Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Ponderings of a Bookbinding Student- Part 4

The Ponderings of a Bookbinding Student: Why bookbinding? A discussion between a student and her mentor.

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. The “interview” is spread out over several posts, so check back regularly… This is Part 4. See here for part 1, part 2, part 3.

Sarah: What do you hope to see from younger people studying books (like students from NBSS, or library science students)?

Good question, and will respond based on my personal experiences and pet peeves from being a listowner, employee, supervisor, mentor, and gadfly/curmudgeon for 30+ years.

I think the most important thing to remember is that no matter what your situation, acknowledge what you don’t know, and that you still have lots of mistakes to make. Keep good notes and keep building your reference and tool collections – you can never have enough, and your heirs (perhaps future mentees?) will thank you. Start a file for any and all clippings, mentions, ... of you and your work, and organize it – useful for when you become famous. Getting covered in the local press (please not as the last bookbinder in the world practicing their lost art under the stairs) is a good start. For your first positions find ones where you will be working under good supervision and hopefully mentorship. Resist hanging out your shingle and going solo right away. Working with/for others allows you to build on what you learned, exposes you to new ways of doing things (even the same things), provides other perspectives, and hopefully a steady stream of work with which you can push yourself and take risks knowing there will be someone to bail you out (or tell you what you could have done to avoid it…). Remember those teachers even when you move on, even if the experience was not your favorite (don’t burn/neglect bridges), and share updates. This doesn’t take much effort long term, and could lead to referrals or even references down the road. If they don’t remember you there won’t be much point in providing anything meaningful.

In terms of goals, especially for the North Bennet Street, Alabama/Iowa type book arts students, aim high, don’t all set out to make journals… Acquire nice fine press, better publishers' textblocks, or ones you can download that can be sewn to bind – these are more interesting than endless blank books. You can often find 1st editions of significant literature for not a lot of $$$ because the bindings are damaged. Textblocks not sewn? Fancy them up like NBSS grad Henry Hebert has done. Liked the term so much I appropriated it. Try to get good edition/production work to develop those chops and muscle memory, something that only repetition can really provide. Find books that interest you (or that you can sell), and create bindings in response to the texts/illustrations. While “self-referential,” books about books can often provide blank canvases on which you can let your creativity be less constrained. Enter exhibitions, set book, themed, or open, non-juried and juried. Local/regional groups are great places to get that first experience, and colleagues will be able to (hopefully positively) critique and provide feedback, something less likely in national shows. Chicago Hand Bookbinders, was a great group in that regard when I first started entering exhibits back in the late 80s. Think about repair and conservation work as well. That's where the jobs are in institutions, and most likely where your bread and butter will come from if on your own. That would include things like Bibles, cookbooks, children's books, ... that often hold deep sentimental value. And in all things, make sure to price your work fairly, including to you.

Ask lots of questions wherever you find your “community,” IRL or online, but think about the question before asking. Is there research you might want to do before asking to help form a better question. Provide all the context you can, provide links to images, ... so that the respondents don’t have to guess or the conversation devolves into an endless cycle of follow-up questions. Don’t assume everything is online and free. The best stuff is in people’s heads, hands, and print. Most of this kind of knowledge cannot be crammed into a tweet, so be prepared to express yourself long-form. Develop good information literacy skills so that you can discern credible sources from the not so credible ones. There is a lot of information that gets passed around that is just bad, or devoid enough of context to be dangerous. Learn to recognize names. Use your real name or that of your business consistently and have a “signature” that provides basic contact/descriptive information. It shows seriousness and gives more credibility. This goes for websites and blogs, too. Provide a bio and contact information. If not your home address, at least what city/state… Websites evolve, so don’t expect them to be perfect the first time around. That said, don’t take them down while you figure out what you want, just tweak, and then release a new look/content when you’re ready. You want to develop your own brand, nurture, and sustain it long term.

I hope to see all of you engaged in the “profession” and become lifelong learners who also contribute actively to the continuation of what we do through their good work, teaching at whatever level, exhibiting, publishing, sharing, … To become mentors like you hopefully had for the next generation. This also carries over to becoming engaged and active in member organizations that contribute to building connections between all of us like the Guild of Book Workers (GBW), the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Group (CBBAG), Designer Bookbinders (DB), Society of Bookbinders (SoB)... Designer Bookbinders have the best journal, so even though UK focused are well worth it. Membership in all more or less the same and a value. All also have regular exhibitions to enter, though most require you to join.

Sarah: I feel like our society today still pressures young people to get a college education. How do you think North Bennet Street School, and other vocational schools, fit into this conversation? 

Int'l Brotherhood of Bookbinders pin.
Ca. 1.5 cm wide.

The trades, including fine crafts, have been marginalized by the idea that everyone has to go to college, including advanced degrees. This has been going on for a long time. Depending on your goals and desired work environment college/advanced degrees may be required, e.g. working as a conservator in a research library/museum environment is one of those situations. Even in private practice, some kinds of grant projects you may find yourself bidding on will have educational/certification requirements.

That said, I wish this country had a well developed system of learning trades, something that would benefit almost all industries and trades. On a national, or even trade-by-trade basis, it would be difficult to build in uniform standards and learning outcomes that are essential for the “degrees” (certificates, certifications, …) to be portable. On a statewide basis that may be possible, especially if coordinated by community colleges and allied programs. There would have to be partnerships with the trades and the business that make it up to ensure that the apprentices/trainees get the practical AND theoretical knowledge in the mechanics of the trade, but also running a business and best practices for that so that they can succeed. They also need and access to networks of peers and mentors. The apprenticeship should have a fixed duration and be paid. After completing their apprenticeships, the newly minted “journeymen” should either be hired by the companies they worked in or be able to find work in others. The former option is common in larger industries - the industry investing in developing its own workforce. It’s a topic I’m glad is seeing more coverage in the mainstream press.

So, this could work for “popular” trades like welding, plumbing, electrical work, construction, … What about fine crafts like bookbinding? Harder because the critical mass of businesses is not there across a broad geographic area and the jobs and work that support them are also not as plentiful as we would like. What core competencies and certification would be broadly agreed upon and available? A North Bennet Street diploma is recognized as are MFA’s but what about for people beyond these, the autodidacts and people in the “fly-over” states. The Guild of Book Workers once thought about certification in some form, but couldn’t agree enough to flesh out the idea. AIC has voted on it at least once and failed, but does have a peer-reviewed Professional Associate and Fellow category. Graduating from a recognized conservation program provides a strong credential, but what about those that entered the field via apprenticeships, also those most likely to work in private practice...

Int'l Brotherhood of Bookbinders convention ribbon from 1942.

Then, there is the question of whether people care. After all, we’re not practicing medicine, law, or building airplanes/bridges… This is a question that came up often in AIC discussions, where the hope for certification was a form of regulating the trade and who could practice it akin to the medieval guilds (or modern ones in places like Germany). What would we hope to gain from this certification beyond learning the basic ropes of the trade? Access to group rates for health insurance, accidental death and dismemberment insurance, 401K plans?

I would love to see a flourishing educational and practicing skilled trades and craft “scene,” and feel it could elevate what we do, but only if we (those who practice it) also strongly identify with it and help advertise that greater idea (like displaying diplomas on wall in professional offices), but also helping develop and share educational materials about the trade wherever we appear, kind of like that old ad campaign of looking for the union label.


That also brings me back to being professional engaged, and not just looking for the benefits of membership. Also “simple” things like actively seeking out PR opportunities and working in the greater field we work in and member organizations in a sustained way. Building those relationships into our individual brands as well so that the general public starts to recognize it… Yes, it’s work, but if a natural extension of what we do becomes second nature.

So, let me flip the question. What do YOU, the reader, student of the craft, budding entrepreneur think? What are you looking for and what are your desired outcomes? Does a structured education/career in the trade matter to you? Are there things you aren’t interested in/willing to do for your career in the trades/crafts? Does any of this matter, and to whom?

Share in the comments below… 

Int'l Brotherhood of Bookbinders stamping die (Backwards, obviously)
Ca. 1.5 cm wide.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Ponderings of a Bookbinding Student- Part 3

The Ponderings of a Bookbinding Student: Why bookbinding? A discussion between a student and her mentor.

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. The “interview” is spread out over several posts, so check back regularly… This is Part 3. See here for part 1, part 2

Sarah: You being a person having great respect and influence in the bookbinding world, what are your goals when it comes to books?

While I have created some beautiful bindings and exhibited widely, my influence on the field is derived more from building (online) community and sharing the German binding tradition. For more on the former, see the next installment of this series. My sharing of the German binding tradition is woven into my work, some of which I will describe below.

Working as a rare book conservator was my goal when I started on this adventure, and it was a very rewarding career. In that, I was fortunate to work with and learn from some of the best, in particular Bill Minter who really took my work up several notches during the 3ish years I worked for him. Beyond the fundamentals, the skills required for conservation are different than those for design binding. We very seldom start with a blank canvas, we have to respect the provenance, structure, materials, … of the object. When I started in conservation we were much more invasive - full treatments starting with disbinding, washing, deacidification, … were not unusual… Now, we are much more likely to do minimal treatments or make enclosures. I was glad to have developed those skills, but it would be a challenge to develop those “chops” and the confidence you need without regular practice.

My goal is to create a well crafted book with a cohesive aesthetic. Doesn’t matter whether it is just a simple binding (say a recasing…) or a binding being entered in an exhibit. I’ll leave conservation work out of this discussion and focus on the more creative work. After working my way through the medieval treasure binding and Art Nouveau aesthetics, I found myself drawn to the cleaner lines of the 1920s - Deco, New Objectivity in Germany (Wiemeler, Dorfner, …), and other binders like Edgar Mansfield, Ivor Robinson, Philip Smith, and in the US Don Glaister and Frank Mowery. I loved looking at images of the bindings in books and catalogs as they were so in- and aspirational. Added to that mix was the work of Jean de Gonet who created exquisite bindings with open/visible structures using new materials like industrial rubbers/metals. It was only in the past few years that I learned that the German, Otto Dorfner had pioneered some of those structures in the 20s… Regardless, I found the combinations of materials with visible structural elements compelling and they soon became regular features of my bindings. Likewise various variations on the Bradel binding where the boards and spine are worked separately and joined later...

Pamela Leutz, The Thread That Binds, Oak Knoll Press, 2010.
Modified Bradel binding (Gebrochener Rücken); red Roma endpapers; sewn link stitch on four reinforced leather tapes; dark red and gray handsewn endbands; spine covered in gray leather with cutouts for tapes; boards covered in reddish brown Pergamena deer vellum; titled stamped in gold on front cover with leather onlays. 23 x 15.5 x 4 cm. Bound 2010.

That said, we all need creative outlets, they keep the mind fresh and allow us to be creative… Creating unique bindings and taking on the odd editions were my way of doing that, and it has been very rewarding and at times frustrating when I am shown my limitations… I’m not an artist and can’t draw to save my life. As an apprentice, I learned the basics how to make graphite and gilt edges, and the basics of gold/blind tooling. I love graphite edges, especially highly burnished ones and will always prefer them over gold. That’s probably the reason I’ve made so few of the latter, and as a result don’t get the results I want… Hand tooling is also something that requires regular and intensive practice in order to achieve any degree of competence and proficiency. I can recite the process for doing so though. Tooling is also time consuming and expensive, leading to less work that calls for it. Less commissions = less practice = less proficiency… and so the spiral goes. As a result we see less and less tooled bindings. An exceptional exceptions among the "youngsters" is Sam Feinstein, a NBSS grad.

Fritz and Trudi Eberhardt, Rules for Bookbinders, The Boss Dog Press, 2003.
Edelpappband / millimeter binding: Endpapers same as text; top edge in graphite and burnished; dark red leather endband around thread core; vellum trim at head/tail caps with invisible corners; covered in handmade pastepaper; title in graphite on front cover. Soft “Ascona-style” slipcase covered in paper to match book with title in graphite on spine. 18 x 12.5 x 1cm. Bound 2005.

As a result of not getting that regular practice I’ve worked to create my own aesthetic that largely lets the materials and combination of those speak for themselves. I’ve done very little marbling, using oil paints on methylcellulose the few times I’ve done it. Instead, I prefer paste papers, a technique I love, and I'm glad to see binders like Sarah Creighton, Carol Blinn, Amy Borezo, or Don Rash using them in their one of a kind and edition bindings. Must be at least partially derived from my German roots. Millimeter bindings, known in Germany as the Edelpappband (taught as the Rubow at NBSS), are great for using with decorated papers. The mythologies of that structure are best left for another day. My love, however, is vellum, a material that (when not in limp bindings) most binders seem to have an irrational fear of. I presented on this style at GBW Standards in 2001 (with an article in the GBW Journal) and Peter Geraty is doing a great job teaching the style across the country. Done right, vellum bindings are stable and the natural variations in the skins create a look and feel like no other. Jesse Meyer creates some of the most beautiful skins, and I’m glad to use them regularly.

Gaylord Schanilec and Clarke Garry, Mayflies of the Driftless Region, Midnight Paper Sales Press, 2005.
Dorfner/de Gonet "open joint" binding; sewn on 3 brown salmon leather slips; flyleaves and doublures of Cave Paper “layered indigo day” paper; graphite top edge; rolled endbands brown salmon leather; spine covered in gray salmon leather; boards covered in full vellum with printed illustrations from text below; salmon leather slips attached to boards and framed with decorative weathered wood veneer; tied mayfly attached to front board. 26.5 x 19 x 2 cm. Bound 2013.
A description of the structure and binding process can be read on the Pressbengel Project blog.

I also like working with leathers, goat mostly, and recently have started using fish leather more. The latter was pushed in Germany during WW1 and after as an “austerity” material - cheap & readily available without needing to be imported. It is a very interesting material with lots of variation and strong. Not big enough for a full binding unless making miniatures but easy to combine with other materials. Ernst Collin, author of The Bone Folder (original in German as Der Pressbengel), and who I have been very involved with wrote several articles on the topic and these no doubt influenced me.

Occasionally, I also like to try something different, and so it was with the images below that represent two editioned projects I completed with with Thorsten Dennerline/BirdPress. The first, 26 Words, was an edition of 10 alphabet books in response to the Guild's ABeCedarium exhibit of 1998. For the book we "randomly" selected 26 words that Thorsten illustrated and printed, and for which I completed the edition bindings. For my two personal copies I crafted two very different works. The first a tradition concertina that fits into a hinged case. For the second (a "second" because in folding the accordion there was a variance in alignment leading to me to put a fold where it should be) I saved my bacon by drawing on my conservator skills and changing the structure to a board book. The bound book then fits into the sculptural box. I have never done anything like these since.

26 Words. Illustrations and printing by Thorsten Dennerline/Bird Press. 1998.
Concertina Structure; boards covered in full Niger goat; onlays of chagrin and oasis goat, and frog; housed in hinged and cut-out slipcase in oasis leather and veiney calf vellum; title and represented words beneath vellum. Bound 1998.
26 Words. Illustrations and printing by Thorsten Dennerline/Bird Press. 1998
Board Book Structure; covered in full black clansman goat with onlays of red oasis goat and calf with laserprint; housed in television shaped box with cutout front to reveal decor of binding; box covered in full black goat with wood, wire and acrylic. "Dummy binding" inserted into box to give overall sense of work while book is removed. Bound 2000.

Below, a more traditional binding I completed to Thorsten's designs. This is the standard edition of which there were 40 copies. The deluxe comprised the remaining two copies and was covered in full vellum with the same structure. Illustrations in the regular edition were monochrome, in the deluxe colored. All volumes received clamshell boxes. Working on multiples like this was great fun as you find your rhythm and just work...

Lær Mig, Nattens Stjerne!/Teach Me, Star of Night!
Fine press artist’s book of poems by Peter Laugesen, and 8 etchings by Thorsten Dennerline / Bird Press; sewn on 5 raised alum-tawed thongs; buttonhole stitch endbands; spine covered in vellum; boards covered in quarter vellum with Japanese bookcloth sides; title and ornament stamped in black. Edition of 50. 25.5 x 24 x 2cm. Bound 2001.

More examples of my bindings can be seen on my website here.

In my last post, I mentioned some of the reasons for returning to the US from Germany even though that was perhaps not the plan. One of the things that happened in the spring of my last apprentice year (and 2 short months before my exams) was that I was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy. At the hospital the doctor said, "so what are you going to do now?" Hadn't thought about it, was still bike racing, and thinking of my life and career... "Well, you won't be able to get a job and will need to go on disability..." Ah, well, that's a problem then, and that statement alone made it easy to return to the US. Effects of this progressive disease weren't obvious for a very long time, in part because I continually adapted to those changes. Part of that was getting a job in academia with great health insurance, and  acquiring new interests and skills in my day job such as digitization and management. The impact is also felt on my benchwork where I am having increasing issues with stamina and some fine motor skills such as sewing endbands or holding a finishing tool… I have no intention to stop binding, but rather will adapt by changing structures and other aspects. It creates some interesting design challenges, and for those things I can't do, I ask for help... I also makes travel much more difficult, logistically and otherwise. Adapting to changing circumstances and adjusting ones career/artistic/life goals is essential regardless of circumstance. Sometimes we just need to roll with it, something easier said than done. Perhaps subconsciously, that was also a factor addressed in Sarah's next question.

Sarah: How would you describe your role in the bookbinding community?

