The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 11, Number 1
Jan 1987


What is a Bookbinder? A Panel Discussion

Reported by Pat Palmer
c/o SAA 600 5. Federal, Suite 504, Chicago, IL 60605

On May 14, in connection with Bill Anthony's excellent historical exhibition, "The Art and Craft of Bookbinding," the Art Institute of Chicago hosted a panel discussion entitled "What is a Bookbinder?" About 60 people attended to hear panelists Bill Anthony, Betsy Eldridge, Bill Minter and Sylvia Rennie and Moderator Robert Kerns, a bibliophile and reporter for the Chicago Tribune. The event was sponsored by the Friends of the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries.

The moderator began the discussion by asking each of the panelists how they received their education, what developed their tenacity and what qualities characterized them as bookbinders.

Mr. Anthony was the first to answer, replying that be had been offered a job at his father's bindery. He realized the physical work, the craft, the ambition he could devote himself to in the trade and deriving great pleasure from this first experience, has not changed or looked back. At the time he started working there, he had no vision of what he would do with his life and feels fortunate to have found his niche early.

Ms. Eldridge was attending Wellesley College when she took inspiration from a lecture by Hannah French on bookbinding. This lecture coincided with Carolyn Horton's work on Eldridge's father's rare books. Following her college graduation, she decided to pursue the field and went to Europe for training. There she became apprenticed to Gunter Metz and then went on to Paris to learn finishing. After this training, she found work with Carolyn Horton's shop and then went on her own to Toronto where she is now. Her tenacity lies in the passion for handwork, but she distinguishes her craft from other bookbinders as she does not create bindings, only conserves them. For that reason, she considers herself a "book doctor." Eldridge said that the unique qualities of eye-hand coordination, dexterity, and the ability to view the book as a three-dimensional object distinguish binders from conservators.

As for Mr. Minter, he said he "found himself at the right place at the right time." He was on the yearbook staff in College and began an internship at the Cuneo Press, where Anthony was his supervisor. Recognizing Minter's potential, Anthony advised him to make a commitment to one field or another. Those fields Minter was considering at the time were photography, writing and bookbinding. Minter found an expression of himself in the field of bookbinding that he did not in the others and so dedicated himself to that field. Bookbinding allowed him handwork, creativity and a great challenge. While continuing work at the Cuneo Press, he was informally apprenticed to Anthony, who had already left the Press to start his own business. In 1971, Minter became a full-time apprentice to Kner & Anthony Bookbinders. He left Anthony's employment to form his own business, William Minter Bookbinding and Conservation, in 1978.

Ms. Rennie considers herself different from the other panelists as she does not repair, hue designs bindings. She grew up in Switzerland and was always very directed, very singleminded in her choice to be a fine binder. After traveling to look for proper training elsewhere, she returned to Switzerland to the Centro del Bel Libro in Ascona, not 45 miles from her home town. There she studied with Hugo Peller. Her greatest challenge is to become a perfectionist, to be totally precise in every aspect of her binding's creation. While others can be gifted with the art of precision, she has had to work very hard and be persistent with her craft.

The moderator asked how bookbinders become conservators.

Anthony stated that there are no true bookbinders any more. The profession historically changed only a few years ago as printing, papermaking, and all the facets of the book have become mechanized. Bookbinding has a different purpose now: to preserve what has been already bound, using durable techniques. Anthony stated that the purchase of a fine binding today is for the craftwork that went into it, not the book itself. This craft is costly and high prices are frequently demanded by the binder, thus not making it accessible to many. There is a need in us all to decorate and to interpret, he said, but that is not necessary to fine binding. Anthony went on to say that the design binder interprets but that interpretation is not necessary for a beautiful book. Bookbinding is pure craft. Giving the example of Cobden-Sanderson, he said the great bookbinder returned to the principle of simplicity in colors, designs, etc., that were not necessarily related to the book's content.

Minter disagreed with Anthony, saying that a feeling, if only an abstract one, is depicted in the binding, thus creating a harmony with the text inside. For a binding to be considered such, there must be some carryover.

Rennie believes the binder should always read the book and develop a feeling for it before it is bound. The spiritual, the artistic and physical aspects of the text must be taken into account in the binder's work. For example, a book on a pastoral subject would not be properly bound with primary colors. This artistic sense, appreciated by whomever, is part of the price paid when purchasing a fine binding.

In establishing a reputation, Minter said, this quality is difficult to explain to a layman as part of the price paid for the work the client has in mind. He spends time with his clients to explain the quality of a binding and the client's role as a curator of that book and its binding. A private businessman, as he is, must reconcile the quality with what the client will pay.

For Eldridge, this is not a problem. Her clients are referred through museums and libraries, so there is a "presifted" person who calls on her.

The moderator asked, "What satisfaction do you get from bookbinding?"

Anthony replied that he usually does two fine bindings per year. It is a bittersweet experience. While be has the craft, he lacks the design concept and is never happy with his work. It takes him a long time to develop the design and if he had the time to spend with each book for this, it would be better for him. But time is limited. Restoration gives him a different kind of satisfaction.

Rennie agreed that she too suffers when it comes to design. The creation and visibility of it is very satisfying for her bet it also takes a while.

Also agreeing with Anthony, Minter said he is never satisfied with a design he creates. It is most satisfying for him to restore bindings, doing all the work from cleaning to sewing to rebinding. He also derives a great satisfaction from the customer's reaction to his work. Imperfections apparent only to him plague him but the customer rarely detects them. So he asks himself: "Are these imperfections minor?" Some would say so, but he strives for perfection and learns from the mistakes.

Rennie said that she is also never satisfied with her binding. Never has she created a binding perfect in all respects and this is her goal. It is an almost desperate challenge to make a perfect book.

Eldridge believes that her best work is done for those who would not appreciate it. Her work as a conservator is less apparent, she said, as she maintains what has already been created.

The moderator asked, "How do you get into this kind of work today?"

Anthony said that recently institutions have opened which offer the curriculum necessary for acquiring the skills of a bookbinder. There is the North Bennet Street School in Boston, and the Institute of Bookbinding and Design to open in 1987 in Austin at the University of Texas Humanities Research Center. The University of Iowa offers classes in the book arts. Bookbinding must be done in the learning institution.

Eldridge agreed that schools are fine but there are many other supports the craft has now, offering training. Videotapes, workshops, and organizations have grown in recent years to accommodate the desire to learn. These are nontraditional possibilities but nevertheless acceptable.

The questions by the moderator ended here and the discussion was opened to the audience. Only one or two questions were asked and answered regarding training. The Guild of Book Workers' publication on training programs, Opportunities for Study in Hand Bookbinding and Related Crafts, was cited as a very good source for this question and the Guild was recommended as an excellent starting point for those interested in the field. Interested persons are encouraged to write to the Guild of Book Workers at 521 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10175.

The questions were closed due to time constraints imposed by the Art Institute and everyone was invited for a wine and cheese reception in the Reference Library.

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