Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bound for Glory, the Book Artistry of Richard Minsky

A review by Miriam Schaer

The Book Art of Richard Minsky
Foreword by Betty Bright

George Braziller, Inc., NY 2011
ISBN 10: 0807616060; ISBN 13: 9780807616062 (hardcover), 136pp, $34.95

It’s no exaggeration to say that Richard Minsky’s bindery is also his soapbox. Across a nearly half-century career, and counting, Minsky has produced a steady flow of bound volumes infused with anger, wit and passion. Expertly crafted, they transform workmanship into artistry by the ideas they embody and the propulsive energy of their maker.

Along the way, Minsky also became Johnny Appleseed to a growing community of people and organizations devoted to book arts, a term Minsky, himself, is credited with coining. In 1974, he founded the non-profit Center for Book Arts in New York, an organization of which (full disclosure) I am a long-time member, and the model for many other centers for the arts of the book.

A natural evangelist, Minsky has taught book art classes, curated book art exhibits, exhibited his own book arts, contributed to book art scholarship, challenged art world orthodoxies, outraged traditionalists, and founded (online) a Book Art Museum. The Book Art of Richard Minsky arrives as a timely, handsome, well-deserved retrospective of his most interesting, most photogenic works.

The Bound and the Beautiful

Book Art in America author Betty Bright sets the stage with a crisp introduction and clarifies the distinction between “art books” and “book arts” which, after Minsky, should nevermore be confused. Following Bright, Minsky himself takes over as tour guide to the Minsky oeuvre. A long section engagingly recounts his early years before tapering off into short takes on individual projects, most notably The Bill of Rights. Notes on additional works follow, anticlimactically ending with a CV.

Completed in the shadow of 9/11 and the ensuing threats to civil liberties, Minsky’s The Bill of Rights consists of 10 volumes, one for each of the first 10 amendments to the constitution. The work’s overall tenor can be seen in its treatment of the Second Amendment, concerning the right to bear arms. The amendment is represented by a Minsky-bound edition of Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat by Morris Dees and James Corcoran, its cover enhanced by such interior quotes as “America is quickly moving into a long dark night of police state tyranny.” Other amendments are similarly treated. The series is angry and impassioned.

Members of the Center for Book Arts will be familiar with pieces of the Minsky saga, as it’s long been absorbed into the Center’s creation myth: his boyhood in Queens, his discovery of letterpress printing in junior high, the death of both parents at early ages, his close relationships with his grandmother and sister. All this had an enormous impact on Minsky, and imprinted on him the importance of living at full throttle.

Other parts of the story will be less familiar: how he studied fencing and sang in the Brooklyn College choir, loved music and dance, applied for a job at the CIA to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam (hey, it was the Sixties), graduated with an economics degree, withdrew his CIA application, and transferred to Brown University to begin graduate studies in economics. (Believe me, this is not how most people become book artists.)

At Brown, he discovered the university bookbinder and bindery, which he duplicated in his tiny dorm room. The romance was on. Economics became a girlfriend left behind. But not entirely, and Minsky acquired an MA in the subject before transferring, under scholarship, to the New School in Manhattan, where he credits Prof. Horace Kallen’s Philosophy of Art course with changing him “from a bookbinder to a book artist.”

Weary of Nixonian America, Minsky headed to Europe in 1971. He visited master bookbinders, binderies and book conservators, and performed with a traveling folk-rock band, before returning to Queens where, with a loan from the Small Business Administration, he opened a bindery and book repair shop. His formal career had begun.

Those who have known, studied or worked with Minsky will be unable to read of these events without hearing his voice. Those newly encountering Minsky will find his voice an easy companion, and wish only there were more of what in London is referred to as the naughtier bits.

Épater la Bourgeoisie

The Minsky works that receive the most attention share a progressive sensibility and a commitment to civil rights. Volumes like Chemistry in Warfare (1993), with its gas-mask cover; George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (2003-2006), a prescient take on the surveillance society; and The Bill of Rights, bristle like leather-bound agitprop with the metaphors of outrage. Minsky’s desire for action traces back to his family. Both parents moved in political circles. His father created The Religious News Service to promote religious tolerance, and his mother worked for the Anti Defamation League and with the League of Women Voters. Minsky, himself, performed for a time with an anti-Vietnam performance troupe.

At the time they were first exhibited, many Minsky bindings were characterized as outrageous or scandalous, but chiefly within the conservative world of bookbinders. Always interested in pushing boundaries, Minsky doesn’t seem to have thought twice about binding Thomas Pettigrew’s A History of Egyptian Mummies (1973) in linen strips, as if mummifying the book itself, without the owner’s permission. Fortunately, he loved it.

Minsky adorned The Birds of North America (1975), submitted to a Guild of Book Workers exhibition at Yale, with pheasant skin, so the first thing the reader sees is a dead bird on the cover. This reportedly caused a conservator to scream on opening the package. Looking at the book now, it’s hard to see what the fuss was about, especially in light of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde-fueled career. Among the interesting aspects of Minsky’s work is his attraction to unorthodox materials, such as the rat skins he tanned and applied to Patti Smith’s Babel (1979), and the mystery skin covering Barton Lidicé Beneš’ The Dog Bite (1970).

Personally, I find The Geography of Hunger (1988), creepier than the rest. The edge of the binding, embedded with teeth, creates a mouth on the fore edge that makes it look as if the book could bite off one’s finger. Bits of food labels on the outer edges, make one feel the book has already chewed up a meal and is about to spit it back out.

Many Minsky books are off-the-shelf editions re-bound from his perspective. Usually strategic about the books he binds, he often selected hot-button titles and subjects along with binding materials certain to engage readers in a dialog about their content. Minsky decorated George Plimpton’s Fireworks: A History and Celebration (1992) with live fireworks and a box of matches; The Biological Time Bomb (1988) with explosives, batteries, electrical tape and a timer; and Nineteen Eighty-four with a miniature hidden video camera and embedded LED monitor so the reader sees on the cover his or her own image staring back above the warning “Big Brother is Watching You.”

Many volumes were bound deliberately to provoke or make a statement about important issues. For Holy Terror: The Fundamentalist War on America’s Freedoms in Politics, Religion and Our Private Lives (1988), Minsky foil-stamped on Nigerian goatskin a picture of himself as a TV preacher surrounded by the flames of Hell. Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals (1988) sports a hypodermic needle, crack caps and a phosphorescent death head.

When Minsky develops a book from scratch ­ writing, illustrating and binding both the covers and their content ­ the subject is often sex. In Minsky in London (1980), the artist’s sex life shares the stage with instructions on tanning rat skins. Minsky in Bed (1988) explores the former subject further, continuing a long tradition of artists and writers who have harvested their exploits as artistic fodder, from Casanova and Henry Miller to Tracy Emin’s tent installation, Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-1995.

Minsky’s twist was to do it in the style of incunabula. Sculpted brass knobs, called bosses, shaped as a copulating couple, protect Minsky in Bed‘s leather covers from coming in contact with any reading surface, while handcuffs chain the whole apparatus to a brass bed rail. Other Minsky projects stretch the very idea of a book. He bound Erica Jong’s Sappho’s Leap: A Novel (2003) in the form of a scroll, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Philosophy of Umbrellas (2008) as a Tyvek umbrella to commemorate the late Judith Hoffberg, editor and publisher of Umbrella, long an important resource for information about artists’ books.

At heart, however, Minsky is a traditionalist. His works include numerous traditional bindings, like the ones for Cook’s Voyages (1968) and Tom Phillips’ translation of Dante’s Inferno (1980), as well as many blank books and guest books bound in exotic leathers with Art Deco and other historically inspired cover designs. And nearly all his books use traditional codices, even when attached to a bed, an electric chair, barbed wire, or linen wrappings. The form of the codex, even if not fully intact, is almost always recognizable.

Minsky has also called attention to earlier era’s bindings with compendia like American Decorated Publishers’ Bindings 1872-1929 (3 volumes, 2006-2010) and The Art of American Book Covers 1875-1930 (2010), which revived interest in a number of important book cover designers. Many were women, who were encouraged to find employment creating designs for book covers and other objects of the new industrial age, and who have otherwise been written out of the history of the decorative arts of the period. Their stories are an important addition to the history of artists’ books, and publishing.

The Book Art of Richard Minsky deserves a place on every book arts shelf. It brings us up to date with, and up close to, the career, still active, of an essential book artist. The photographs are clear, bright, inclusive and abundant. Minsky’s vision is no less.

