Conservation of bibliographic heritage A German librarian tours East Asia

Erdene Zuu Monastery (Mongolia): the library is upstairs.
Erdene Zuu Monastery (Mongolia): the library is upstairs. | Photo: Reinhard Feldmann

Various programmes have been run since 2008, with funding from the Goethe-Institut, to train librarians in the preservation of cultural heritage and restoration of printed documents, first in China, then in other parts of East Asia, bringing together experts from Germany and East Asian countries. Reinhard Feldmann of Münster’s University and State Library has been involved in these programmes from the start and reports on his experiences on location.

It may seem strange at first glance that a German librarian and expert conservator should travel to China and other parts of East Asia to lecture on the conservation of printed documents (mostly manuscripts and books) and organize training in this field.

But the invention and dissemination of paper can be unmistakably traced to East Asia: paper was invented in China in 105 AD by the court eunuch Tsai-Lun. Three centuries later we find paper in the highly developed culture of Korea, and it is first attested in Japan from around 600 AD. After that it made its way along Inner Asian and Arab trade routes into the Arabo-Islamic world to the universities of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, before eventually reaching Germany (Ulman Stromer’s paper mill in Nuremberg) in 1390 via Spain, Catalonia and northern Italy.

Travel broadens the mind

So should a German be “carrying coals to Newcastle” or, in this case, “bringing paper to China”? There are good reasons not to do so, and yet even more good reasons to do so all the same. For one thing, there’s never any harm in taking different views of things, identifying what we have in common and overcoming whatever keeps us apart. Above all, however, we can learn from China, where (unlike in Germany) it is very clearly acknowledged that education is a pillar of a society’s development and that libraries play a crucial part therein. Many facilities in China are accordingly well endowed and fitted out at an astounding pace with new educational establishments and public as well as university libraries. From a Western perspective it is also interesting to note that there are no traces anymore (at least outwardly) of any ideological influences. The Chinese have managed to create a library infrastructure in no time that can hold its own – and compare favourably at that – with Western facilities.

Guangzhou (Canton): gateway to the West

In der Restaurierungswerkstatt der Sun Yat-Sen University: Restaurierung von chinesischem Papier im Ansetzverfahren In der Restaurierungswerkstatt der Sun Yat-Sen University: Restaurierung von chinesischem Papier im Ansetzverfahren | Foto: Reinhard Feldmann

The projects to be presented here started in 2008 at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou (formerly romanized in English as “Canton”) with a two-day workshop on "Conservation and Digitization", a rather theoretical introduction to these subjects. Over the next few years that was followed by a series of courses focusing on the restoration of individual objects as well as preservation conditions and environments (e.g. climatic conditions, storage, boxing). The following topics were on the agenda: Western methods of paper restoration, repair techniques, restoration of fabric tape, half-bound volumes, the rudiments of binding and leatherworking, working and restoring stitching, endpaper and headband. All of this with regard to “Western books”, of course, as the department for historical collections from outside of China is called there, i.e. for the most part literature in English, German or French from the beginning of the 19th century to the present day. And this tradition of interchange through seminars, schools, training centres and libraries is regarded as important and highly valued – particularly in respect of materials bequeathed to libraries.

At Sun Yat-sen University auditorium: the first lecture carefully explores similarities and differences between the two cultures. At Sun Yat-sen University auditorium: the first lecture carefully explores similarities and differences between the two cultures. | Photo: Reinhard Feldmann Chinese manuscripts and prints are well looked after: the Sun Yat-sen University Library? has a restoration workshop with modern equipment and personnel experienced in handling Chinese materials. But there was a great deal of uncertainty before that about the handling of European prints. Previously, there were no personnel in China with any expertise in European bindings. To be sure, the collection is now properly stored in ideal climatic conditions, but it is already seriously damaged, presumably by improper storage in the past: some of the paper has begun to crumble, many of the prints bear traces of damage caused by insects or previous mould infestation. Hence the urgent need for remedial action.

Furthermore, the library’s dynamic management were intent on developing the local restoration workshop at Sun Yat-sen University (one of the country’s leading universities, located, moreover, in the ambitious and prosperous region of South China) into a regional centre of excellence. That proved feasible – and what’s more, in 2010 the Sun Yat-sen University restoration workshop was declared a "National Conservation Centre" by the Chinese National Library and, as the only such centre in China, tasked with organizing nationwide training to preserve Western manuscripts. It continues to restore Chinese material as well, of course. Owing to the divergent development of printing processes in China and Germany, the Chinese material also has certain advantages when it comes to restoration efforts. Since the paper is usually printed on only one side in China, it can be restored far more often, in case of damage, by laminating the back.

East Asia is multifaceted

Even if we’re sometimes inclined to lump together all the countries in the region, East Asia is every bit as culturally and historically diverse as Europe. Each country has its own culture, customs and traditions. So after this fairly detailed account of the conservation efforts in Guangzhou, we should take at a brief look at developments in the other countries.

From the “solution to the lama question” to the most stable democracy in the region: Mongolia turns the page

Undatierte Manuskripte im Kloster Erdene Zou Undatierte Manuskripte im Kloster Erdene Zou | Foto: Reinhard Feldmann The old cultural region of Mongolia has seen plenty of hard times in the past. The country was subjected to Manchu rule until 1911, when the Manchu-founded Qing dynasty collapsed and Mongolia first declared its independence. It was backed by Russia in a bid to bolster its influence in the region. After the collapse of Russia in 1917, however, China took advantage of the power vacuum to occupy Mongolia. The Chinese were then driven out by the Baltic-German Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a former Tsarist officer, who was defeated soon afterwards and executed by Russian Bolsheviks in southwest Siberia. In 1921 Mongolia declared its independence once again and shored up its revolutionary structures on the Soviet model. After the death in 1924 of Bogd Khan, Mongolia’s Buddhist spiritual leader, the Mongolian People’s Republic was proclaimed (again, closely aligned with the Soviet Union). It endured until 1990.

Many old Mongolian structures persist to this day. Above all, monasticism remains a powerful, if not the most powerful, force in society. In 1936 Stalin embarked on his plan to “solve the lama question” – a cynical euphemism for liquidating tens of thousands of monks and closing nearly all the monasteries. Besides killing off the monks, the Mongolian puppet regime systematically destroyed monastic property (especially liturgical paraphernalia) and libraries, which reflected the abhorred “reactionary” ideas of what was perceived as a theocratic monastic culture. This was a huge loss that dealt a lethal blow to intellectual life in the People’s Republic. In a number of conversations I was told how arduous it was for Mongolians to relearn their own literate culture after 1990, e.g. through long years of study in India or Tibet. And yet a great many books (though “libraries” would certainly be an exaggeration) did survive or were saved by hiding them, taking them to remote farmsteads or ruins, even burying them (the locations of the hiding places were passed down from father to son).

After the first introductory seminar, several specialized seminars were held in Ulaanbaatar and in the country’s monasteries. A great many instructions and recommendations for future conservators were drawn up for this purpose on location. Arrangements were also made for the lama and librarian of the Gandan monastery in Ulaanbaatar to visit German restoration workshops.

Culturally united – politically divided: the two Korean states

On a fact-finding tour of South Korea, during which I visited libraries, restoration workshops and centres for training in conservation methods, I was asked to hold seminars on conservation at the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang (roughly equivalent to a national library) as well as to advise fellow conservators there and to elucidate in particular the new technologies they expected to get from Germany, especially optoelectronic measuring instruments as well as mass deacidification and climate control technology. A vague desire was also expressed to expand and modernize the restoration workshop.

But all this was initially easier said than done. Seoul may be only 150 kilometres from Pyongyang, but since the end of the civil war in 1953 (which to this day is still celebrated in the North as a “victory”) the border between the two countries has been even more impervious than the Berlin Wall (also known on the East side as the “anti-Fascist protective barrier”) was from 1961–89. Nevertheless, a total of three visits and seminars were made possible by the committed efforts of the Library and Information Department of the Goethe-Institut East Asia in Seoul. Not surprisingly, this undertaking involved considerable expense and several setbacks. That the only flights in and out of the country were via Beijing was the least of our worries. It was far outweighed by the lack of telephone and Internet connections in North Korea.

And yet “on location”, at the library itself, the atmosphere was congenial: friendly colleagues, sometimes sceptical cadres, amazingly well-informed staff (later on I noticed they got online secretly or had Internet access as cadres). The shortcomings were conspicuous, however, above all because the country was cut off from the rest of the world. Nonetheless, we were able to hold interesting discussions and an initial course of theoretical and practical training in conservation. Unfortunately, the planned modernization of the restoration workshop or creation of a new one for the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang is stagnating at present due to the general political climate and a freeze on exports of industrial goods to North Korea – a regrettable case in point of the massive impact that political circumstances can have on the practical work of librarians and restorers.   

Communication problems and how to solve them

I’d always been fascinated by how interpreters juggle with terminology at conferences. But they often came up against their limitations: whilst word perfect in translating normal speech, they were now and then at a loss when it came to technical terms. This is why the presentations were, as a rule, submitted and translated ahead of time. But the translations still left a bit to be desired (especially when rushed). Then again, who knows how to say “Battelle mass deacidification process” in Mongolian, “wooden board conservation binding” in Chinese or “Albertina poultice” in Korean?

So it made sense to use any communication difficulties we encountered during the seminars as an opportunity to make a note of each term we’d managed to work out together, often with the aid of illustrations, drawings, practical demonstrations, paraphrases and circumlocutions, and to compile a well-structured glossary. This was carried out first by the German and Chinese conservators in the languages of these two old cultural nations, to which the equivalent terms in the "lingua franca" of the 20th and 21st centuries were then added, followed later on by the Korean, Mongolian and Japanese terms.

Glossar Papierrestaurierung

Facilitating comprehension: excerpt from the conservation glossary Facilitating comprehension: excerpt from the conservation glossary | Photo: Goethe-Institut This Glossary on Paper Conservation contains over 500 technical terms in English, German, Chinese, Korean, Mongolian and Japanese. They cover three main aspects: book structure and materials, conservation tools, and bookbinding and restoration. Naturally, some terms are missing in some of the languages wherever no known translation exists. The glossary can be searched systematically by subject area or alphabetically.

The first print version came out in a small number of copies. A second edition in all six languages is now available in print as well as in several electronic formats: iBook, EPUB and PDF, which can be downloaded from the website of the Goethe-Institut Hong Kong.