Today, we ask: Just what is a conservator conserving?
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Jack Thompson greets me at
the street-level door of an old warehouse just
north of downtown Portland, Oregon. We ride the
freight elevator to the third floor and enter his
wing of the building -- maybe 5000 square feet of
highly organized clutter.
He calls it a conservation laboratory. I'd been
unsure just what Thompson conserved -- books,
paper? So we start out.
He shows me photos of a 14th-century manuscript
book he recently rebuilt. "Look," he says, "it's a
schoolbook. People were dying of the plague all
around this man, and he had enough hope for the
future to write a grammar text for children."
A clamp holds gatherings of pages for another old
book so he can sew them together. A stack of
quarter-inch oak boards will be used to make the
covers. He's been splitting the oak in stages and
drying it for five years. He's cleaned, soaked,
dehaired, limed, and softened animal skins to wrap
He has a library of old books on the old arts.
Modern books about these techniques aren't too
helpful. They say inks were once made from
materials like oak gall and linseed oil. But what
is oak gall? I ask him. He reaches into a bag of
oak galls and hands me one. It's a parasitic growth
on an oak tree -- rich in tannic acid. "And here's
a linseed pod," he adds, giving me one.
Thompson runs a camp in Idaho. Each year he takes a
group into the forest to learn the old crafts. They
make paper from pulp pounded to slurry in a mill
driven by a water wheel. They make ink, bind books,
clean and soften hides to make parchment.
A ruined fire hose hangs in the corner of the lab.
It seems fire hoses were once made of linen. Linen
fiber makes superb paper. He shreds the hose and
feeds the bits into his water-driven mill. I take
away a sheet of paper made from a cast-off fire
Here's a small pile of blue stones -- lapis lazuli
tailings from a jeweler. Thompson grinds them up
and runs them through complex chemical processes.
The result is genuine ultramarine pigment. "This
stuff costs $2000 an ounce on the market," he says.
He shows me paper marbling, leather embossing, tapa
fabric, mulberry paper, and wasp paper. "Did you
know wasps taught us how to make paper from wood?"
he asks. I didn't.
Suddenly I know that I know nothing. The 20th
century has given me much, but it's taken as much
away. I'd wondered just what Thompson is
conserving. Now I know. Book repairs are only the
vehicle. What he really preserves is the one thing
without which old books, and much more, will die
off. He's conserving the very arts by which we
lived our lives -- until just this century.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds