The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 15, Number 3
May 1991


History of the Abbey Publications

by Ellen McCrady

Reprinted with permission from Library Resources & Technical Services 35(l), Jan. 1991, pp. 104-108. Financial figures and other time-sensitive information has been brought up to date as of May 1991.

There are two Abbey Publications, both covering preservation of books and documents and both edited by me-: The Abbey Newsletter and the Alkaline Paper Advocate. The Abbey Newsletter, the oldest ' covers the treatment and preservation of existing materials, and the ' Alkaline Paper Advocate covers permanent and alkaline paper, the use of which preserves materials of the future. Abbey publications, Inc. is a corporation that gives legal form to both newsletters and to related work that I do, which consists mostly of organizing and being active in preservation-related groups. This narrative will concern itself with the two publications and with one related activity, the production of pH pens.

The Abbey Newsletter

In 1975, I was running my hand bindery, the Academy Book Bindery, in Dexter, Michigan, with the help of six or so part-time profit-sharing employees. After six years in business, I had become reconciled to the strange habits of customers, the eleven different I had to pay, and the necessity of hard work, but I could not reconcile myself to the isolation from potential employees, equipment dealers and buyers, teachers and students, and other binders. It didn't seem fair, although I could understand the reasons for this isolation. There were so few hand bookbinders then, and they were so insignificant economically, that support services and channels of public communication did not exist. Book conservators were so scarce you could count them on the fingers of your hand, and none of them worked independently. Preservation administration as a profession was still a gleam in the eye of Paul Banks, then conservator at the Newberry Library, later the head of the Conservation Education Program at Columbia University.

The cure for professional isolation seemed to be to start a newsletter, The first issue in August 1975, was a single-sheet handout for customers and potential bookbinding students. The commercial aspect soon faded and it became a channel of communication for anyone who offered or wanted equipment, jobs, lessons or news of bookbinding. My am was to get it into the hands of all potential readers, in order to create a community. I didn't know haw to find them, but I trusted that they would find me if I made the newsletter fun to read and informative, and if I gave out enough free copies. They did.

In the last 15 years, coverage has expanded to include book and paper conservation, and preservation of library and archival materials, as well as hand binding-a diverse group of interests. Still, the feeling of community is there I and the newsletter has a unity. Many readers say they read it cover to cover, which means I have succeeded in making it digestible even for nonspecialists. Newsletters, like newspapers, do not have to restrict their scope to the professional interests of a single occupational group.

The early issues of the Abbey Newsletter were pretty primitive. They were put together with the help of bindery staff and handed out to anyone who came in the door. The staff also gave the newsletter its name. "The Abbey" was their nickname, about 1975, for the bindery, the Academy Book Bindery (A.B.B., pronounced Abbey). We felt this was an appropriate name because the newsletter was published from a bindery run by a woman, and the word "abbey" can mean "convent" as well as monastery." We also liked the association with scriptoria and ancient books.

In 1976 I moved the bindery from Dexter to Ann Arbor, nine rules away, to be closer to the customers, most of whom were connected with the University of Michigan. Soon the University's own bindery closed, and work of all kinds poured into the shop. I talked about dropping the newsletter because I was so short of time, but several local readers talked me out of it. I have been issuing the newsletter ever since then, whether I was short of time or not, from a total of eight different addresses in Michigan, Maryland, New York and Utah between 1975 and 1987. (The nine years between 1975 and 1984 were my Wanderjahre, during which I made the transition from binder to preservation professional.) It is amazing that all of the subscribers seem to have kept up with my frequent address changes.

Address changes lost far fewer subscribers for the newsletter than price increases. I started charging a fee in 1977, which rose from $6 to $37 in the next 14 years. Receipts just about cover costs, provided the editor's salary does not rise above its present level of $14,000. The Newsletter is not a moneymaking project, but a service, and I want to make it available to as many people as possible.

A renewal rate of 60%-85% is viewed as good for a commercial newsletter that sends out a six-part series of special offers, reminders and bonuses well in advance of renewal date. The Abbey Newsletter', renewal rate has remained at around 91% throughout the years, despite the fact that we do very little chasing after non-renewers.

