BookLab: Verging on the Future of the Paper Book

by Gary Frost, BookNote #20


At the moment electronic communication and the paper book are defining each other. These transmitters of content are not merging, they are not interchangeable and one is not supplanting the other. They are simply defining each other. Which is more interactive? Which has finer definition? Which is capable of personalized variation or canonical detachment? Scholars and classicists see contrasts and historical context for the new patterns of communication.

E-text and print, the one you see, the other you hold, but both reflect the fact that content now floats free in our minds, separated from physical media. The impact of text held within our thoughts overshadows both the invention of printing and the advent of electronic communication. The 12th century revolution from monastic to scholastic reading was what set us on the road to electronic virtuality.

Can library conservation preserve content that transcends its delivery media? Do artists have an allegiance to the traditional book? Are bookbinders forever linked to paper output? Lets look at library conservation, book arts and hand bookbinding from the viewpoint of someone at work at BookLab.

Library conservation

Copies increase and perpetuate content. Each reader sees the text differently each time. With a focus on the preservation of content, not objects, the real conservation treatment will be in production of copies. Virtual access also creates the possibility of electronic conservation treatment applied to the copy. Such "restoration" can occur without any risk of distorting the original source. Does this suggest a different approach to a old conflict within the field of conservation?

Perhaps not, yet many circumstances suggest a more central role for the copy will develop anyway. Tendencies in this direction include the remote storage of paper originals and the changing status of these original collections as accessories to copier technologies.

Rationales for the remote storage of paper books include economics, security, climate control of degradation and an active integration of an electronic inventory of the physical books with the now comprehensive on-line catalogs. A change in status for the paper book is signaled by its role as a "leaf master". The leaf master is a paper original retained primarily for production of copies. Such a change of use for paper collections, in which machine reading precedes, or even supersedes, eye reading, is already occurring in research libraries. The use of self-service photocopiers in libraries demonstrates this.

In terms of pages produced photocopiers exceed all other library delivery modes, microform and electronic, by a magnitude of a thousand to one. Fifteen to twenty thousand copies per month per machine is not unusual, and there are fifty to two hundred machines in each university and city library system. Energized by willing patron labor and revenue the library copier/book interface delivers millions of pages each day.

And copying extends library services. The copiers enable delivery of text before it is read. Previously reading and study time always subtracted from the availability of an item. When copiers deliver the original, each library suddenly contains an infinite number of books. Shelf replacement photocopy brings further efficiency to such text delivery through its role as a "pre-copy". This is crucial for access to deteriorated originals since the reader would be unable to make a useful copy from the damaged original.

This present day copying is only a precursor for digital capture and digital delivery from paper sources. The surprising elements are patron operation of the capture stations (the copiers to come) and a central role for library conservation. With newer materials the copiers will be networked to charge copyright clearance based on the book's bar code identification. The copiers will also provide digital output with character recognition conversion.

Book arts

The use of books is so deeply embedded in culture that innovation usually springs from tradition. The defining and ingenious form of the book is there ahead of the creativity. In this context the artist is a messenger of the book. Hedi Kyle's surprising coiled leaf book is a perfect example. This scroll/codex synthesis is made of two connected flutes of paper that unwind pages left and right. A real innovation that simply combines primary book forms.

Innovation from tradition is also apparent as artists re-establish the natural interaction between writing and reading that existed before industrial divisions of the book trades. Such uninterrupted book making is exemplified by the book art of Tim Ely. His image making and structure making are simultaneous, inside and out. Such work suggests that printing and binding can merge into a single craft. Coincidentally, so does digital automation of the book making process.

Does book art indicate the future of the book? If so, it is a future that will appear around us as if it was always there. The paper book exists ahead of time with familiar themes of the interplay of originals and copies, the diffusion of technologies, the contrast of visual and print literacies, the endless reach of content and the rediscovery of innovations. Familiar revolutions that always surround the book.

Will artistic exploration leave the paper book behind? Can traditions of the book encompass the CD-ROM publication? The paper book achieved multimedia presentation, high definition imaging, loss-less compression and cross-cultural interactivity centuries ago. It has been progressing artistically and technically ever since, but there is also a threshold beyond which the book disappears.

The book is an interesting construction for transmitting conceptual works. It is a tool, or machine that begins, manages and ends the readers' virtual experience of content, yet it has no software of its own. The software for interaction with books is in human culture. This interaction with culture is a defining quality of the book. Until digital media such as the CD-ROM achieve their own artistic traditions here will be no electronic books. Even then there may be none.

For the moment the simultaneous talking on the book arts Email bulletin is disturbing. No content, no continuity, no cause is apparent. The book arts, of all subjects in the universe, is treated to disembodied text, ugly composition and senseless print-outs. And there is no hint of irony. But soon the identity struggles of younger media will be over and they will generate their own arts and traditions. OK?


Bookbinders came in with the folded page and they will go out with the folded page. Their descendants will be "despecklers" which is a Xerox term for electronic image manipulators. Already digital automation is merging printing and binding. The advent of waterless production techniques in both binding and printing shows that the merger is close at hand. Digital publishing is developing at the same time. Will bookbinding disappear?

Short run printing continues to increase at a rate of more than 50% a year. The short run sector of the binding profession includes production library conservation, limited edition binding and library binding. In these specialties new products are emerging as the paper book continues to prosper. Here are some projections from a BookLab viewpoint.

Production library conservation will be based on the "CMR", a production collection maintenance repair for cloth covered books. Elements of this product include an initial kozo fiber paper lining of the text back with extending flanges to guard the outermost leaves. There is also an unsewn endpaper flanged or fanned to the text. The text opens fully on the copier and there are no damaging attachments between original and new components. This is a production treatment paced at three per hour or ten an hour for flood and fire salvage reconstruction. Another product is the shrink wrapped leaf master with storage bar code and copier produced title page visible. These are produced at a pace of 30 per hour.

Limited edition work will have standard designs featuring waterless technique using transfer films applied to endpapers, endbands, labels and covering materials. The waterless technique eliminates pressing time and pressing equipment, moisture effects and all the time associated with wet adhesive preparation and clean-up. There will be a range of structures including revivals such as the sewn boards type. The sewn boards returns the earliest codex type to limited edition work. The design features unsupported sewing, covers sewn as if they were outer sections and a squareless cover following a three edge trim.

Library binding will be the most changed with introduction of "on-demand" print/bind methods. The "ultra short run" product will be both printed and bound in a continuous operation. There will be use of a reinforced Otabind type cover, a wrapper type cover, to follow work at a double-fan station. A four edge trim will be used as the texts will not be originals, but copies with extended margins. These bound, shelf replacements for out of copyright volumes will serve as accessories to the text delivery system provided by copiers.

Another important ingredient of the short run print/bind operation will be a training center. The technician will need educational opportunities to understand the production technologies and to reference current work to historical models. The ability to "swing" from printing to binding operations will provide variety and perspective.

All of these projections are reports of what we are experiencing and exploring at BookLab. It is interesting that we are still a paper-in/paper-out operation, particularly in our text capture work. We will move into digital scanning and storage without breaking away from paper output. Digital technologies only speed us toward the future of the paper book.

So that's it. A continuing role for paper originals as a source for copies, a shift of focus to the conservation of content and a convergence of printing and binding; technical and social changes that surround the paper book.


BookNotes, #16 "Leaf Master", 1993, #17 "Copier/Book Text Delivery", 1994

Baker, Nicholson, "Discards", New Yorker, April, 4, 1994.

Frost, Gary, "The Sewn Boards Binding", Abracadabra, 7:93.

Illich, Ian, In the Vineyard of the Text, University of Chicago Press, 1993.

proceedings, "First Annual Books On Demand Symposium, How to Prepare, How to Print, How to Bind", June 1994, LBS, Des Moines, IA.


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