Introduction: This series of posts was prompted by questions from Sarah Kim (aka Skimplicity), a long-term work-study student of mine at Syracuse University Libraries who is now enrolled in the Bookbinding program of the North Bennet Street School in Boston, fulfilling a dream she’s had for some time. This is Part 1. See here for part 2 and part 3, part 4.
I (Sarah) was introduced to the bookbinding world when met Peter teaching book arts in one of my art classes. This led me to working the next six years at the Syracuse University Libraries’ Preservation Department repairing books. However, bookbinding was something I never considered pursuing because initially, I wanted to be a creative director or a graphic designer, or something of the like working in a creative field in the modern age. But I never found enjoyment working on a computer screen as I did working with my hands: folding paper, brushing glue, cutting book cloth and buckram with my olfa knife. And that is what lead me to North Bennet Street School, to give myself the best opportunity to learn and hone those hand skills.
It wasn’t until I started attending North Bennet Street School that I realized just how huge the realm of bookbinding is; a wide variety of materials and pastes and tools, reading materials, discovering a whole society of bookbinders much like how Harry first stepped into Diagon Alley... While I had an idea that bookbinding was something Peter does outside of working at the library, in which he did show some of the work he has been doing, it was still an intangible concept for me to grasp: Why does he make books? If books are now only mass-produced, does this make Peter an artist? Is this a hobby that people do? Is it still a thing for people to get apprenticeships? What happens afterwards? Why is the bookbinding program at NBSS two years? Is there really that much to learn about books and the different types of bindings? Questions I had brewing in the back of my mind, but not quite knowing how to ask, or knowing what exactly I was asking for, but never really asked until I was forced to ask these questions myself when I became a bookbinding student... So, to make up for the “lost time” a little bit, I’ve had the privilege of keeping regular correspondence with Peter to ask him these questions, and hopefully to continue to keep asking more questions.
The “interview” will be spread out over several posts, so check back regularly… This is Part 1.
Sarah: Let’s start off with some background information. While in college, what made you want to drop the idea of studying law and going into bookbinding? In other words, how did you end up in Germany?
When I started college (1981) there was a fair measure of pressure from some quarters of my family to study law… So, when I enrolled it was a history major in one of the top programs in the country. Based on AP credits, this would have put me on track to do a BA/MA in 3 years. Needless to say I got my hat handed to me and like many students had to reassess my options. So, switched majors to German Lit (I grew up speaking German, the kid of an itinerant art historian)... The thought of law school, however remained.
Like many students, I needed a work-study job, and being a faculty brat my parents knew the campus an options well… So, “son, the library hires a lot of students… Shelving books is boring, but there’s this Englishman in the basement who has a book conservation program and manages preservation…” Sounded interesting, went down, talked to John Dean (talks about own training starting page 7), and got the job. That experience, and all the people who worked their changed my ideas, interests, and goals. This was a fully developed program with circulating collections repair and rehousing (my job, largely), rare book, and paper conservation. They also managed the library binding program that was substantial in those pre e-journal days…
|John Dean - My first mentor from Johns Hopkins and later Cornell.|
|Martha Edgerton - my day-to-day supervisor who had|
the unenviable task of keeping me focused on the job at hand...
Like Sarah, I was put to work learning how to repair the heavily used books from the circulating collections, make basic enclosures for brittle items, clean stacks, … Because of the nature of the program (Then a 7-year apprenticeship program in contrast to the MLS Columbia preservation and conservation program that had started around the same time), I was exposed to all levels of work, something that deeply intrigued me so that when I wasn’t training for bike racing or studying, I volunteered with the paper conservator and just watched. The director of the program, John Dean, encouraged this interest by inviting me to observe presenters brought in like Tini Miura, exposing me to other aspects of the field. Through these experiences I also became involved with the Baltimore Area Conservation Group (BACG) providing more networking opportunities. [John gave a great lecture on the history of conservation and his path - I was glad to invite him here to Syracuse.]