I had to close the Academy Book Bindery in 1978, because it was clear, after eight years of e effort, that it would never make any money. With the proceeds from the sale of assets (made possible by the newsletter's mailing list), I moved to Washington, DC, to make a fresh start in the conservation capital of the country. Unfortunately, no one wanted to hire me as a binder, conservator or even as a librarian despite my degree and experience, so I usually had to work as a clerk-typist.

I was incredibly lucky to find a year's employment as a conservation aide for the Library of Congress's Restoration Office (now the Conservation Office), and then another year's employment as a clerk-typist at the National Archives Document Conservation Branch (now the Conservation Branch). These two experiences, together with a short period of volunteer desk work for the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' Conservation lab, gave me a first-hand look at the practice of book and paper conservation and helped me make friends in the profession whose information needs I served through the Abbey Newsletter. Before and after these jobs, I worked for temporary help agencies when I could, and endured long periods of unemployment. The poorer I was, the more I hesitated to raise the subscription price of the newsletter, because I sympathized with the subscribers who might not be able to afford it, but eventually I did what was necessary.

After four years in Washington, I saw I was going need more formal education to fit myself for a job in this field. The conservation and preservation programs in the School of Library Service at Columbia University had been established by then, so I applied for the one-year preservation program, leading to a special certificate in preservation administration. I was accepted, and spent the next year and a half in New York City, living in the dorm, taking notes in classes, reading in the library, and putting out the newsletter from my office in the library.

Having access to so much valuable information in my classes and in the library itself was like a dream come true, after having to scratch so hard for so many years to get information from unreliable books and scarce informants. Nevertheless, I kept my priorities straight. If there was a conflict between class assignments and the Newsletter's press deadline, I let the class assignments slide.

The newsletter was an education in itself, in the sense that many of the longer articles required a good deal of research in the library, and had to be accurate because I knew by this time that readers were relying on the Abbey Newsletter to guide them in their professional work. The April 1981 issue had been full of heavily-researched articles (probably because of run of bad luck in job-seeking) on preservation priorities and leather preservation. In 1983 and 1984, while at Columbia, I published this sort of material in special supplements. There was one on fumigation, one on library binding that is still in demand, and one on bookbinding leather, with two translations from the German that took forever to do.

My fellow students would sometimes help me Paste UP the newsletter-two, three, or four of them tracing watermarks, cleaning up copy, waxing and laying it down. When it was ready, I would take the artwork and a couple of boxes of acid-free paper to a mall printer downtown, pushing my hand truck along city streets and the subway. Hand trucks ,were not permitted on the subway, but I couldn't see any other way unless I took a cab, which was too expensive. By this time I was using lightweight paper, 40 lb. Waylite from Ecusta, because it saved postage, was acid-free and buffered, and was good-looking besides, but the printer's little folder couldn't handle it, so it had to be jobbed out to another printer. This always made the job take longer than I thought it ought to take, but I would compensate for this delay by dashing down to the printers with my hand truck the minute I beard the job was ready, and getting it mailed out, with my fellow students' help, within 24 hours. The 6" x 9" stuffed envelopes with first class postage w-re put in boxes in zip code order and driven to the back door of the nearest post office, day or night. If the mailing was not ready until midnight, it went at midnight, even if I had to take a cab, and even if the cab driver was afraid to venture in the neighborhood. (It was the 125th Street post office in Harlem, a desolate neighborhood even in the daytime.)

Because of this extracurricular activity, I did not graduate until January 1984. My office in the library was so convenient, and I was so absorbed with the newsletter, that I was reluctant to leave it even when Brigham Young University offered me an attractive job as preservation librarian in the spring of 1984. Eventually, though, I accepted the job. It did make sense to start paying back my college loans and getting a reliable paycheck. The newsletter was losing the same amount of money every year, regardless of the number of subscribers or the size of the subscription fee, because it was growing to keep up with advances in the field.

In late July of 1984 I loaded all the boxes of blank paper and back issues, office files and personal belongings into a rental truck and drove to Provo, Utah, to my new job. The BYU library allowed me to do my newsletter from my office, and gave me one day off a week for newsletter work. It paid for a part-time assistant, for the telephone calls and photocopying. All this was very helpful. In return I gave out free subscriptions to anyone in the library who was interested.

Two years later I incorporated the newsletter and related activities under the name "Abbey Publications." The Articles of Incorporation state that the corporation's purposes are:

  1. To disseminate news and information to people involved in any aspect of conservation of library and archival materials;
  2. To stimulate and encourage the field of conservation all its aspects, curatorial, scientific, restorative, and administrative;
  3. To record the achievements of the field and to provide access to relevant professional literature of the past, of other fields and of other countries; and
  4. To engage in related activities such as organization of symposia, production of audiovisual aids, or maintenance of an information service.

As trustees I chose three of my teachers from Columbia University, whose expertise and good judgement I trusted: Pam Darling, Gary Link Frost and Terry Belanger. (More recently, that number has been increased by the addition of Roberta Pilette and Robert J. Strauss, and reduced by the resignation of Pam Darling.) My original reason for incorporating was to provide someone to carry on if something should happen to me, or to wind up the newsletter's affairs if it ever had to be closed down.

In November 1986, the corporation received tax-exempt status. In the process of justifying this status, I looked for other independent newsletters with tax-exempt status to use as a precedent, but found none. There are newsletters published by universities and professional associations, but none that is the principal activity of its organization. Independent newsletters are usually commercial in nature.

Late in 1986, the library withdrew much of the support it had been giving to the newsletter, and I felt the need to work full time on the newsletter. Consequently, in early 1987 1 left the library and set up an office in my home, with a part-time assistant who had been with me in the library. Now the Abbey Newsletter would have to support itself for the first time, and its Editor too, if it could. During the first year, the Newsletter was able to provide a salary of only $3000. The trustees advised me to appeal for funds and they have taken an increasingly active role in fund-raising since

The Alkaline Paper Advocate

During the first year after leaving the library, I became increasingly convinced that a newsletter was needed in the field of "prospective preservation," or the use of permanent materials, particularly paper, for books and records. Acid-free paper was being produced in increasing quantities, but there were barriers to its use, because the manufacturers were not promoting it or even identifying it as such in the marketplace. The librarians, who had been asking over the last 100 years for publishers to use permanent paper, had no way to make their need known to the paper industry at large. Publishers who tried to find permanent paper sometimes gave up or had to go out of the country to get it, because it took so long to find it. Here was another bad situation that could probably be remedied by dissemination of information to the right people through a newsletter.

I had three reasons to believe that I should be the one to put out this newsletter: 1) I had been covering permanent paper in the Abbey Newsletter from the beginning; 2) As a bookbinder I bad been very involved with finding, using and understanding alkaline or acid-free paper; and 3) I had studied paper permanence and manufacture in our preservation classes at Columbia University. The new newsletter, like the Abbey Newsletter, would provide a forum for all sectors of society that were concerned with the problem.

The first issue of the Alkaline Paper Advocate came out in January 1988, and there have been 18 other issues since then. Most subscribers are librarians, archivists and their institutions (41%). Paper manufacturers and merchants make up the next biggest group. The rest of the subscribers are largely conservators, chemists, publishers, paper industry suppliers and bookbinders. One subscriber in five lives outside the United States.

To make the market pressure exerted by users of acid-free paper a little more perceptible to manufacturers, I have been making and selling "pH pens" that can distinguish between alkaline and acidic paper. They are only felt tip pens filled with an indicator (chlorophenol red), a simple idea. They are more profitable than the newsletters, despite their low price.

The pH pens have been most popular with the paper mills that either plan on converting to alkaline papermaking, or that have converted. Even they, the manufacturers, have trouble telling alkaline from acidic paper, so they are sending in large orders for pens for their sales staffs.

It is great fun to use the pH pen, and see the line turn purple on alkaline paper, and yellow on acidic paper; but the biggest satisfaction in providing them is the knowledge that they make Microfilming, deacidification and much conservation treatment unnecessary for every book or group of documents that can be put on alkaline paper.

Activism, committee work, and "related activities" like this take up a great deal of time. I can see that two newsletters like these are all that one full-time editor, one full-time circulation/office manager and two part-time employees can handle. Perhaps one day there will be so much action in preservation that it will take two or more editors at Abbey Publications to cover it all. Then the big challenge will be to make the transition from a one-woman enterprise to an institution, long-lived if not immortal, like the collections in whose interest it operates.

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