The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 24, Number 1

Bookbinding 2000

by Terry Belanger

Those who were unable to attend the very excellent "Bookbinding 2000" conference held May 31 - June 3 at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, NY, may be interested in a brief, unauthorized account of the proceedings. About 400 persons attended the confer-ence, which celebrated the installation and opening of the Bernard C. Middleton Collection of Books on Bookbinding at the Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Graphic Arts Collection at RIT.

The conference was organized under the direction of David Pankow, Curator of the Cary Collection, who acted throughout the conference as master of ceremonies, introducing the speakers and making the housekeeping announcements. Pankow (incidentally, he pronounces the second syllable of his last name to rhyme with "hoe," not "how") is so laid back he makes Perry Como look like the White Rabbit; his relaxed amiability played a considerable role in making and keeping his conferees happy.

Pankow's strategy in putting together the conference program was to go for names: speakers and demonstrators included not only Bernard Middleton himself but also James Brockman, Anthony Cains, Don Etherington, Deborah Evetts, Mirjam Foot, Louise Genest, Monique Lallier, Philip Smith, Marianne Tidcombe, Peter Waters, and Michael Wilcox.

The program was thus a bold mix of lectures on miscellaneous topics (Middleton, Smith, Waters), historical papers (Evetts, Foot, Tidcombe) and practical bookbinding demonstrations (Brockman, Cains, Etherington, Genest, Lallier, and Wilcox), the latter aided by a sophisticated four-camera setup that allowed 400 people to get an excellent view of the activities on stage. Indeed, the star of the show was a video camera on an articulated boom whose unseen operator could cause his instrument to buzz around the demonstrations, swooping and darting down like a large cricket for close-up views from any angle or height. The four cameras fed to a remote studio and a director who called the shots we saw projected on a large screen above and behind the presenters. Unaccustomed as we are, the result was dazzling.

Deborah Evetts (Pierpont Morgan Library) began the formal conference proceedings with an excellent account of the history of successive preservation attempts aimed at the Morgan's Coptic binding fragments. Morgan bought the fragments in 1911; in 1912 they went to the Vatican Library for conservation treatment (including gauzing and waxing). They were returned 17 years later, in 1929, at which point they were kiln heated to kill the insects that were invading them.

Evetts has been working since 1984 with Christopher Clarkson to devise a suitable housing for the fragments, and she explained in some detail how they arrived at their solutions, which included not only Plexiglas frames but also storage racks so that the fragments could be kept horizontal, trolleys for moving the frames (some of which are 18" square), and readers' stands. Money must be raised to complete the rehousing project, but Evetts believes that workable parameters have been set.

Don Etherington (Etherington Conservation Center) gave the first demonstration, binding a book in full leather with minimum paring (and thus weakening) of the leather, producing a conservation (as opposed to a fine) binding, though in doing such work Etherington tries "to make it not too clunky looking." The result didn't look clunky at all, and, though he said as he worked, "I never measure anything," you'd never know from the result.

Bernard Middleton began his own talk by saying he was aware that some of his restoration techniques did not find favor among conservators these days, and that he hoped he "wouldn't be cut dead by too many people" attending this conference. (From what I could see, instead he spent much of the conference autographing copies of his new autobiography for attendees, Recollections: My Life in Bookbinding.) His presentation dealt with one of these questionable techniques: creating facsimile printed leaves for making up valuable but imperfect books, using for this purpose sheets of old paper, process zinc blocks made from a photograph or photocopy taken from a complete copy, and a standing press.

"I cannot bring myself to make obvious facsimiles," said Middleton. "Call it foolish pride." His results can be good enough so that later he cannot always detect his own work, which he does not sign or mark in any way. His principal customers are private collectors and dealers. "I don't have many institutional customers," he said, in part because of the expense, perhaps £200/ leaf.

Louise Genest demonstrated her exposed spine binding technique, using a concertina to protect the gatherings of the book, the outside of the concertina containing narrow strips of pared leather pasted around and along each fold, so that the back of the completed book consists of rounded strips of leather running up the spine. The handsome result was most suitable, she agreed, for books that wouldn't get heavy handling.

Philip Smith began by noting that his best contribution to bookbinding has been in the area of concepts. His lecture discussed at length the relationship of the head (the designer), the heart (the artist), and motor skills (the craftsman), the book art maker properly being a combination of all of the above. The role of the binder, he said (as he usually does), is to enhance what the author is saying, and he showed slides of a number of his own bindings and explained what his intentions were in making them.

Anthony Cains (Trinity College, Dublin) demonstrated a leather binding technique (first associated with Edgar Mansfield) that involves pushing the freshly-pasted leather on the covers of the book into ridges, waves, and other three-dimensional patterns while still damp. The pleasing result might be called a puckered binding: "Pucker all over," said Cains, waiting for inspiration as a book art maker. He produced an amusing line of patter throughout his demonstration that contrasted nicely with the high seriousness of the preceding lecture by Philip Smith. Cains' technique avoids the necessity of gold tooling the result (finishers are "an arrogant lot" anyway, he pointed out).

Marianne Tidcombe gave a slide lecture on "Women Bookbinders and Their Methods," beginning rather haphazardly with a gallop through women binders over the ages, but settling down to a very good presentation on the work of a group of late 19th and early 20th century British binders.

James Brockman demonstrated his technique of making rigid concave spines, pointing out that the traditional rounded back structure damages the folds and goes against what the book wants to do ("Look at the Yellow Pages; it's trying to tell you something").

Mirjam Foot (now Professor of Library and Archives Studies at University College, London) spoke on continental influences on 16th century bindings. She provided a coherent overview of the early British binding trade (no mean feat), and her slides (excellent, as always) nicely supported the points of her lecture.

Monique Lallier demonstrated edge-to-edge leather doublures. It was an enormous pleasure watching her pare and sand and paste and make her materials (leather, card, and paper) do her bidding so nicely within very tight tolerances indeed, all easily seen by the 400 conferees thanks to the images overhead.

Peter Waters (who retired as Preservation Officer of the Library of Congress in 1995) gave an important talk on "The Preservation of Library Materials in the Digital Age." He gave a brief history of late 19th and 20th century library preservation efforts, the theme of which was that each generation always believes that its technology is superior to that of the past. He warned that the 20th century may well be known to the future historians as "the century of the black hole," since so many of our digital records are unlikely to survive, and he predicted that the preservation problems that will have to be faced in 2050 will make the present ones pale into insignificance by comparison. Waters presented a variety of convincing plans and strategies for coping with our present problems. His presentation deserves publication more than any other presentation at this conference, good as the others were.

David Pankow introduced the final demonstrator, Michael Wilcox, by saying that there is no better practitioner of gold tooling living today, praise which Wilcox immediately rejected, noting that he gold tools perhaps two months of the year, and that the best finishers are those who do this sort of work all year round.

Wilcox began by polishing the leather of the book he was going to tool, saying that it needed to be smooth (if there are lumps or puckers, flatten them, with a spokeshave if necessary; "So much for the arrogance of finishers," he said). He then transferred a pattern from paper to the surface of the cover, tooled it in blind, and then applied gold leaf and removed the excess: violà. Gold-tooled book, enchanted audience.

The conference concluded with a final dinner, an auction of books for the benefit of the Cary Collection (ably conducted by Richard Landon), and a final interview by David Pankow with a Bernard Middleton marionette fueled with comments drawn from a tape recording of Middleton's own presentation. The Middleton puppet's comment on the conference as a whole: "It's not a disaster."

Indeed it was not. After more than 30 years of conference-going in this business, I sometimes feel conferenced-out; but ones like "Bookbinding 2000" give me hope. Much praise to David Pankow and RIT!

Addendum by the Editor: This was one of the most interesting and stimulating conferences I have ever attended. Bookbinders enjoy getting together anyhow, perhaps because they work alone so much of the time. People were seeing old friends and colleagues they hadn't seen in years. Fortunately, the program allowed a generous amount of time for socializing. I saw people I hadn't seen in 10 or 20 years, and finally met one person I had known only through correspondence and telephone calls from Canada, 20 years ago.
We were glad for the opportunity to show our appreciation for all that Bernard Middleton had given us through his books and workshops. There was an undercurrent of sadness, however, among some who knew that this great writer would now be irrevocably separated from his library and unable to publish in the area of his expertise. A few people were talking about naming the library after Middleton. I thought it would be appropriate to hang a portrait of him in the collection, at least. Whatever happens, he will be remembered by future generations, partly by making his library publicly available and partly through his autobiography, Recollections: A Life in Bookbinding, a new expanded edition of the original publication from the Bird and Bull Press, co-published by the British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2000. ISBN 1-58456-016-9. ($39.95) In the U.K., it can be ordered from the British Library; elsewhere, contact Oak Knoll Press (1-800/996-2556; fax 302/328-7274; e-mail:

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