Despite some academic challenges, I managed to stay a semester ahead, and at the encouragement of John (and Frank Mowery at the Folger Shakespeare who I had also been introduced to) decided to intern in a conservation lab/bindery in Germany. Language and dual citizenship helped make that easy. I also helped that my sister’s godmother was a librarian there as well as one of my father’s first positions, and that the binder/conservator had done a fair bit of work for him over the years.
One can never start building networks (and discovering pre-existing ones) too early - start now if you haven’t and nurture them.As often happens when one goes off to do interesting things, someone else mentions that a report or newsletter article would be great, and so it was with "Experiences at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum," which was followed up by an illustrated lecture after my return.
Writing about and sharing experiences is a great way to think about and (re)process them, and it's only gotten easier in the online world. Who knows, you might even inspire others...While in Nuremberg, I also began my compulsive reference collection building habit by buying my first manuals – Zeier’s Books, Boxes, and Portfolios, the Fritz Wiese books such as Der Bucheinband, and was first exposed to Ernst Collin’s Pressbengel (little did I know then…). I also greatly expanded my tool collection. Other takeaways, a notebook filled with (crude) sketches and things to follow-up on, and lots of photos (slides that need to be scanned). The Zeier and Wiese are still among my favorite manuals.
Start building your reference collections early, you'll never regret it, and despite the online offerings we have today the best resources are still in print. Ditto on acquiring the best tools you can (barely) afford. They'll last a lifetime is cared for.
|The lab at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg.|
|Across the courtyard from the lab, the cover of the Codex Aureus Epternacensis.|
One of my father's first publications was about it.
Box, bindings, and clamshell from internship in Nuremberg below… My first marbled papers, using oil and traditional watercolors - Nice to use them. Blank books, the gateway drug to ??? All these different projects, in addition to doing basic work like sewing, cutting materials, ... for regular lab workflow gave me a great introduction to binding in the German tradition, the bookbinding literature, but also the culture of work and society in general. Very different from the visits to see family, some was "better," some not. During that time I also lived in a Catholic boarding house where the main residents were apprentices in town for trade school. A melting pot.
|My first millimeter (Edelpappband) binding|
|Draft for my father's last book... Sadly, never got published.|
While there, I also got the scores for the LSAT that I took the day I was flying to Germany. I had the out I needed to convince my grandfather (a retired judge) that law school was off the table, and that I was pursuing the binding/conservation option. I then began pouring through the Branchenbücher (Yellow Pages) for binderies across Germany (but also not too far from relatives).
Returned home for Christmas (‘84), set up my first “Harry Potter” studio in the basement and under stairs… (picture below) to keep the skills up. Having all the good tools I acquired while in Nuremberg helped, too. So, had lots of fun practicing my marbling with oil paints (that I haven’t really done since) and paste papers. Making blank books and boxes as gifts (building expectations of the gift that keeps coming…) gave me lots of repetition. I was also grateful for the use of a board shear and guillotine to do all the cutting (again, keep nurturing your connections...). Still had to ride/race my bike and graduate, but carved out the time to start sending “application” letters and resume, all handwritten as the Germans expected it… Should have at least typed and xeroxed the resume bit…
In the end, I received 3 invitations to interview, all essentially asking me to come next week (and after their responses arrived by mail at my place), called them to reiterate which continent I lived on, and still managed to schedule the 3 interviews for 3 weeks hence so I could get flight and finish college. Thanks to senior “privilege” I was able to skip most finals and only needed to reschedule one. Week long trip went well, had offers from two, chose the one that spoke to me - in an artist’s colony, and packed up my life to start my apprenticeship 4 weeks after graduation…
|Like Harry Potter under the stairs. Made the press and sewing frame...|
To all in a situation like mine was, take advantage of any and all opportunities presented, seek out challenges, and don't be put off by the first (or second) "no." I am still in touch with almost all of my early teachers and mentors, and we are now peers. It is their example that helped show me the way, and in large part the joy of sharing it with others such as work-study students and interns. And, you'll need their letters of support sooner than you think...