American Publishers’ Bindings at the Rare Book School
I was looking for someone, and I had been here before.
Staring down the long aisle, I blinked hard, and looked at the slip of paper in my hand. A bunch of letters and numbers, written in pencil. A call number. I squinted at my own jagged vertical printing. “Is that an S, or a 5?” I thought. Was this even going to work? Last time, I came up empty. What was I doing?
I shook it off. I stepped forward and started looking, flanked by books higher than my head on either side.
The Brooklyn College Library is a four-story Georgian revival building with a central belltower that has come to emblematize the College itself. There are over one million books in its collections, many of which were donated by former professors and alumni, which means that, in addition to endless rows of paperback textbooks on everything from business management to C++, there are also disproportionately large numbers of mid-nineteenth- to early-twentieth century titles in the genres of poetry, fiction, travel, and biography.
Full disclosure: I am a special collections librarian by training, and I sometimes call myself an historian, when people ask. I have even been known to occasionally pronounce the “an” as if it were some indication of my seriousness. On this particular day, I was poking around in the stacks at Brooklyn College in some kind of hybrid capacity. I had found a name, and I sought a needle in a haystack of circulating books: a good-condition, signed publisher’s binding by a recognized artist. This was an unofficial mission.
I stopped and quietly read my note aloud: PS1692 [dot] L68x 1904. I looked up, and there she was: Margaret Armstrong. Paul Leicester Ford’s Love Finds the Way. There’s a joke here, somewhere, I thought, and pulled the book from the shelf. It was in good condition. And there were four other Ford titles – all in their original publisher’s bindings – next to it.
Ten months later, I flew to Charlottesville, Virginia, a proud/excited/mildly nervous recipient of the 2016 Institute for Museums & Library Services-Rare Book School (IMLS-RBS) Fellowship for Early-Career Librarians. I took the American Publishers’ Bookbindings class.
If you’ve never been to RBS at the University of Virginia, allow me to say: everything you’ve heard is true.
“Stay on the Lawn.” Do it. There are rocking chairs.
“They have bagels every morning.” And they’re good!
“It’s an unparalleled educational experience packed into a single week.” It is.
Beyond the classroom, the RBS week offers two nights of special lectures, a thematically-appropriate “movie night” (with popcorn and ice cream), special daytrips (for some courses), and Booksellers’ Night, wherein Charlottesville’s stores keep their doors open later – and some offer snacks! – to the delight of bibliophilic out-of-towners (and, presumably, locals).
Ever-jovial conservationist Todd Pattison led our class, which included booksellers, special collections librarians, bookbinders, and catalogers. In a classroom lined with bookshelves on three sides, early-career and established professionals sat side by side, talked about the most beautiful books, and learned from each other’s expertise.
Todd’s straightforward syllabus promised to cover almost a century and a half of publishing history, and we began with a dare: Define the term “American Publishers’ Bindings”. (We’ll come back to that.)
Background: In June 2015, I dove headfirst into Instagram, lured by a “challenge” – led by the American Antiquarian Society and the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia – libraries were invited to share images of publishers’ bindings in their collections, once per week for seven weeks, corresponding with the seven colors of the rainbow.
I work for libraries, I thought. The Met has a bunch of publishers’ bindings, and I wrote about them. Maybe Brooklyn College has some, too. I can do this. And so I embarked on a journey, both into the stacks at BC and into the wilds of a social media application about which I knew virtually nothing.
In short order, I found myself at the head of a movement to showcase special collections via Instagram, part of a tremendous community of fellow travelers, and discovered over 100 good-to-very-good quality “artist-era” (late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century, commercial) publishers’ bindings in BC’s circulating collection. By January, I had a list, and was sharing my findings weekly on IG. My poster session proposal was accepted for the 2016 RBMS conference. Taking the RBS course would enhance my understanding of the format and further bolster my argument that these books were indeed worthy of transfer into special collections. And so I went to Charlottesville convinced that I knew everything.
It dawned on me, after our self-introductions and pleasantries that first class morning: I might not know as much as I thought.
Todd being the amiable instructor he is – he did allow us to call him by his first name, after all – did not insist that we define the term before anyone could leave the room. We hesitatingly threw out ideas, teetered on the verge of arguments, and moved on. What followed was five days’ worth of incredible information overload. Publishers’ bindings had wood boards! Industrialization! Sarah Wyman Whitman, Margaret Armstrong, women in the workforce! Die cutters, blind stamping, dust jackets, rainbow roll color stamping! Benjamin Bradley, John Feely, Harper and Altemus, Charles Eastlake! Endpapers, salesman’s samples, and an in-class binding demonstration!
Our class consisted of a few repeat RBS attendees, and some were first-timers, but I should mention: out of thirteen students, eight were on Instagram, and three of us represented major collections. If nothing else, it was clear from Day One that our #PublishersBindingThursday posts would be pretty intense.
Not yet a member of the InstaClub, Todd indulged our InstaSpeak, and we – as class proceeded through the timeline from pre- to post-Civil War – proceeded to post photos of just about everything we touched, all week long. By Thursday, my friend and colleague, Jay, even persuaded Todd to do an informal class photo shoot with selected bindings, which was promptly posted on IG:
RBS is, by turns, experiential, kinesthetic, and discussion-driven. In addition to our aforementioned Instagramming, our class dialogue was peppered with personal observations, bookseller expertise, and questions (to say nothing of in-jokes and invented terminology – ask us about “Pattison condition” and “Moby Dick endpapers” sometime). Todd joked that he passed “too many” examples around the room (we did run out of handling baskets one day), but there’s nothing quite like RBS’ collections, which comprises hundreds of linear feet of publishers’ bindings alone, not including those in the wood-paneled McGregor Room at Alderman Library. We devoted part of two afternoons there, selecting publishers’ bindings from locked cabinets and presenting our findings – and our understanding of the form – to each other. I’d bet that appears on more than one course evaluation as a standout experience.
By the time the week was out, the class had forged some strong bonds, and we also settled on some aspects of that sticky definition we confronted at the outset: American Publishers’ Bindings needn’t have been bound in America, but such bindings were, we agreed, complex examples of publishing history.
Instagramming American Publishers’ Bookbindings:
Rare Book School:
Publishers’ Binding Thursday:
Green Publishers’ Binding Thursday:
Rare Book School:
Publishers’ Bindings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: