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October 07, 2003

Peter Waters, Book Preservationist

Waters passed away in June, but the news of his death was only recently reported here in the U.S.

New York Times, October 5, 2003
Peter Waters, Who Preserved Hundreds of Thousands of Books Internationally, Dies at 73
By DOUGLAS MARTIN

Peter Waters, a superb bookbinder who became one of the world's leading authorities on large-scale book conservation, died on June 26 at his home in Fairfield, Pa. He was 73.

The cause was heart failure due to mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, his wife, Sheila, said.

His death was not widely reported in this country until an obituary in The Washington Post last Sunday.

Mr. Waters was considered one of England's most accomplished artisans when it came to saving rotting old books by giving them new bindings and preserving brittle pages.

At 21, he was one of the youngest artists ever to have a book cover he designed bought by the British Museum. But he left this specialized and lucrative calling to lead in the preservation of hundreds of thousands of books around the world. He became the first restoration officer of the Library of Congress in 1971, and led its book conservation efforts for 25 years.

He also directed efforts to save books damaged by floods in Florence, Italy, in 1966 and in Lisbon the next year. He led similar efforts to save fire-damaged books at the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 and in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1988.

In 1984, he headed a team of 20 experts, most of whom he personally trained, to restore a water-damaged opera by Leonard Bernstein, "A Quiet Place," in time for its debut at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

Most significant to library professionals were the procedures he devised to conserve large numbers of books. The standard practice had long been to repair books as librarians noticed they were damaged.

But with perpetually limited resources, this meant conservation essentially occurred on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Kenneth E. Harris, preservation projects director at the Library of Congress, said Mr. Waters established a completely new approach to conservation.

One of his innovations was the "point system," through which each library division was assigned a budget of treatment hours in a given year. This meant that other books, a vast majority, were stored in special boxes to prevent further deterioration until their turn for repair came.

These so-called "preventative" or "phased" conservation measures became the norm in the library and museum conservation world, Mr. Harris said.

For this reason, Mr. Waters privately resented campaigns that described as a crisis the estimated 6 million volumes in the Library Congress that were too brittle to read, his wife said. He believed the books could be fully preserved through temporary measures and repaired as time and funds allowed.

His many contributions to the Library of Congress included developing and training a respected conservation staff, beginning an internship program to encourage careers in book conservation and adding the conservation of photographs to the library's mission.

Peter Godfrey Waters was born in Surrey, England, on May 19, 1930. He took his first bookbinding class at 14 and promptly spilled a pot of hot glue, but he became the school's top student.

From 1945 to 1949, Mr. Waters studied bookbinding under the master William Matthews as part of his course at the Guildford College of Art. He continued his studies of bookbinding and graphic design at the Royal College of Art, where he met Sheila Salt, a highly regarded calligrapher, to whom he was married for almost 50 years.

Mr. Waters is also survived by his sons Julian of Gaithersburg, Md., Michael of Fairfield, Pa., and Chris of Crownsville, Md.; and four grandchildren.

After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1953, Mr. Waters taught bookbinding and lettering techniques at the Farnham School of Art in Surrey. He was also a tutor in bookbinding at the Royal College, where he helped run the college's Lion and Unicorn Press.

From 1955 to 1971, Mr. Waters worked as the partner of Roger Powell, an English bookbinder famed for his 1953 restoration and rebinding of the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript written around A.D. 800.

Together, Mr. Waters and Mr. Powell studied the Stonyhurst Gospel, a Coptic manuscript of the Gospel of St. John, dating from the seventh century. They revised opinions concerning the binding of the rare volume by offering convincing evidence that the binding was original. Many had previously supposed that it had been added in the 18th century.

In 1966, flood waters swept through the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, damaging thousands of priceless library treasures. Mr. Waters was summoned to head a 120-person restoration team.

After floods in Lisbon the next year, Mr. Waters worked as a consultant for the restoration efforts of the Gulbenkian Foundation Museum. As a result of these two incidents, Mr. Waters wrote one of his best-known technical works, "Procedures for Salvage of Water Damaged Library Materials." It has been translated into Spanish, French and Japanese.

After the 1988 fire at the Academy of Sciences Library in what was then Leningrad, Mr. Waters was called in because his system of "phased conservation" seemed the only way to approach 3.6 million damaged books. Accordingly, he devised boxes to preserve the books as a necessary first step. The second step, actually repairing the books, promised to take far longer.

"It could take another 50 years," Mr. Waters said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1993. "It could take 500 years."

Yours, &c., LC | 02:38 PM | Librariana | TrackBack (0)

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