The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 24, Number 1

In Memoriam: Paul N. Banks

Paul Banks died in New York on May 10 after a brief battle with cancer. It is hard to think of him not being around any more, even though few of us saw him on a daily basis after he retired in 1996 and moved back to New York. It was enough to know that he was at the other end of a telephone line, if we needed to call him for anything. Now that we can't call him up any more, we can only imagine what he would have said if he were still alive.

Paul was born in California in 1934, an only child. He wanted to go to college, but was drawn to fine printing, which was not taught in college. He studied at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, then worked as a typographer and production assistant in New York, 1956-1960, while taking book-related evening courses at Columbia.

In 1960, he left the printing industry. For the next four years, he had only part-time work and was very poor. He worked part-time for Carolyn Horton for two years, gave bookbinding lessons and taught binding at Riverside Church, wrote committee reports for the Journal of the Guild of Book Workers, studied bookbinding and attended two seminars at Cooperstown on "Conservation of Rare Books and Manuscripts," and "Conservation of Art on Paper."

From 1964 to 1981 he served as Conservator and Head of the Conservation Department at the Newberry Library, where he improved the binding and repair practices then in use, and began training apprentices and staff in conservation. The pay was low, but people were attracted to the lab and the opportunity to learn. Many well-known conservators received part of their training there, either in the lab or the bindery. Paul loved to teach, which he did both in person (in classes and seminars), and in his many publications during this period, including the leaflets he issued in response to the many inquiries he received, such as "Where can I learn bookbinding?" or "How can I learn conservation?"

I was running a small hand bindery in Michigan during this period (1969-78), and learned about Paul and the Newberry through my customers. Around 1973, I invited three other people to drive with me to Chicago to visit the Newberry Library and talk to Paul. They included my apprentice George, a former Camberwell student visiting in the U.S., and my former supervisor at the University of Michigan bindery. Paul showed us around the lab and took us on a tour of the new storage building then under construction, explaining how its various features (such as the air filtration system and absence of windows) protected the collection.

Paul published one or more articles every year on bookbinding, book and paper conservation, and problems related to conservation from 1965 onward. Every time he saw a problem that was not being addressed, he would publish one of his calm, overwhelmingly thorough and rational analyses and advocate a solution. He would not suggest a solution; his approach was to state, "This needs to be done." He never got people's backs up by making them feel guilty. He never pushed the responsibility for taking action onto his readers, or blamed the authorities. He was a leader because people felt confident that they would eventually have a successful experience if they supported his recommendations.

And besides that, he could write; and he knew where to publish his articles for the maximum effect.

In 1969, he gave a paper at a meeting of the American Institute for Conservation, "The Treatment of the First British Edition of Melville's The Whale." This was the first time a paper on book conservation had ever been given at the AIC. In 1978-80, he served as President of the American Institute for Conservation—another first for library conservation.

During the 1970s, while he was still at the Newberry, his interests focused increasingly on the need for education. In 1978 and 1979 alone, he published four articles defining the field and describing the need for professional training. And by this he meant full-time, long-term training, not short courses. He had been giving short courses in conservation for years, and he knew their limitations.

At a bookbinding seminar in November 1979, at the Hunt Institute in Pittsburgh, Paul described the curriculum he was developing at Columbia University for library conservators and preservation administrators. The first classes were held August 1, 1981, in Columbia's library school, and continued for ten years. In 1992, after the library school was closed down, the program moved to Austin, Texas, where it continues today. Paul taught classes in Austin for the first three years.

I think most people who have been through the program would say that Paul's lectures at Columbia University and the University of Texas at Austin were the heart of the program. I bound my class notes from his introductory course and his course on protection and care of library materials. I have them in my library today, along with that remarkable bibliography he put together in 1965, listing everything that had been published on topics relating to library conservation. It was nine pages long. The 1981 edition had grown to 100 pages: A Selective Bibliography on the Conservation of Research Library Materials, published by the Newberry Library. He compiled it because his students and the people who came to him for advice needed it.

Today the work he pioneered is being carried on by more people than anyone can count, and it has become our work now. If we need inspiration as we look for ways to handle new challenges, we can consider how Paul might have handled a similar situation.

Ellen McCrady

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Timestamp: Sunday, 03-Mar-2013 21:40:07 PST
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