Within the first month of my internship, Siân (one of the previous interns) had embarked upon a day-long bookbinding course. Although I’d spent much of my life around books, as silly as it seems, the thought had never occurred to me that some books were made by human hands. I rather expected all books nowadays to be stamped into existence by a great, clunking, efficient machine. I thought that hand-bound books belonged to the centuries before industry charged into towns and cities and made flesh hands idle and cold metal grind.
Amongst the many things that drew to me librarianship, working with my hands was one of them. Here is a job that I can do without being shut in an office, chained to a desk; books need re-shelving, inter-library loans are becoming bigger as public libraries shrink, Readers need help finding their way, not to mention the IT support. Yes, the job description has recently become more computer-focused, but still there’s nothing I love more about working in the library than making the books on a shelf straight and orderly, so that when you run your fingers along them you feel the smooth conformity, interrupted briefly as spine edge meets spine edge.
From the moment Siân showed me the journal she had made in a single day, I knew that I wanted to learn the craft. As a librarian-in-training, now was the perfect excuse to learn how to bind books. After all, in a library with thousands upon thousands of Nineteenth Century (and earlier) volumes, books are inevitably going to need re-binding or repairing. After ceaseless emails to Flintshire Record Office, I finally got the response I was looking for: yes, there was a course. Would I like to register?
I remember vividly standing in the entrance hall to the Record Office. I was the first one there; clutching my battered Anna Karenin I smiled ever-so-slightly-awkwardly as people started to arrive. All six of us filed after Mark, the conservator, clasping books in various stages of decay. After a brief discussion with Mark, I decided that Karenin was perhaps a little too far gone with its broken spine and thumbed pages, and the edition was a cheap one to begin with. I would probably spend the whole six weeks taking apart and re-sewing the pages. If I was going to spend hours working on painstakingly rebinding a book, it should be a book with stronger paper, and one that I would love enough to keep going no matter what. We decided that I would procure a hardback Keats from Abebooks, and for that session, I made a journal for myself, much like the one Siân made.
One of the first things I was taught concerned the different types of bindings. Though up until this point I had vastly underestimated the strength and importance of it, the binding is what constitutes the book. We have books in our Closed Access that are hundreds of years old and the binding is still intact. The older the books are, the more likely it is that they were hand sewn. I wonder if the people who had assiduously sewn these great old books section by section had any idea that their work would be so revered hundreds of years down the line.
I learned that there are two general kinds of binding – tight and hollow. Tight binding is the kind you see on contemporary paperbacks, and many of the very archaic books. When the book is opened, the spine throws itself up into the grooves of the pages. Although this makes the binding a lot sturdier, it causes the spine to crease and often break. When gold leaf lettering was introduced onto the spines of books, hollow binding became predominant; when the book is opened, the spine still throws itself up, but there is a second spine which remains undisturbed. When you open books with hollow bindings, you can see between the two spines. The journal I made in the first session was a tight binding; my Keats would be hollow.
What struck me foremost was the care and attention that Mark lavished on even the cheapest book. Perhaps it comes from studiously taking apart and rebinding book after book – I have since learned that he rebound many of Gladstone’s books when the library still had a bindery. He can tell you the era a book was published without looking at the date. Without even opening the cover, he would know the type of binding and the materials used to make it, even the type of leather or cloth.
I didn’t realise how much thought and precision goes into every aspect of bookbinding – even down to the kind of paper and the way it is folded. You have to hold the Fabriano paper (which is Italian and lovingly made) up to the light and fold with the grain.
There was something quietly thrilling about working in a room with people who are learning an age-old process. Many of the contraptions we used, Mark told me, were fairly archaic in design – but in such an ancient trade, the machines had been improved throughout the centuries and were as efficient as they needed to be.
By the end of the first session, I had this to show for it. I was very proud of it for two hours work.
The next five weeks were spent on the real binding – the one I had come for. I chose a Keats with as hideous a cover as possible, so I didn’t mind taking it apart too much. Still, it was with great will power that I used the scalpel to cut away the book from its cover. The scraping, ripping sound was horrendous to my librarian ears.
There were five other members attending the workshop, about half of whom had brought more than one book to bind. I chose, like the rest, to focus on the one book – but make it a really good one. I learned how to hand-sew a headband (instead of gluing a faux headband on as is usual in modern bindings) which took a session alone and I covered the boards with a mixture of cloth and very fancy marble paper. For an elaborate finish I imprinted gold leaf lettering on the spine.
I’m sure you want to see the finished product…
Although it seemed longer because it was spread over five weeks, I spent only ten hours on rebinding this book. Mark was a great help and took the time to explain the history and reasoning between each process of the binding rather than sitting me down in a corner to do silent work with no idea how it affected the finished product. It opened up a whole new side of librarianship for me; although for now I thoroughly enjoy the role of library assistant, it gives me options for the future. If I don’t want to follow through to qualified librarian, there is always the option of conservator. As for the present, I now understand the Gladstone Foundation Collection a lot more. I know how the bindings should be treated, what steps to take should they fall into disrepair and just how much care went into this magnificent library.