Book Intervention Types: A Construct of Five Types

Friday, February 6, 2015

Submitted by Gary Frost


InterventionsWhat are the consequential types of book intervention? Can the interventions found in books be allotted to some kind of categories?

We observe interventions of (1) production, (2) marketing and retailing, (3) interventions of users and owners, of (4) library re-fabrication and book processing, and interventions of (5) restorers and conservators. Given the range of these interventions it is even fair to ask if books have any unmodified state! Perhaps we should say that our study of book intervention really presents an overall examination of the physical evidence and characteristics of any book that comes to hand. So, in a spirit of reflexive and comparative study from philology legacy, let’s gather evidence and characteristics of each intervention type as we examine any book in any context.

One presumption here would be the construct itself; that is the taxonomy of five types of intervention. Such a presumptive construct has been used before in our Feral Seminar where study of the resilience of book transmission spans resources of six different disciplines. Again reflexive and comparative curiosity could ask how the construct of book intervention categories could possibly relate to cross-discipline transmission resiliencies. Such a bizarre idea can only be eclipsed by a surprising recognition; they relate together as cognitive properties and their investigation methods. This is philology at work. A given intervention of book repair does relate to precepts of library science and an owner’s inscription is related to methods of book studies.

For the moment let’s just list the intervention types observed in books! We will also add bibliographic references for each type to authenticate our premise of intervention as a basic book function. These are in a bibliography.

Five Types

(1) production

Setting aside production discrepancies and the in-press corrections of papermakers and printers our present examinations will be limited to bound books. Here we encounter tip-ins such as errata slips, page cancels and binding error corrections. Bespoke and commissioned binding can occur here or later at the book seller. Structural abbreviations or innovations are imposed in the initial production. Idiosyncrasies of nationalistic binding conventions and deviations of provincial work are noticed. And don’t overlook the battered, working reference books of production shops. Inked fingerprints on paper have been noticed for hundreds of years.

(2) marketing and retailing

Here agents mediate and transact between booksellers and book buying markets. Interventions range from deceptive sophistications of antiquarian book dealers to more innocuous temporary bindings. Among the deceptions for retail sale are outright forgeries and their outright re-fabrications in emulation of historical productions. There are also physical modifications and markings and applied encodings for retail display and sale. Customer profiling and retail trends provoke follow-up modifications of POD production and format features. Face out display, promotion and subliminal paratext takes precedence over reading.

(3) owners and users

More fabulous, strange and consequential interventions are those of owners and users. Here we discover a range of interventions from highlighting and excising of evidence of previous ownership to less defacing interventions such as inscriptions and book plating and more research worthy annotations. There is also the allure of soiled and finger worn pages or gutter accretions. Such evidences provoke bibliographic study. Users can also implement their own binding repairs and collation reconstructions. These owners’ repairs vary from folk recovering to practical toughening for some intensive use. Toughening of books with reformattings such as Sammelbuch tying together of multiple volumes are used to reinforce books for continued use or for voyages of expatriation.

Crossing the line from interventions of owners to interventions of scholarly study would be modern processes of textual criticism and their demanding stemmatic methods of study of multiple sources. Here an agenda of preference among sources of surviving texts, sometimes projecting a synthetic composite, is a modern philology including computer analysis. The interventive result is yet another “manuscript” re-transmission of the previous sources. Underlying is interventive agenda that a more comprehensive and scholarly comparative study can better approach if an “original” does not survive and cannot be authenticated from among variant sources.

(4) library re-fabrication

Library interventions are actions of collection management. There are results of marking and library identification. Of more consequence is a variety of drastic interventions resulting from processes of library re-binding and re-fabrication as well as from quick librarians’ repairs. A range of interventions is produced by circulation processing and vandalism response including well-promoted use of “5-minute” tape repairs. Immediate intervention to reattach a loose leaf is well justified. Another dominating feature of library intervention are the regimes of classified shelving. These extend to the drastic influence of high-density depository storage.

(5) book restorers and book conservators

Actions of those intent on renewal and preservation inevitably cause book intervention. Professional skills are applied to disguise and correct damages ranging from a dinged corner to broken sewing or loose pages or detached boards. The professional skills involved are quite flexible in application and are capable of effects from illicit to ethical as regards modification and status of the book artifact and can interfere with authenticity. Refinement of craft skills needed has inspired documentation of repair and restoration technique.


The range of interventions causing disruptions and transformations of a previous state is huge and curiously accumulated and compiled over time. The processes of intervention can extend for centuries or terminate suddenly with book shredding. Interventions beyond deteriorations of natural aging intrude the structure and appearance of a book. Happily this wide range of interventions and change in books is also well documented by the books themselves as well as by attempts to document practices. Practices of production, retailing, book use and book re-fabrication are presented in publications on book trades and bibliographic investigation. This resource does fall short of proprietary practice or “secrets” of daily trade routine and retail technique. But what is missing is not really missing if we continue close examination of surviving exemplars of interventions in books.

An Exchange

TB < So I see one great value of the class in teaching folks to determine “Is this artifact as originally made by crafts people during their own historical moment, or has it been messed with by other workers subsequently?” That’s a great skill. Knowing the answer helps them determine whether or not to “intervene” (treat) in the here and now.>

GF < Well put…i differ on the “messed with” connotation as I am engaging interventions as a fundamental cognitive function of books building their resilience of transmission and their meanings for us now.>‪‬‬‬‬‬‬

TB < OK. Maybe I am beginning to get a sense your thinking. A book is born by its makers in a moment in history but then as its life unfolds, there are various interventions that add to its story: Washed, Resized, Rebound, Trimmed, how many times? Used, transported, left on a shelf for 2 decades, then rebound again. Dust, stains; hair and lunch in the gutters. Certain pages get turned to again and again and the fingers used in the turning gradually leave a polish and/or slight soiling. People at different times write in the book, in different places. The book has a life of its own because of the interventions; its own story. A book is a book about itself. You just have to learn to read it, by ignoring the text and looking at the thing itself, carefully. Knowing how to read this story is a valuable skill because it can tell you about a book’s owners and users and the value placed on a book and the richness of a book’s life It can help a conservator discern: What to preserve, What types of treatment interventions are justifiable, What history needs to be recorded before intervening, Which books or book components are “as originally made”. Both the “as originally made” and the more heavily intervened with books are valuable to us as we study the history, lives and persistence of books. Is some of this your thinking?>

GF < Cool synopsis. I would add the further reach; that in the use books we encounter a rich material/cognitive function of books. This is stuff from Feral Seminar, but it is also grounded in methodologies such as philology (comparative study of texts), materialist book studies (examination of physical features of books) and book conservation (treatment based preservation). You are right that the whole premise hangs by the thread of a born “original” state of the made book (which is why there is so little purchase for interventions so early that they occur in the production phases). Many of the physical changes that you can observe in book papers (over centuries) are results of natural aging, usually retrograde changes. I am not considering these. I am looking at intentional interventions by human agents such as readers, owners or libraries. These kinds of interventions, in my view, are not necessarily retrograde and can be enhancements such as ordinary books annotated by a famous owner. I wish to emphasize the enhancement potential especially in conservation treatment because disruption and destructive potential is also present and conflicting social forces are at work including agendas such as cleaning and “disinfecting” or cosmetic re-fabrication.>

(This exchange is pasted from email texts.)