is always changing. There is also a strong element of research that goes into the job. Currently, Monson has a project – a once-leather-bound copy of a Thoreau book – that does not have a publication date. Because of this, she will need to research when the book may have been published and the elements that were involved in book making during that period.
“There is always this somewhat weird state of manic uncertainty when you begin a project. Then comes the confidence of finding out where you are going. Then, it becomes exciting when you see the changes, when you see (the improvement) happening.”
With the state of today’s publishing industry, where books are easily replaced by electronic gadgets, Monson isn’t so afraid of the future of her endeavor.
“I’ve thought a lot about that,” she said. “But the curve of rarity is only going to increase. Old books are only going to get older and more and more rare.”

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