Miriam Schaer ( is a practicing book artist based in Brooklyn, New York, and a Lecturer in the Interdisciplinary MFA Program in Book and Paper at Columbia College Chicago. She can be contacted at

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Journal of Dora Damage

Belinda Starling. The Journal of Dora Damage. London: Bloomsbury, 2007. 464 pages. ISBN 1596913363. Out of print but available.

Reviewed by John Nove

[In light of recent conversations on Book_Arts-L about anthropodermic bibliopegy a sneak-peak at a review to be published in the upcoming issue of The Bonefolder – in production now. To read the thread, click on the link and the "view by topic..." ]

 A chance meeting with an English woman over dinner on a remote Scottish isle last summer led to the mention of her friend Belinda Starling, recently deceased, who was the author of a novel that, as a bookbinder, she was sure I’d find interesting. No other details were shared, but a week after she left the island a parcel arrived via the Royal Mail containing the paperback version of The Journal of Dora Damage. The several blurbs on the back cover included one from the French women’s magazine Marie Claire (“a riveting tale of bookbinding and Victorian pornography”) and another from The Guardian which proclaimed the book a “scrupulously researched racy tale”.

I immediately began reading it and was transported into the Lambeth district of London in the mid-19th century with all its bleakness, despair and poverty – a very Dickensian setting whose sights, smells and tastes Starling expertly captured. The story’s narrator is twenty-something Dora Damage, a binder’s daughter, then binder’s wife, who sets out to support her severely arthritic husband Peter and their epileptic young daughter Lucinda by taking over the family business at a time when women were seldom permitted to perform other than menial bindery tasks (=sewing). Her options are few – make an attempt at successfully running the bindery or debtors’ prison for the entire family. So with her husband’s verbal guidance and the forwarding assistance of his young apprentice she sets out to resurrect Damages Bindery under the disapproving gaze of her neighbors.

Salvation appears in the form of Sir Jocelyn Knightly, an Africa explorer, physician, bibliophile and exoticist. Attracted by her unusual tooling and choice of cover materials, Knightly and his group of friends, the Noble Savages, likely modeled after Sir Richard Burton and his Kama Shastra Society, begin to provide commissions – along with morphine for Peter, an experimental therapy for Lucinda, and for Dora, entry into an unimagined netherworld of Victorian smut. Courtesy of Lady Knightly, Dora is also sent Din, a freed slave from Virginia, to become her apprentice (and she his!) after Peter dies.

The novel plunges deeper and deeper into the realms of vice, racism and pornography while providing what seem to be accurate details of the day-to-day operation of her bindery and the local tanneries. Dora finally draws the line at the degree of depravity to which she is willing to close her eyes. (For me the line would have been drawn sooner –some of the material in this book, based on well-researched Victorian predilections, is strong stuff.) With all the information she has, however, and the police closing in on their ‘business’, the Savages declare her expendable, and as a fitting termination to their relationship kidnap her and tattoo their logo onto her buttocks, planning to eventually use her skin (vegetable-tanned, we assume) on yet another one of their nefarious volumes. (“The perfect quarto, you said? Mrs. Damage’s arse, I’m afraid, will cover little more than an octavo, and a crown octavo at that.”)

Good finally prevails, as it usually does in these Victorian novels – and their Masterpiece Theatre versions. Dora, Lucinda (now free of epilepsy), and Mrs. Knightly and her newborn half-black son move off to Gravesend as a family. Dora then uses some of newly-acquired wealth to create a support organization for women binders that by 1917 evolves into the Society of Women in the Bookbinding and Printing Trades.

In recent years I’ve seldom devoured a book as voraciously as I did this one. Its depiction of Victorian bindery life, together with its intrigue and malignant darkness – overshadowed by the fortitude of Dora herself – lead me not only to recommend it strongly but to also suggest that it might make an ideal (if somewhat unusual) ‘set book’ for a binding competition.

John Nove is a bookbinder working for private and institutional clients in western Massachusetts. He graduated from the North Bennet Street School and opened the Grey Seal Bindery, named to honor the selkies he hears singing from his summer cottage on the Scottish island of Papa Westray in Orkney. He can be reached at <>.

Of the Bookbinder, 1761

 (From The Parent’s and Guardian’s Directory, and The Youth’s Guide in the Choice of a Profession or Trade by Joseph Collyer, Esq.,  London, 1761)

Discovered and submitted to The Bonefolder by John Nove.

The Bookbinder’s Workshop from Diderot & D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, France, 1751 and 1766

Of this business there are several sorts, as the calves leather binder, the vellum, and the sheep’s leather binder.

The boy intended to be a calves leather binder, ought to be both strong and pretty ingenious in order to become perfect master of the several branches of the art of binding books in calf. But no extraordinary education is necessary; reading, writing, and a littlearithmetic being sufficient. This trade requires strength to beat the sheets smooth with a heavy hammer, and ingenuity in gilding and neatly lettering the back, as well as in beautifully marbling the edges of the leaves; but this last is part of the art known to few of the trade, and those make an extraordinary advantage of it.

Was willst du Werden?: Bilder aus dem Handwerkerleben. Berlin: Winckelmann + Söhne,1880.
Complete book, 16 images online here.

The vellum binder is chiefly employed in binding shop books in vellum or parchment; he also rules paper for the account-books. Hi sis the most profitable branch of binding both for the master and journeyman.

The binder in sheep is chiefly employed in binding of school books, and little books in gilt paper for children and requires no genius. 

The calves leather binder may set up a master with about 50 l. and his journeymen have seldom more than 12 s. a week, except theyare very curious and uncommon hands, and are employed by a master distinguished by the neatness of his work. The vellum binder may become master with even less money; or get 15 or 18 s.a week working as a journeyman. The sheep binder may begin trade for himself with about 30 l. but the journeyman can can seldom earn more than 10 s. a week. All these branches take about 10 l. with an apprentice.

John Nove is a bookbinder working for private and institutional clients in western Massachusetts. He graduated from the North Bennet Street School and opened the Grey Seal Bindery, named to honor the selkies he hears singing from his summer cottage on the Scottish island of Papa Westray in Orkney. He can be reached at <>.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

How do Books Speak? A critical review of Julia Miller's Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings

Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. Julia Miller, The Legacy Press: Ann Arbor, MI, 2010.  511pp. Illus, with DVD. ISBN-13: 978-0-9797974-3-9 (cloth) $80.00.

A critical review by Chela Metzger

“The book is dead” is a phrase that seems to have generated a cottage industry of keynote speakers and opinion pieces over the years. Let’s leave questions of the book’s relative death or life until the end of this review. Let’s agree that both dead and living things can be carefully and lovingly described, and an accurate description may be the best way to honor a book, dead or alive. Julia Miller, conservator, binder and book historian, has undertaken an enormous task in her Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. She has championed the miles of shelves holding historic bindings in America’s research collections. She has tapped into the unique perspectives of book conservators and librarians, as well as book historians.  She has placed today’s books artists alongside the anonymous binders of years past, and she has drawn all these different groups into a continuum. She builds from this synergy, and the synergy lends her book force and weight.

Book skeleton image
Image frrom Letterology blog Monday November 29. 2010, book structure models by British Artist Sarah Mitchell

The Structure

Look through the chapter headings, and you see that the book offers what a handbook needs to offer. Miller lays out well-organized information and images that you would want by your side as a reference. As an introduction, she has four chapters of western book history, starting with the earliest codex forms in the west, and ending with the electronic book reader. She then lays out two chapters on identifying and describing historic bindings, and a final chapter entitled “The Task Ahead and Conclusions”. This final chapter is followed by three appendices offering a set of binding terms in a hierarchy form, a sample historic binding survey with a case studies, and a set of guidelines for book stack maintenance and book condition assessment. She also includes a glossary, a bibliography, an index and a DVD packed with additional images of historic binding features. Illustrations are crucial to this book. Miller has groups of full color photographs, as well as black and white photographs dispersed throughout. Some historic structures are delightfully illustrated with original drawings done by book conservator and book artist Pamela Spitzmueller. Miller has done a thorough job packing an extraordinary amount of information into a single volume (and DVD).

van Gogh “Still Life with Bible” 1885 from Wiki Commons


Certainly Miller’s book is not entirely new in subject matter, but it offers a new and useful combination of information. Others have given us heavily illustrated books on western bookbinding history, like Szirmai’s The Archeology of Medieval Bookbinding, (1999) or Jane Greenfield’s ABC of Bookbinding  (2002).  And we already have a few handbooks, which focus on dating a national binding style, like David Pearson’s English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800: A Handbook (2005). Arguments for including binding information in bibliographic description have already been developed by a few bibliographers, as Miriam Foot has shown in her excellent chapter on bibliography in Bookbinders at Work: Their Roles and Methods (2006).  And in his short, highly illustrated Book as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Text (2008), Pearson has already argued passionately, as does Julia Miller, for the unique artifactual qualities of historic books in libraries. What Miller’s book does which is especially innovative is offer a set of carefully crafted tools to carry out the bookbinding documentation she has argued so passionately for.

Miller is urgent in her arguments. She wants all who can do so to add to the bookbinding description work that has already been done, and she would like people to do this work SOON. As those of us who work in research collections well know, cataloging is an enormously time consuming and intellectually demanding process.  Given time and money constraints, special collection materials are sometimes very minimally cataloged. (For more on the Council on Library and Information Resources funding to catalog these “hidden collections” see This cataloging problem makes intellectual access difficult or impossible. If these sometimes unevenly cataloged collections are moved to remote storage, an additional burden of access will be imposed. To describe a book, it is best to have the book in hand. So, Miller seems to argue, now is the necessary time to begin careful binding description projects. Her fear is that already inaccessible closed stacks will soon become even harder to access after being taken away to remote storage.  Her urgency combined with a crystal clear love for historic books drive the book forward.

"Librarian" merit badge from the Boy Scouts of America

Thinking Like a Librarian

A unique feature of Millers work is her painstaking development of controlled vocabulary for describing historic bindings. This element of her work is one of its greatest strengths, and needs to be addressed in some detail. The task of carefully describing bindings has merit in its own right, and has been done by esteemed scholars for years, though rarely on a national scale, or with a comprehensive visual documentation component. If we consider a book as a technology, and think of how other technologies, from arrowheads to wheels, are documented in archeology then we can imagine books described the same way arrowheads are described, with a controlled vocabulary developed by those who know the most about arrowheads and their gradual changes over time.

Story in Stone by Val Waldorf

Such efforts at controlled vocabulary for describing books have been part of book history for years, and Miller is careful to acknowledge this. Glaister’s 1960 Glossary of the Book is an important effort, as is of course the excellent ABC For Book Collectors by John Carter, which also came out in 1960.  Etherington and Roberts Bookbinding and Book Conservation a Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology (1985?) is a reference book many of us cannot live without. There are certainly other efforts past and present being made internationally in this area, for one example see <>.

But librarians, who rightfully claim dominion over the rigorous development of controlled vocabulary for accurate information retrieval, have generated their own somewhat lesser known list of binding terms. Miller is well aware of the American Library Association Rare Books and Manuscripts Division thesaurus of binding terms. She is actively working to have specific terms she considered crucial added to their approved list so more librarians can use them in cataloging of historic bindings. For example, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section is now considering officially approving her term “visible structure through damage”(see page 4). Imagine if you could go into any rare book library, type that term into the catalog, and could accurately generate a list of every book in the collection damaged in a way that reveals the book’s manufacture and use. This is the power of controlled vocabulary used for information retrieval, and Miller is intent on harnessing that power for research.

Screen shot of capture of RBMS Binding Terms List

Miller’s own descriptive hierarchy lists terms in a way that relates them to each other and ties each “descriptor” to her own survey form. The effort put into this thesaurus and glossary in her appendix is enormous. As she says “ The author …draws on long experience as well as the work of many scholars who have suggested and compiled terms and definitions for hand-bookbinding in the past.” (p. 306). Miller’s “Historical Bindings – Structure and Style Hierarchy” is meant to help in creating and filling out her Historical Binding Survey Form, and terms are all defined in her glossary. Her efforts pay off, not just in the sheer number of terms, but in her work’s intellectual care and sophistication.

It is instructive to briefly compare Miller’s thesaurus with the RBMS thesaurus and with the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus. (The AAT is an increasingly international resource Miller does not mention, but which aspires to be useful for library and archival materials--accessible online at

Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus

With the Getty’s AAT you see bindings and binding components classified under objects in the information context, narrowed down to gathered matter components, narrowed down to bindings. When finally further narrowed down to “binding by style or decoration” the AAT lists 26 style terms (not all are shown in the illustration above). The RBMS binding thesaurus lists 31 style terms. Miller has 141 style terms listed, and that is just for the common styles with numerous examples. She has 50 uncommon styles listed, where there were few made or few survive. AND Miller defines her terms in a glossary as well as offering a wealth of explanatory photos. Unlike Etherington and Roberts or the AAT she does not footnote individual entries so you can follow them back to a specific citation. We could quibble over what to call a style and what to call a structure and other finer points of vocabulary--but the shear numbers here speak for themselves. Miller’s thesaurus has brought together many more bookbinding terms than two of the standard hierarchies for bindings terms used in the US today.


For many conservators, using other people’s documentation forms is an enjoyable professional challenge. In some ways description and condition forms are our special form of literary production in conservation, and a good form helps the person filling it out notice the book in front of them more deeply. It was very useful to sit down and describe a real book using Miller’s “Sample Historical Binding Survey Form—Categories and Sub-Categories” in chapter 6. Her survey form is designed to be used in concert with chapter five “Identifying Binding Materials and Applications”.  Careful use of her appendix “Sample Survey Suggestions and Description Case Studies” helps the reader understand her survey rational and offers a survey designer many workflow tips. Miller moves from the outside of the book to the inside in the survey structure. She warns the reader that one size does not fit all when developing a survey, and that it is to best to first try your survey on a sample section of the collection. These suggestions, along with the form itself, make sense.

Her survey form is emphatically not meant to lead the user into poking and prodding at the book in a damaging fashion. She repeatedly cautions the reader not to assign terms to bookbinding elements they are not sure of, particularly in the case of sewing patterns and endpaper attachments. The wisdom of this is clear. The pages of diagramed endpaper types and textblock sewing styles offered in articles by Nicholas Pickwoad like "The Interpretation of Binding Structure: an Examination of Sixteenth-Century Bindings in the Ramey Collection " (in The Library, 6th series, 17 (September 1995), pp 209-249) and by Bernard Middleton in his History of English Craft Bookbinding Techniques (1963) are extremely useful and important.  But positive identification of one style or another of these often well hidden bookbinding features like sewing and endpaper construction requires more specialized training in bookbinding history than Miller is looking for here.  In her quest for basic historic binding description implemented by interested but not necessarily expert people, she has made choices about the level of binding detail to include in her survey. Some details the conservation reader might be used to seeing in a description form, such as exact collation, layers of endband structure, spine lining types and structure, composition of sewing supports, and board lacing patterns are not emphasized in Miller’s book. This is an important distinction. The survey form Miller offers is not a conservation documentation form, and serves other purposes.

Image by Yukio Miayamoto using Adobe Illustrator. From Image from, posted May 27, 2007.

Worthy Pictures

This book is replete with illustrations, and with photographs in particular. She makes excellent use of photos to explain terms in her survey form, as well as to delight the reader with interesting and beautiful examples of bookbindings. Like many photographic images meant to show technical information, there are occasional limitations. For example, while using Miller’s survey form a reader might want help in identifying the type of board used to construct the binding. Her written descriptions of pasteboard, waterleaf board and pulpboard are very good.  The fully exposed inner board face of pulpboard she uses as a photographic example clearly shows the book edge trimmings and other recycled matter she describes as commonly found in pulpboard. But on simple inspection her pulpboard and waterleaf board photos are similar enough to cause confusion.  In fact the waterleaf board photograph also seems to show the bits of paper and refuse found in the pulpboard. Miller recommends a magnifying glass as basic equipment for describing bindings. To complement that basic identification tool, magnified photographic details of materials like pulpboard could be very useful in a handbook. But this is a small complaint. Miller offers far more photographic references to aid in identifying historic binding elements than any reference book I can think of, and that is not even including the supplemental DVD with its many fine color images. (If you are still hungry for more images of historic bindings, see the British Library’s, one of a growing number of online visual resources.) Miller has used many images from the University of Michigan collections in her book, and from a few other institutions. But her private study collection of historic bindings is perhaps essential to the development of this book. Sensitivity to binding features is finely tuned over time by daily living with these artifacts, and her photographs represent this sensitivity is well.

Image from U of Wisconsin Madison  History of Science and Technology Digital Collection.

Historical Context

This review has not yet touched on the four chapters of western bookbinding history Miller offers the reader of this handbook. Since in some ways Miller’s concerns about description seem to overshadow the context of bookbinding, it is easy to skim these and move on to the more action oriented chapters. One rarely reads a handbook in order from page one to the end in any case. But for those looking for a masterful summary of bookbinding history, these chapters are very useful.

The chapter on the birth of the codex from earlier scrolls and tablets is extremely scholarly and detailed. This is to be expected given Miller’s work with early codices in Egypt, and her access to University of Michigan’s department of papyrology. Miller is careful to note that information on the earliest codices is given in her handbook to show the reader how decorative and structural elements ebb and flow through the long history of bookbinding, not because she expects readers to survey these ancient materials.

Miller’s chapter on the medieval manuscript book gives an especially in-depth look at Gothic bindings.  As she notes on page 61:  “The Gothic board attachment set in motion a train of structural change that remained in force for a long time, apparent in the curves spines of books from the Gothic era right up to the end of the twentieth century”.  While more “typical” bindings dominate her condensed history, she is careful to also cover limp and stationer’s bindings. I think her statement that stationer’s binding were part of a class of binding “plainer, more pedestrian and intended primarily to protect.” (page 84) bears a bit of examining. Her own chosen example of an Italian stationer’s binding from the mid-fourteenth century has a lovely two part scarlet dyed cover, careful lacing patterns, and a buckle closure--all steps that went far beyond basic protection into the realm of decorative. Perhaps it is safer to say stationers and other “limp” bindings had their own traditions. (To be fair, she does specifically note the lack of documentation for this style of binding.) Overall, Miller carefully reminds the reader that manuscript books came in many styles and forms, and does an excellent job setting the stage for the transition to books printed on paper.

Image of  15th century wooden board binding from University of Iowa Library Bookbinding Models Collection

The two bookbinding history chapters covering 1450-1800 and 1800 to 1900 will probably be the ones most referred to by users of this handbook, since most US collections have material created in these eras. It is here that she really delves into the nitty-gritty of bookbinding steps like sewing, endbanding, lining, board shaping, edge trimming and coloring, leather paring, clasps and so on. Some binding steps, like endbanding, are just hard to understand without technical drawings, and adding a few more line drawings here could have helped a less experienced reader. AAs in her earlier chapters, Miller is careful to note different bookbinding formats like stab sewn or stationer's bindings. Her excellent section on Colonial American bookbinding traditions is particularly useful, and we can all look forward to the publishing of her current research into the use of wooden boards(scaleboard) in early American bookbinding. In her last chapter, which romps through the intense innovation and variety in bookbinding from 1800 to 1900, she pays special attention to case binding elements, the changes in paper production, the manufacture of bookcloth, and of course the shift to publisher controlled binding choices. Miller notes that the variation of bindings within 19th century editions, coupled with the wide use of stereotyping to produce the textblocks, can both lead to serious problems dating material from this era. These features can make typical bibliographic research for these under-appreciated materials even more difficult.

All four of these history chapters are well written and delightfully footnoted. Any teacher who wants a comprehensively illustrated introduction to western binding that covers everything from the Nag Hammadi codices to Smyth sewing to would be well advised to send her students to this handbook.

The Death of the Book

At the beginning of this review the dreaded “is the book dead” phrase was used as a red flag, then dropped, with the promise of bringing it back. So here it is again: Is the book dead? In chapter four “The Book From 1800 to 1900”, Miller has already introduced the book-death theme:
“The end of the nineteenth century and the end of making books by hand for the masses could be seen as the end of the road for the making of the handmade book. This occasional feeling of impending doom is magnified by the rush of institutional collections to digitize their books, including their rare collections, and the suspicion that, after digitization, inaccessible storage will be the fate of some of the collections…we have a few years to establish our claim to access artifact bindings, and we must hope our small voice will be heard” (p.190)

Miller’s final chapter in Books Will Speak Plain begins with Emily Dickenson’s voice saying:

“Forever is composed of now—”

This mysterious line of poetry makes the reader stop and contemplate. What does it mean? Taken negatively, the Emily Dickenson’s NOW could be the sad dwarfing of historic bookbindings in the face of massive institutional responsibilities to digitize information and preserve digital information. Taken negatively the FOREVER of Dickinson’s phrase could be the permanent lonely isolation of historic bindings warehoused in cold and remote storage as if in a morgue. Or taken positively the NOW of Emily’s poem could be the current efforts Miller and many others are making to describe historic bindings accurately and share that information. And taken positively the FOREVER in this line of poetry could be the permanent new life historic binding description will have when incorporated into a library catalog accessible to all--the dream of universal and permanent access to information that has been the dream of librarianship since ancient Alexandria.

Miller starts each of her chapters with an evocative line of Emily Dickenson poetry, and the temptation is add more poetry to the mix here is strong. T.S. Elliot writes:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”

(Four Quartets 1943)
Perhaps our special collections are not headed for remote storage immediately, since it seems general collection materials may be first to move that direction, and that could take a long time. Indeed it is often harder to access these historic bindings now than is ideal even though they may live right on campus. Remote storage may not be much of a change, given that reality. But it is easy to share Miller’s sense of urgency about describing our nation’s extraordinary historic bindings. This urgency can be based as much on opportunity as fear. Miller mentions the vital twenty-first century book arts communities, bookbinding communities and book conservation communities. These groups are all passionately engaged with books as physical objects. Couple this synergy with new digital tools and the ease of sharing information.  Then keep in mind the energized interdisciplinary and growing field of Book Studies within academe…these factors all add up to making this a prime time to do the historic binding study Miller is calling for.  Miller has filled her book with her excitement at these possibilities, and they bear repeating.  As we move toward a screen-based world, we may indeed know books “for the first time”.  The book seen deeply and lovingly described for the future is brought alive. The book described and made accessible in new ways is given new possibilities -- it is not dead.

A Footnote

Finally, the comprehensive, articulate, wonderfully footnoted and gently humorous vision Miller brings to her book is a tribute to what might perhaps be called the “heroic” generation of American bookbinders/conservators that she is part of. Many of these people are thanked in Miller’s preface, and it is a long list of names. Those of us who have relied on this group’s energy and teaching in our own work can never thank them enough.

A Footnote to the Footnote

Legacy Press has also recently published Cathleen Baker’s From Hand to Machine:  Nineteenth-Century American Paper and Mediums. (Reviewed in the Bonefolder Jeffrey S. Peachey). The press must be commended for nurturing this level of scholarly work, and presenting it beautifully. 

Chela Metzger started her official association with books by working as a library assistant at the age of 9. She graduated from Simmons College as a card-carrying librarian in 1990, and began her more intimate association with the craft of bookbinding at the North Bennet Street School in 1991, working 2 years with Mark Esser. She followed that with an internship in rare-book conservation at the Library of Congress in 1993, and began her paid conservation career as a project conservator at the Huntington Library in 1994. She began teaching book conservation to visiting Latin American interns in 1999, and moved into full-time lecturer work in 2001 at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2011 she began as Conservator of Library Collections at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Winterthur, DE. Having been the recipient of amazingly generous teaching in the past, she hopes to help carry on the tradition, integrity and discipline of bookwork in all its facets. On-going bookish research interests include: history of the book, binding in Spain and Latin America, future of books and libraries, the binding of archival materials historically, how books are depicted in art, social life of books. She is also a member of the Editorial Board of The Bonefolder.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Floods in Queensland, Australia

The floods in Queensland, Australia, including its 3rd largest metropolitan area of Brisbane have caused incredible devastation throughout that region of the country. Queensland is home to some fine Bonefolder contributors including Doug Spowart, Christine Campbell, Adele Outerridge and Wim de Vos, and Linda Douglas. Fortunately they have been very lucky, but many, many others have fared very badly. Adele and Wim also just published [2/2/2011] a report entitled Flood photos and a personal account.

The Report below was received from Linda Douglas in Brisbane who lives on high ground:
Australia, the lucky country, has been inundated in several states, with torrential rain causing flooding never seen for more than a hundred years.  Homes have been inundated with water covering the roof of two story buildings!  At least 18 people have been drowned, ripped from their homes as an almost inland tsunami took their lives.  People scrambled into their ceilings when the water rose at sometimes incredible speed, preventing people from even being able to escape from their homes. And the rain just keeps coming.  More storms and rain are forecast indicating that those flooded will be flooded again.

The State Library of Qld, where the artist book collection is housed, did go under but the books were safe as they are not housed in the bottom floor.  There was time to move items in some houses where the Brisbane River floods were predicted, exacerbated by king tides. Noreen Graham of graham galleries + editions was not so lucky.  Her gallery  is situated beneath her house  and went under during the deluge.  Water up to the rafters meant that the gallery will require much renovation.  Fortunately, Noreen, with the help of others, was able to move the artists books in time, however, she did lose some of her own art works.
[Note see also Robert Heathers report further down in this article.

Doug Spowart and Vicky Cooper live in  Toowoomba  where their work with photography, the environment and  artists books culminate in works of art and beauty, held in collections nationally and internationally. They had some frightening moments during the last month as the water rose dangerously close to their working area. At the rear of their property, there is a creek that occasionally flows.  The first photo, East Creek, Toowoomba, testifies to the extreme conditions as the water rushes along, taking trees and ground cover, and in the city of Toowoomba, cars, with it.  Vehicles were but toys as they piled up on top of each other.  A veritable avalanche of water sped through the city giving little warning.  People had to run for the highest spot to get out its way.  Ipswich, Grantham in the Lockyer Valley  and the south side of Brisbane were just some of the areas that were seriously affected with the devastation left after the floods  reminiscent of tornadoes or cyclones having ripped through the area, ripping every building to shreds, buckling railway lines and crippling industry. The filthy mud and stench is all that is left behind now that the water has subsided.  The most frightening part being no warning...just a tidal wave of red, dirty water taking everything in its path. We never thought our country would see such a spectacle.  

The second image is of the flooded back yard at Doug and Vicki's place and the third image is the water as it crept to just 8inches from the doorstep!  At what moment do you leave your property?  This was the question on everyone's mind as the water rose at unprecedented speeds.  Life for many was more important and they left all their belongings. 

The city has been declared a crises zone with more than 26 000 homes in the Brisbane area alone affected.  7000 volunteers turned out to help those i need in the city of Brisbane.   The crises is not over yet  - there is more rain is to come.   The community has pulled together like never before.

Linda Douglas

Doug also has a video about salvaging photographs and other items from the Sandy Barrie Collection below.

Robert Heather has a report of Grahame Galleries (a noted regional book arts gallery) and the Brisbane floods on his blog at <>.  Below a picture of the State Library of Queensland from that blog. Fortunately most collections were able to be moved to safety, but the clean up and recovery will be immense.

Our thoughts are with them and their communities so that they may begin recovering soon. To donate to the flood relief appeal go to

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Carlisle, Kate. The Bibliophile Mysteries: Homicide in Hardcover, If Books Could Kill, and The Lies That Bind

Carlisle, Kate. Homicide in Hardcover (2009), If Books Could Kill (2010), and The Lies That Bind (2010). New York : Obsidian. [These are the first three volumes of the ongoing Bibliophile Mystery series by the same author.]

By Marieka Kaye

This review first appeared in The Bonefolder, Volume 7, 2011

 An exciting book conservator has joined our ranks, and her name is Brooklyn Wainwright. The paperback mystery author Kate Carlisle has developed Brooklyn’s fantastical adventures in a series of three books to date: Homicide in Hardcover (2009), If Books Could Kill (2010), and The Lies That Bind (2010), also known as A Bibliophile Mystery series. Many of us are already very familiar with the handful of wildly romanticized and over-the-top depictions of book conservators in fiction, such as Margot Harrington, who runs off to Florence to assist in flood recovery in The Sixteen Pleasures (1994) by Robert Hellenga, Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book (2008), which follows Hannah Heath’s wild adventures in the treatment of the Sarajevo Haggadah, and the unlucky-in-love Sara Gonzales, restorer of rare books and manuscripts at the Getty, in Yxta Maya Murray’s The Conquest (2002). Carlisle tops these fictional females through the adventurous Brooklyn, who was conceived in the balcony between acts of a Grateful Dead show and grew up on a hippie commune in the wine country of northern California. It is easy to criticize, but ultimately Carlisle’s depiction of our profession forces those of us who are book conservators in the real world to not take ourselves so seriously for just a little while. As a self-described book snob, I freely admit to losing myself in these books for the short amount of time it takes to read them.

The first and most entertaining book in the series, Homicide in Hardcover, sets the scene for a hilarious ride through the eyes of an author who knows very little about our profession, but just enough to throw in descriptions of treatments and a few light technical terms. All textblocks seem to be made of vellum and all adhesives appear to be “glue.” She gets one thing absolutely right when she highlights Peachey knives in the first and third books. In the third book Brooklyn wins a set of “cryogenic steel-bladed knives that were hand-honed to surgical precision and beautifully beveled to work with the thinnest calfskin” made by Jeff Peachey. Prior to placing her bid, she exclaims, “Peachey is a genius.” As I know many of us rely on his knives to make our leather paring a happier activity, I can only hope this boosts sales and introduces the masses to his beautiful knives.

Apparently Carlisle was a student at the San Francisco Center for the Book prior to writing her series, so we can take comfort in the fact that she has at least bound some books by hand. A quick look at Carlisle’s Facebook page reveals over 750 fans and enthusiastic comments such as, “I finished your book last week and I’m going to see if there are book binding classes where I live.” It’s fun to think that more people have been introduced to what we do, but I had to stop and wonder what non-bookbinders might make of the use of technical terms. Peachey knives, kettle stitches, endbands, and rounding are not in most people’s every day lexicon. Fortunately there is a glossary of some key terms (“Brooklyn’s Glossary”) added to the end of the third book to educate the reader, which was sorely lacking in the first installment.

The first book starts out with a side-splitting comparison of Brooklyn to a surgeon while introducing her training in the following way: “My teacher always told me that in order to save a patient you’d have to kill him first. Not the most child-friendly way of explaining his theory of book restoration to his eight-year-old apprentice, but it worked. I grew up determined to save them all.” The back cover also includes the following to whet our appetites: “Brooklyn Wainwright is a skilled surgeon. Sure, her patients might smell like mold and have spines made of leather, but no ailing book is going to die on her watch.” The story unfolds into the unfortunate murder of her mentor, Abraham Karastovsky, on the eve of a celebration for his latest book restoration at the Covington Library in San Francisco. If we could all be so lucky to have our work celebrated in a gala event! And on a side note, the Covington is a library that boasts an incredibly eclectic collection including twelve of Shakespeare’s folios on permanent display, Walt Whitman’s letters, one of the first Gutenberg Bibles, printed accounts of explorers from Christopher Columbus onwards, rare first editions of works by authors such as Mary Shelley and Agatha Christie, John Lennon’s drawings, Steven King’s rejection letters, Kurt Cobain’s diaries, and an “amazing” collection of vintage baseball cards.  The imagination that went into this collection is astounding! But I digress.

Important plot points crop up immediately, adding an interesting cast of characters that are carried through the three books. During the investigation of Abraham’s murder Brooklyn meets a mysterious and overwhelmingly handsome British security guard, Commander Derek Stone, who sticks with her throughout the series in a frustrating and drawn out saga of unrequited love and desire. His stunning looks are exceedingly emphasized, and Brooklyn is not shy about stating her lust through statements such as, “My stomach tingled and I could’ve smacked myself. Yes, okay, he was indeed gorgeous as honey-baked sin…” and “…Derek Stone exuded more animal magnetism than all those Bond men combined.” We are also quickly introduced to Brooklyn’s archenemy, Minka LaBoeuf, who tried to cut Brooklyn’s hand off with a sharp knife while they were classmates in a conservation program located in Texas. For those of us who know how stressful conservation programs can be, this relationship does not actually seem so far-fetched and is sure to be a source of entertainment for any program alumni. Moments before Abraham takes his last breath, he whispers a cryptic message and passes on a cursed copy of Goethe’s Faust for safekeeping. Brooklyn becomes the prime suspect in the murder when dashing Derek discovers her with Abraham’s dead body. She proceeds to get herself into trouble countless times playing amateur detective in the hopes of discovering the mystery behind the book and her beloved mentor’s murder.

Carlisle’s second volume, If Books Could Kill, brings Brooklyn to the “world-renowned” Edinburgh Book Fair where she looks forward to catching up with old friends and teaching some workshops. Her ex, Kyle McVee, shows up to the fair with a scandalous book that threatens to humiliate the British monarchy. While on a nighttime tour of the city, Brooklyn runs into Kyle’s dead body, once again causing her to be the prime suspect for murder. As it seems she can’t keep herself out of trouble once a murder has occurred, she uses her amateur sleuthing skills to find the true killer. Her skills as a detective are subpar, but Derek is always there to rescue her from ridiculous danger and near-death experiences. Brooklyn’s wacky New Age parents make multiple appearances and Robin Tully, her glamorous best friend from childhood, who has “…an uncanny ability to cause men to wander off sidewalks into oncoming traffic,” helps a bit too as another key character that we first met in Homicide in Hardcover. Minka’s character displays cartoon-villain intensity throughout this book, and is constantly getting in Brooklyn’s way. Admittedly, the characters become a little irritating in the second book, but the funny book restoration tidbits and bibliophilia kept me going to the end. If you’re a fan of Edinburgh, the city is lovingly documented.

The most recent book, The Lies That Bind (ranked #31 on the New York Times bestsellers list), returns the usual cast of characters and places Brooklyn back at home in San Francisco to teach a bookbinding class at Bay Area Book Arts (BABA). The BABA director, Layla Fontaine, is a horrible witch of a lady who “pitches fits and lords it over her subordinates.” The reader won’t be sad to see her go early in the story, when she is found murdered in her office, obviously discovered by our favorite dead body magnet, Brooklyn. The plot revolves around an edition of Oliver Twist that Brooklyn expertly restores and Layla deceptively plans to auction off as a first edition prior to her death. Upon the discovery of this murder, it has only been four weeks since the Edinburgh Book Fair, and Derek shows up unannounced to once again sweep Brooklyn off her feet and rescue her when she inevitably gets in big trouble. The storyline in this book focuses heavily on the brewing romance between Derek and Brooklyn, and I found myself getting highly annoyed that the consummation of their steamy relationship was thwarted at every turn by nosy neighbors and a collection of misadventures.

Mention of bookbinding is still scattered throughout. I had to laugh especially hard reading lines such as, “It was the night of my latest bookbinding class and I, Brooklyn Wainwright, Super Bookbinder, was like a kid on the first day of grammar school” and “Tonight, as my students completed their second journal book, I threw in a lesson on how to mix PVA glue with certain powders and pastes to achieve different textures and results. ‘The thinner the PVA,’ I explained, ‘the more useful it is for restoration work, patching delicate tears and securing frayed threads.’” While these fun lines can keep a book conservator reading for the laughs, I found myself guessing the murderer from the very start, obviously revealing a weak plotline. Carlisle attempts to build in a love triangle when another overwhelmingly attractive character, Gabriel, is reintroduced from earlier storylines. Unfortunately, there is a great lack of steaminess in this triangle. If I’m going to give my time to some entertaining paperback mysteries, I want to go all the way and not just experience the tease.
Ultimately, Carlisle gets a few things right in her series, such as giving Brooklyn an insatiable appetite: “Yes, I liked to eat. A lot. I wasn’t picky. I loved everything. Especially chocolate. And pizza. Oh, and red meat. I loved a good steak.” As much as I try to deny any similarities between this silly fictional character and myself, I share this passion for food and see it in almost all the conservators I know. Brooklyn’s work ethic and passion for her profession also shine through, and I couldn’t help but become endeared to her at the opening of the second book: “If my life were a book, I would have masking tape holding my hinges together. My pages would be loose, my edges tattered and my boards exposed, the front flyleaf torn and the leather mottled and moth-eaten. I’d have to take myself apart and put myself back together, as any good book restoration expert would do.” I highly recommend this series to any book conservator flexible enough to look beyond fluffy, sappy, and obvious plotlines and who enjoys encountering a cast of quirky characters and a heroine who just can’t keep herself out of trouble. If you need some stress relief from your hectic schedule, laughter is the best tonic. Pick up these books and the next thing you know a weekend has passed and your abs have gotten a good workout from all the giggling. And just maybe, you’ll have a renewed sense of how exciting and fun our profession is, with or without a murder along the way (hopefully without). It’s actually refreshing to see our profession romanticized, straying from the stuffy book nerd and librarian stereotypes that seem to haunt us. I’m actually looking forward to the fourth installment of “Brooklyn’s Bloody Bodies ‘R’ Us,” Murder Under Cover, coming out in May 2011.

Marieka Kaye is currently Exhibits Conservator at The Huntington Library, where she held the position of  Dibner Conservator for the History of Science since 2006. She received a Masters degree in Art Conservation from Buffalo State College and is currently working on her Masters of Library and Information Science through San Jose State University. Marieka began to work as a library preservation assistant at Brandeis University in 1998, while she was in her last year of undergraduate studies. This position resulted in a passion for the care of books and library materials. She went on to work as Library Preservation Assistant at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Conservation Assistant for Exhibits and Loans at the New-York Historical Society. She also volunteered in the book lab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and completed internships at the New York City Municipal Archives, Syracuse University, Etherington Conservation Services, and the University of California Los Angeles. She can be reached at <>

Etherington, Don. Bookbinding & Conservation: A Sixty-year Odyssey of Art and Craft

Etherington, Don. Bookbinding & Conservation: A Sixty-year Odyssey of Art and Craft. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2010. 8.5 x 11 inches hardcover, dust jacket, 180 pages. $49.95.

Reviewed by Peter D. Verheyen

This review first appeared in The Bonefolder, Volume 7, 2011.

For those involved with bookbinding and  conservation, Don Etherington has been one of the leaders of those fields, and one who needs no introduction. For several generations of practitioners, he has served as a teacher, mentor, and friend. We have heard him speak at conferences, taken workshops with him, and enjoyed his company. Now, with Bookbinding & Conservation: A Sixty-year Odyssey of  Art and Craft we can read in his own words about his origins, how he came to enter this field and how he was influenced by his teachers and mentors as well as how he helped shape the world of bookbinding and conservation.

Bookbinding & Conservation: A Sixty-year Odyssey of  Art and Craft contains a forward by Bernard Middleton –  another leader of the field, and one who needs little introduction himself – and is divided into the 5 main “sections” of his life: the first 30 years, Florence, Library of Congress, Ransom Center at the University of Texas, and Greensboro.  The book concludes with extensive “gallery” of Etherington’s bindings over the years. .

“The First 30 Years” introduces us to Etherington’s childhood in WW II London during the Blitz, his other interests, and his career path. Like most bookbinders of his generation (and until the late 1970’s) his experience was that of leaving school at what is now considered an early age to learn a trade, subsequent “journeyman” years, and then striking out to blaze his own path. In contrast to most, however, his influences are a veritable “who’s who” of the bookbinding and conservation fields – Edgar Mansfield, Ivor Robinson, Howard Nixon, Roger Powell, Peter Waters – all critical thinkers and exemplars of the art and craft of bookbinding and (what came to be) conservation, it is easy to see how these experiences contributed to his professional growth and helped him follow their example of leadership in the field and mentoring of future generations.

In 1966 he left the UK for the first time on what would be a transformative journey – contributing to the salvage efforts in Florence at the invitation of Peter Waters – and beginning the transition from bookbinder to conservator. Just as this event was transformative for Etherington, so it was for the conservation profession as a whole. The sheer magnitude of the flood and the unprecedented response of conservators throughout the world created a melting pot of ideas on how best to respond. But, these ideas also created challenges and conflicts. Among them was the difference in approach between the apprentice-trained British Library conservators (such as Etherington, Clarkson, and Cains) and those more in the arts & crafts tradition such as Powell and Waters. According to Etherington, some of this was result of the renaissance and (re)development of structures such as the limp vellum binding, a structure that was observed to have withstood the floods better.  Other challenges revolved around language (bi-lingual “specification” cards were developed that included pictograms) training, and organizational issue, the latter two lead to the gradual decline of the center that was established by the British team lead in the end by Cains. The strict division of labor by specialization meant that few of the staff had fully rounded training, leading to increasing retention problems. Added to this were territorial and funding issues with the Italian government, all leading to a smaller book conservation program, and a situation not all that different from that faced by conservation and preservation programs here in the US and elsewhere. Ultimately, Etherington reiterates that this large-scale international response laid the foundations for a new, more analytical, approach to conservation and greater dialog across boundaries and disciplines – something that had not happened before.

In 1970, again at the invitation of Waters, Etherington came to the US to become the Training Officer in the “Restoration Department” of Library of Congress. Here he was also reunited with the third “Musketeer,” Christopher Clarkson. With practices greatly informed by the experiences of Florence, they set about to modernize and professionalize the program at the Library and to transform the profession. Among the things introduced was a manual dexterity test for new hires, phase boxing (developed from cigarette cartons – an outgrowth of a printing student design exercise), shelving by size, and the polyester encapsulation (a replacement for the damaging lamination process then in full swing). Etherington also describes in detail his work with Matt Roberts to develop Bookbinding and the Conservation of Book, one the most comprehensive reference works for binders and conservators. Also recounted is an early 1970’s “grand tour” of leading European conservation labs that helped inform developments at the Library. As if Florence were not enough, he goes on to describe other significant library disasters since then including the fires at the library of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Leningrad and the Los Angeles Public Library, as well as the earthquakes in California. While not as dramatic, but perhaps more significant on the larger stage, we also learn of the how conservation staff built a false book case for the Nixon Whitehouse (presumably to hide a recording device) that was never installed, but also “reconstructed” shredded documents that would later reappear at the Watergate hearings. Towards the end of his time at the Library, Etherington became involved with the Guild of Book Workers when he was part of a group asked to develop a certification program, something that was voted down. Lack of training opportunities, something identified as an impediment to a certification program however led to the creation of the Standards of Excellence seminars and provided high quality professional development opportunities and training for growing number of Guild members and leading to great improvements in the field.

1980 found him drawn to the new challenge of establishing a conservation program at Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, TX where he would remain until 1987. With the full backing of the Center’s administration (Etherington was also Assistant Director), he was for the first time able to create his “ideal” lab set-up, informed by his experiences in Florence and at LoC. Among the details are a separate dirty room for paring, recesses for nipping presses, and a separate area for finishing with better airflow control that prevented the gold leaf from floating away. The lab even included separate rooms for exhibitions preparations, a paper lab, and even a dedicated exhibitions space to illustrate conservation activities. A rare privilege was that of selecting one’s own staff with no incumbents, some of whom are still there and leading the program. An Institute for Fine Binding and Conservation was also established featuring such instructors as Tony Cains and James Brockman. As with his other positions, Etherington was privileged to work on some unique projects, highpoints of this period being the conservation of a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta, including some tape on the back, and the Texas Declaration of Independence.

1987 was the beginning of other significant changes in Etherington’s life seeing him attend a workshop for renowned fine binders hosted by Hugo Peller in Finland. It was that there that he met Monique Lallier, and their stories became intertwined. Around the same time he was invited to establish a for-profit conservation center with ICI, a large library binder, who saw an opportunity for conservation centers able to handle the large-scale projects that research libraries needed. ICI would become the Etherington Conservation Center when he bought it, and then become part of the HF Group that had acquired ICI when he sold it back again. While the “bread and butter” work consisted of encapsulation, deacidification, and binding repairs, there was also a fair share of prestige projects such as the conservation and preparation for exhibition of the Constitution of Puerto Rico and the Virginia Bill of Rights – all of which make for interesting reading.  Throughout this last text section are Etherington’s recollections of his development of the use of Japanese paper for binding repairs, something that has changed the landscape of conservation treatment like few others by providing for a more efficient, structurally sound, less invasive, and aesthetically pleasing treatment option for not just the cloth bindings that make up many historical collections, but also leather and vellum. Etherington mentions with pride how these techniques have been built upon and further adapted by conservators everywhere. Also mentioned are activities with the Guild of Book Workers events, Bookbinding 2000, the American Academy of Bookbinding, and winning the first Helen DeGolyer Triennial Competition hosted by the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His binding on The Book of Common Prayer is depicted in the appendix of design bindings, the last section of the book. A total of 52 of his design bindings are depicted and this section alone would justify acquiring the book.

While reading this book, I felt as if I was in the room with Don as he was speaking to those assembled about his life and work at the many conferences and workshops he attended. While many of the events described will be familiar to those who have been fortunate to know Don Etherington, they are told in refreshing ways so that we do not tire of hearing them again. The style is informal and draws the reader in to learn about bookbinding and the development of the conservation and preservation fields during his lifetime, but also about many of the more personal moments in his life and his great joy of life. What is revealed is the life of a man who at the right place and time and seized upon the opportunities presented to him to better himself and his chosen field. Just has he was fortunate in those that taught and mentored him, so has he touched so many practitioners both nascent and seasoned throughout the world, but in particularly here in the US. A bon vivant of tremendous generosity, Don Etherington while “slowly unwinding in the twilight of a long and rewarding career” still continues to push forward when most others would be looking back. We are all the better for it.  At the same time we should all look to his example of proactively seizing opportunities to develop ourselves and in how we conduct ourselves as professionals, especially in light of some of the dramatic changes the field of book and library conservation has seen – not all for the good.

On a more personal note, Don Etherington spoke about his life (and from this then unpublished autobiography) in a lecture for the Brodsky Series at Syracuse University Library that I was hosting. Reading about his life and reliving the lecture online* illustrated again the impact that he has made on the field and the lives of those in it. Thank you, Don.

*Don Etherington’s Brodsky Series lecture can be viewed online at <>.

Peter D. Verheyen served a formal apprenticeship at the Buchbinderei Klein in Gelsenkirchen, Germany; internships at the Germanisches Nationalmusum in Nuremberg, Germany, and at the Folger Shakespeare Library with Frank Mowery; worked with Heinke Pensky-Adam and William Minter, and at the Yale and Cornell university libraries. Currently head of Preservation and Conservation at Syracuse University Library. Past Exhibitions and Publicity Chair for the Guild of Book Workers, publisher of The Bonefolder, Book Arts Web, and Book_Arts-L. All are at

Baker, Cathleen A. From the Hand to the Machine. Nineteenth-century American paper and mediums: technologies, materials and conservation.

Baker, Cathleen A. From the Hand to the Machine. Nineteenth-century American paper and mediums: technologies, materials and conservation. The Legacy Press, Ann Arbor Michigan, 2010. 7 x 10 inches, 432 pages. $65.00.

Review by Jeffrey S. Peachey

This review first appeared in The Bonefolder, Volume 7, 2011

Until recently, I would have assumed that the readers of these words were reading them on paper. But the primacy of paper as the carrier of textually based information is gradually ending, and the words I am writing will likely be read on screens or other non-paper inventions. There seems, however, an inversely proportional relationship in the ways we regard paper itself: the less we look at what is on it, the more we look at it: its substance, structure, tactile qualities and history. Cathleen A. Baker’s book explores in detail the technological artifact that once served quietly as substrate, and now emerges as subject – paper.

Baker has ventured into the enormously difficult and confusing world of 19th century papermaking history, and returned to give us a book that is important, readable, scholarly and highly illustrated – over 500 photographs according to the dust jacket blurb. As the subtitle indicates, this is a book not just about 19th century paper, although roughly a third of the book deals with this topic, but it also documents 19th century printing technologies and mediums, contains chapter on the conservation, and has six appendices. This is an investigation of paper from the viewpoint of a conservator, using chemical analysis, the history of technology, art history, material culture, the history of craft, and perhaps most importantly, Baker’s personal experience, encompassing a deep, holistic understanding.

Baker stresses, in the preface, the importance of actual experience with artifacts:
 “While scientific approaches to conservation are valid, they mean little if they are not put into the realistic context of actual collections. Articles that are weighed heavily in favor of the formula and statistical analysis without balancing that information with first-hand observation of artifacts tend to separate the conservation field into scientific versus non-scientific camps, which can lead to a decrease in meaningful discussion within the profession...Our published knowledge needs to include a fuller understanding and appreciation of actual artifacts if our goal is to preserve entire collections in the most appropriate and reasonable manner based on direct observation and handling of very large numbers of artifacts, and common sense.” (p. xiii)

Next, Baker explains the basics of what paper is, gives a brief history, then establishes her rationale for the study of 19th century paper in general, and this book in particular.  She objects to the common sentiment – that papermaking went downhill in the 19th century because of machines – and stresses that good quality paper can be made by hand or machine. Good paper, according to Baker, satisfies two criteria; it is suited for end use in which it was intended, and it is durable for hundreds of years. Later in the book, she details why some 19th century papers have become so brittle, and what can be done about this. Baker envisions a wide variety of readers for this book: “conservators, curators, librarians, archivists, preservation administrators, private collectors”, present day hand papermakers, and artists (p. 3). I can imagine all of these potential readers finding this book of interest, since it presents a broad introduction into the nature of paper, as well as details that will interest specialists.

Chapters one through three give us a history of the paper industry in the United States, from 1690-1900, as well as detailing the complete process – from rag preparation to ream packaging. Technical descriptions are supported by records from contemporary sources, including an amusing bit of papermaking poetry from 1696. Information about working conditions and wages is also included, giving us some social history about the papermakers, and later machine operators. Census information is cited, demonstrating the explosive growth of papermills. Book binders, conservators and binding historians should find this section illuminating given the explosive growth and changes in papermaking and bookbinding during the early 19th century.

Detailed information concerning rag preparation and sorting, retting, pre-washing is conveyed, although many of the illustrations, (around 33 according to my count) are from French sources. Baker explains that the processes and machinery of hand papermaking varied slightly from country to country and time period to time period, but were essentially quite similar.  She acknowledges and laments the dearth of published American papermaking information, hence the necessity to supplement visual descriptions with foreign sources.  This description forms an excellent introduction to both hand and machine papermaking in general.

Much of the American contemporary description comes from A. Proteaux, who in 1866 wrote a Practical Guide for the Manufacture of Paper and Boards, which according to Baker is the most comprehensive account of papermaking in America.  She recounts in detail the evolution of various papermaking machines; from Robert, the cylinder machine, and the Fourdrinier. Drying, sizing, machine calendaring, and reel slitting machines are also traced. Baker avoids the trap of simply recounting the innumerable patents and patent diagrams, and instead focuses on more significant developments, which makes these chapters entirely readable. And she never lets the object of her study – paper itself – stray far from our attention. Numerous bits of information, i.e. stationers’ reams of writing paper contained 480 sheets, news paper contained 500 sheets and book paper 516, contribute to a fuller picture of 19th century papermaking.

It is slightly frustrating, though, that the sources of the illustrations are not identified in the figure captions, instead one must hunt through ‘Permissions Appendix’ at the end of the book. And given the extraordinary detail present in many of the illustrations, I often wished they were reproduced significantly larger, since they are important for understanding how the tools and machines of 19th century papermaking function. Similarly, there are numerous photographs of historic paper samples that help the reader visually understand the effects of the manufacturing process in the final product, such as evidence of a Fourdrinier wire patch on page 56, but they often lack an indication of the degree of enlargement or reduction of the original which limit their usefulness.

Next, some of the more unfortunate ‘advances’ in industrial processing – bleaching, sizing agents, fillers, and non-rag fibers – are explained in great detail. The section on alum-rosin internal sizing is instructive for understanding why this destructive process was so prevalent in the 19th century. The analysis of the often odd discolorations that can occur in coated papers is similarly fascinating. Conservators, and perhaps papermakers, may find other detailed information concerning refractive indices, 19th century coloring agents and coating pigments very useful. The use of straw, and other minor fibers are also described in the context of the acute rag shortage which began in the late 18th century. Baker has culled technical information from industrial papermaking texts, giving us tables comparing, for example, relative cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin for various fibers.

Taking a step back from a detailed history of manufacture, an overview of paper characteristics is explored, and perhaps most importantly how and why these characteristics arise in a given sheet. Both eastern and western papermaking techniques are described, and there are many photographs detailing specifics of manufacture, i.e. the visual differences between laid paper made by hand, a dandy roll, or on a cylinder machine. Many figures are from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, forming a clever conceptual statement, as well as presenting us with a familiar image used to illustrate a number of specific papermaking and printing processes. I was surprised to note that much of the terminology we currently use to describe paper finishes--antique, eggshell, machine finish, vellum finish, hot press-- were in use as early as the 19th century. This chapter also details how papermaking molds were made, what their effect on the finished sheet is, how watermarks and three-dimensional watermarks are made, the terminology of sheet sizes, and an informative section on identifying the causes of specific defects in sheets.

The second major section of the book shifts from looking at paper, to looking at what is printed, drawn or written on paper, and consider how they interact. Relief printing, electrotype, wax engraving, printing inks, presses, photomechanical reproduction, lithography and other processes are explained and both examples of the process and the result illustrated.  Given the fact that so much ground is covered in this chapter, it is understandable that certain books I consider essential references, such as Richard Wolfe’s Marbled Paper, are not cited in the relatively tiny section on marbled paper. And although descriptions of printing processes are available elsewhere, Baker’s experience and knowledge make her insights into printing a worthwhile addition to the existing literature, since she possesses an admirable blend of theory and praxis. Of course, the mechanization of printing in general, and more specifically the complex interactions paper and machinery, and how the demands of the printing machinery influenced the manufacture of paper, is still fertile ground for much, much more research.

Similarly, the conservation of 19th century paper could be a multivolume set in itself, but in chapter nine Baker addresses it, beginning with the ‘official’ American Institute of Conservation (AIC) definition of terms, replete with numerous cautions for the novice about the inadvisability of attempting any conservation treatment without first contacting a professional. Included are a wide variety of potential questions concerning an item that should be addressed in attempting to devise a conservation treatment proposal.  There is fairly detailed information about complex paper treatments, such as enzymes , float washing, using a suction table, stretch pressing and bleaching.  A short summary of Baker’s research into cellulose ethers is of particular interest. These notes on treatments are not intended to be interpreted as recipes, as Baker repeatedly cautions, but are, in many cases, personal reflections on certain subtle aspects of these treatments. For example, she confirms the adage that watercolors become quite stable if they are 50 years old, because of the gum arabic becoming cross-linked, the key being that they have been exposed to light. Subjective reports like this, coming from Baker’s extensive experience, are one of the strengths and unique features of this book.

In the conclusion of this section, she stresses the importance of seriously looking at and handling paper:
“Any preservation/conservation approach to collections care must be based on a deep understanding of artifacts following extensive examination and handling. This is true for both custodians and conservators, the latter should not limit their knowledge only to those few artifacts undergoing conservation treatments. Condition surveys of collections are an ideal way to gather a great deal of information about artifacts and their conditions, and are highly recommended activities. That knowledge, together with an understanding of the institution’s goals and the future uses to which the collection will be put, should keep conservators focused on the entire collection, on logical conservation treatments of individual artifacts, and on the training of others to follow in their footsteps” (p. 281).
Discussion of some specific conservation issues also appear at the end of this book. Six appendices contain: (A) information about paper related material like papyrus, parchment, pith paper, (B) a contemporary account of a man who worked in a Confederate papermill, as well as the account of a man who worked in a papermill in the 1820’s, (C) a table illustrating inconsistencies in the naming/size of paper, (D) nine methods for determining grain direction (although I would add one more destructive method, rippling the edge with one’s fingernail- cross grain ripples much more than with the grain), and testing methods for medium solubility in water and organic solvents, pH, the presence of lignin, alum, gelatine/protein, ninhydrin, ferric iron, starch, rosin and others, (E) an overview of cellulose deterioration, (F) preservation recommendations.

This book is not an encyclopedic history, but it is the essential history of 19th century American papermaking. An encyclopedic history might only be suitable for reference and citation, while Baker’s book, due to its judicious selection of material, is manageable, engaging and readable. It will be a useful addition to my reference shelf, forming an adjunct, sometimes supplementing, sometimes summarizing, to such diverse books as AIC’s Paper Conservation Catalog, Bamber Gascoigne’s How to Identify Prints, Philip Gaskell’s New Introduction to Bibliography, Dard Hunter’s Papermaking and Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt’s The Book in America. Cathleen A. Baker has written an important and accessible book. It is not only for specialists in the history of paper and books, although they will be well served to read it, but it should interest anyone who has ever touched a piece of paper and paused to consider how it was made.

Jeffrey S. Peachey owns a New York City-based studio for the conservation of books and also makes conservation tools and machines. He is a Professional Associate in the American Institute for Conservation and a previous Chair of the Conservators in Private Practice (2007-08). For more than 20 years he has specialized in the conservation of books and paper artifacts for institutions and individuals. A consultant to major libraries and university collections in the New York City region and nationwide, he has received numerous grants to support his work. Peachey, a well known teacher, also provides conservation-focused guidance to students in art, archives and bookbinding programs. He can be reached at <>.