First Book_Arts-L graphic...

I think my role for the last 20+ years has really been one of providing a virtual home for all the book arts that allows participants from across the globe share events, training and exhibit opportunities, ask questions, provide answers, and discuss any and all book arts related topics. A big contributor to the success of this is the mix of backgrounds, from "sages" and leaders in the field to newbies, and representatives of most of the leading book arts centers and programs. The resources I provide have been (and will remain) accessible to all at no cost.

The two pillars of this virtual home have been the Book_Arts-L listserv and the Book Arts Web, founded in 1994 and 1995 respectively. In those days, the Internet was still very young, very few outside academia used email, ... It was still a very person-to-person and print-based environment, something I hope we never lose. That said, after having lived in places like Chicago with the then vibrant Chicago Hand Bookbinders, or New Haven with NYC, Boston, and Northampton, MA all very close, moving to Ithaca, NY was a culture shock with almost no one involved with or actively interested in the book arts, binding, ... beyond their day jobs. So, it came down to being isolated... I had been on Conservation Online (CoOL) since 1989 and discovered Exlibris (a listserv for special collections folks) while at Cornell. After posting book arts topics to both, the listowners suggested I might be interested in starting a new list for book arts, something Cornell (and Syracuse) made available to staff. It would be easy, they said... It was, and in late June of '94 the list was started, and very quickly grew in subscribers after some messages to CoOL and Exlibris, as well as a mention in the Guild of Book Workers' Newsletter. Many of those early subscribers are still on the list, and I know of two cases where the offspring of those are now on as well.


Final cover of The Bonefolder showing all issues...

The Book Arts Web was started a year after as one of my first library school projects. It is largely a list of links (very Web 0.5) but I also try to provide unique content. Other similar sites were started shortly thereafter, but all have largely folded since. What has surprised me is how long-lived some of the sites have been. In terms of the unique content, The Bonefolder: an e-journal for the bookbinder and book artist started in 2004 was the most significant addition. It was an open access, freely available, journal that filled a void in the landscape - a reliable platform for widely sharing long-form writing on the book arts. Although we folded in 2013, it was for me hands-down the most rewarding project, a) for proving it could be done, and b) because of the team that produced it, Donia Conn, Karen Hanmer, Ann Carroll Kearney, Chela Metzger, Pamela Barrios, Conservator, Don Rash. I'm pleased to say that all issues are still online, and are archived as a part of LOCKSS and at the Internet Archive.

Squiggles, or a visualization that represents my day-job...


About four years after starting the list/website I was asked to speak about this brave new online world for a symposium in honor of the Silver Buckle Press' 25th anniversary at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In that talk, "Getting us out / Bringing us together: How listservs and the Web have changed the way in which book artists work and communicate" I shared my thoughts and experiences. I think most of them still hold even if some of the platforms have changed. I also ran some data, my new day job, on the list and websites that was interesting if geekish... Those are at Book_Arts-L and Book Arts Web Demographics and Usage.What does it tell us, that the online book arts world I created is still incredibly vibrant even 22+ years on, that an old Web 0.5 technology can still provide a robust platform for book artists of all levels to share information and discuss the issues, and that on a world-wide basis. It is a real community, that while online celebrates and sustains the physical and haptic book arts (and all allied fields).

That said, there are lots of other virtual spaces where book arts people meet in the "hipper" social media. You (Sarah) and I were messaging about that recently. I have no idea why Book_Arts-L is still going so strong, even when compared to those new media platforms. One of the things that strikes me is that on almost all other sites, whether forums or "social" media, the "owners" are often not as involved in sustaining the conversations. Sustaining a community takes work, not a lot at any given time, but ongoing care and feeding. This means starting conversations when things are slow, sharing articles, thoughts, ... that may be of interest, and of oneself. It also means promoting the community in other fora.  Having an archive that goes back to the first message helps too, and is a tremendous resource.

In terms of format, I think the best thing about Book_Arts-L is that it is long-form friendly, i.e. you can really compose thoughts, questions, and responses. I know this goes counter to a 140 character limitation, but it really does make for more thoughtful interactions.

Regardless, I invite any and all to develop the killer app or virtual community to replace it so I can retire.

My other big thing is sharing the German bookbinding tradition, whether as tutorials for specific techniques, or the history thereof. I do that here my Pressbengel Project blog. I enjoy it, and it has gotten a good response.

So, all this is what I am best known for – Building and sustaining a community based on sharing.