The Future of Book Restoration


For The Love of Old Books – And People Who Restore Them

A dispatch from England by Dominic Riley

Something to Think About
In his book the Globalization of Nothing, George Ritzer, pioneer in the sociology of consumption, defines ‘nothing’ as anything that is centrally conceived and controlled, displaying no unique character or individuality (a Macdonald’s meal, for example). In an interview with professor Laurie Taylor on Radio Four’s Thinking Allowed, Ritzer was asked how, in that case, he would define ‘something’. ‘Something’, he said, ‘is anything that is indigenously conceived and controlled, displaying unique individuality and character’. Thinking aloud, Taylor guessed at what such an object might be, and came up with ‘a hand bound book, beautifully tooled in gold’. Ritzer concurred.

The love of old books was never so great as it today. There seems to be an international antiquarian book fair happening every month somewhere in the world, with people flocking to browse through the thousands of beautifully bound volumes, executed during an age when books were finely wrought objects, produced by skilled craftsmen who have long since disappeared from our world. If only we could still have books made like this today.

That at least is what most people believe; that once upon a time everything was well made by hand in small quantities, and that those days are gone. Sadly, this seems to be true to a great extent. But there are still hand bookbinders in the world, just as there are still cabinet makers, coopers and plumbers. The problem is, they’re becoming harder to find, and the reason behind their scarcity is simple – lack of funding for training. We are at a moment of great crisis in our craft, in other words, and something must be done.

A Changing World
In the old days (meaning, roughly, before the Great War), a certain proportion of fine books were still bound in leather, with gilded edges and fine gold tooling. These books were always expensive items, and book collectors often spent a small fortune acquiring them. But the War changed the social landscape for ever, not least because many of the craftsmen simply didn’t come back. Put simply, in a world rebuilding from catastrophe, the luxuries, and the demand for them, disappeared. In addition, ever increasing mechanisation, coupled with a growth in the reading public,  meant that the production of such utilitarian objects as books became ever cheaper and quicker. Finely bound books still existed, however, with a few great binderies keeping the flames going (notably Zaehnsdorf, Sangorski and Sutcliffe and Bayntuns of Bath), but as the skilled labour needed to produce fine works dwindled, the books themselves became ever more costly. Also, as the world fell in love with technology, people suddenly had other things to spend their pocket money on, and fine books gave way to hi-fis and fast cars.

This change in the world of book production means that today, your main chance of finding a finely bound book is to buy an old one. Hence the antiquarian phase we’re currently enjoying. And yet, despite the interest in old books over new, skilled bookbinders are busier than ever. Those involved in the craft today spend a great deal of time caring for the handsome volumes bound by their forebears, which have, in the meantime, become valuable enough to warrant restoration.

The Love of the Craft
There are, in fact, still hundreds of bookbinders making books in the traditional ways. The Society of Bookbinders in the UK, for example, which has about 900 members, promotes the old techniques, as well as advances in conservation, and every year holds conferences and sponsors a touring exhibition showing off the fine work of its members. Most of their activities are concerned with fine binding, historical techniques and restoration. For a fresher approach, the other British group, Designer Bookbinders, sponsors work of great flare and imagination. Design bindings are typically made in the same highly skilled way as the fine old books, but with contemporary artwork gracing every part of the binding. Their competition is held annually at St Bride Library in London, and touring exhibitions of the work of their Fellows and Licentiates happen every couple of years.

So what’s the crisis? Doesn’t all this seem to give a picture that the obscure world of the handmade book is alive and well? Well, yes and no. It’s true that there are more people interested in bookbinding than ever before, and this has a lot to do with the frustrations people feel with modern life. Many people today seek a release from the tedium of the office, or more particularly, the keyboard. One of the most successful centres for bookbinding today is in San Francisco, where the software/internet revolution still foments. Many tired techies have hungry hands. However, most of those engaging in the craft are amateurs, and are happy not to move beyond that level. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer people willing or able to advance further, due to a terrible shortage in training.

What’s To Be Done?
Just as there used to be a bookbindery in every town, so there was a time when you could study bookbinding at one of a dozen colleges in the country. The apprenticeship system, which carried on until the 1970’s, produced generations of talented binders who are still around today, but their numbers are thinning. With all these rare and valuable books more sought after than ever, where are the skilled craftspeople who are going to look after them? If you can’t find or afford an apprenticeship, and there’s no college courses anymore, how on earth can you acquire the skills necessary to do the fine work of yesteryear?

There are thousands of valuable books in the world that need careful and sympathetic restoration. While interest in the craft is at an all time high, the proper training needed for such highly skilled work is scarcer than ever. And in a culture where anyone can ‘hang their shingle’, this spells danger for the precious books needing work. How can a book collector be sure that the skills of the new binders will be good enough if the systems that previously taught them are disappearing?

This crisis is being met in the UK by a call to arms across the divide of the trade, from the two bookbinding groups (Society of Bookbinders and Designer Bookbinders) on the one side, and the Antiquarian Booksellers Association on the other. The groups have been meeting to tackle the problem. Strategies are being planned. Sources of funding are being sought. Everyone is worried that it may be too late, and the government , in the form of the department of education, doesn’t seem to care.

The irony of this lack of commitment for our cultural heritage is not lost on me.
When I was studying bookbinding in the late 80’s, one of the most avid collectors of fine books was the then Secretary of State for Education. I remember having an argument with him about the lack of funding for bookbinding, as he handed out the prizes at the British Library student bookbinding competition. All institutions offering ‘obscure’ courses were under threat at the time, and he took great pleasure in telling me that if a craft is to survive, it needs to be viable. I’m not sure if he realised that the craft which he loved, and was as that moment saluting, was being destroyed by the kind of philistine short-sightedness that defined the then administration, and which we seem to still be in the grip of today.

Maybe he didn’t realize it, but the next generation of (college-trained) bookbinders he was championing that night would turn out to be the next-to-last. Its possible, I suppose, that he still has a good book restorer he can turn to when his valuable books need skilled attention, but until the people in the education trade realise what’s happening to our craft, then there won’t be anybody left to bring all their precious books back to life. Another notch on the slippery pole of progress.

Dominic Riley

November 2014


  1. At least in the United States, many would have written this post without a question mark at the end of “The Future of Book Restoration: A Dying Craft”. Restoration does seem to be dead, and Conservation the future, IMHO.

    In 1978, Chris Clarkson wrote that “European hand bookbinding practice does not form the best foundation on which to build or even graft the principles of book conservation.” I would say that in the intervening years this statement has become more apt. Most rare books need to function, but are more in need of preserving their Gebrauchsspuren. Most restorers I have met do not understand this, and it is not a problem of hand skills, instead it is a misunderstanding of the nature of the historic artifacts that book have become. A craft based restoration approach can often be at odds with this, which I think is what Clarkson is getting at. I wrote a bit about this in 2008,

    I put my money on unrestored, but conserved books, as being the ones that will prove most valuable, both historic and pecuniary.

    But perhaps this is a misunderstanding of English and American usage of terminology. Or perhaps you are arguing for a preservation of the history of restoration of books, a fascinating and important topic. Art conservator Roy Perkinson wrote something along these lines about art restorer Max Schweidler [ Roy Perkinson, “The Restoration of Engravings, Drawings, Books and Other Works on Paper” ]

    As I understand it, the mission of the American Bookbinders Museum is to preserve, understand and interpret the work of bookbinders. Most restoration I have seen only obscures the important primary evidence of the books themselves. It is not a matter of “bringing books back to life”. It is a matter of understanding these important, subtle and beautiful technological artifacts and preserving them for all of our enjoyment.

    Jeff Peachey

  2. Thank you both for your thoughtful and engaging responses to Dominic Riley’s guest blog post. Jeff, as you mention in your comment it is indeed the mission of the American Bookbinders Museum to preserve, understand and interpret the work of bookbinders. We think that it’s important to open discussions regarding the craft and the trade of bookbinding today as much as to preserve bookbinding practices of the past. To that end, what we strive to do in inviting bookbinders such as Dominic to write for our blog is to give bookbinders a voice to discuss their work and their views on the state of the field. Dominic has a unique perspective as both a book restorer and a design bookbinder and all opinions given in this post were his own. We understand that the issues represented are complex and not clear cut and that this post is only one voice among many.

    It’s clear that you both are as passionate about the interrelated issues of bookbinding, book restoration and conservation as we are and I would encourage you to consider writing your own pieces that we could feature on our blog to foster open discussion in the community. We aim for our blog to be a platform for more voices interested in the topics of bookbinders and bookbinding to speak to the community and continue to wrestle with the larger questions of the future of bookbinding.

  3. My thoughts in response to Domenic Riley’s passionate “cri de coeur.” The “dying
    craft” description is one I feel has been used far to often, whether in regards
    to binding and book arts in general, or conservation/restoration. We need to
    arrive at a better way of describing the problem. To a degree (in the US
    context) some of these arguments also dovetail into efforts towards
    certification of conservators, describing the profession, …, something the
    American Institute of Conservation (AIC) also wrestled with. The Guild of Book
    Workers (GBW) gave up on it years ago, and while the Canadian Bookbinders and
    Book Artists Guild (CBBAG) is not trying to certify, it does have the well
    described and documented “Home Study Program.” None of these replace traditional
    (rigorous, highly defined and structured) apprenticeship or the programs such as
    those offered by North Bennet or the more academic programs.

    That said, I agree with Domenic that finding training for the high-end binding
    and finishing skills required to work on the 19th/20th century volumes he
    mentioned, is difficult to find and harder to get as those with the skills are
    dying off and those skills were not readily passed on outside the
    apprenticeship. In a place like the US without the concentrated critical mass of
    binderies, that becomes even more difficult. Then there is also the difference
    between “restoration” and “conservation” that has a significant impact on what
    is taught and done. So, yes, an increasing gap there.

    In terms of need, collectors of antiquarian books are indeed out there and
    growing, especially with the increased fetishization of the book as object,
    including pulp, modern firsts, … Treatment of these, however desirable is
    still a luxury, and not necessity of life for the bulk of individuals (going
    beyond the hard core) collectors. Money is tight and people need to decide where
    to spend it. In private practice, one often encounters questions/concerns of
    monetary value of item vs cost of treatment, “but I only paid $XX for the book.”
    Then there is working for book sellers. Some understand the materials, their
    needs, and the complexities of cost and treatment, especially for these higher
    end objects. Others though are concerned about their sales margins, granted
    often very narrow, and just want a band-aid for little $$.

    So, it’s a topic worth discussing, but I think it’s complicated and we need to
    be careful not to overly romanticize the profession(s) and changes in
    demographics and economics. That said however, once skills and those that
    possess/will share them die off, that’s it except for autodidacts, but the
    quality and precision of finishing from days passed will never be equaled except
    by a very small number that specializes in that to ensure proficiency. Needs to
    be economical.


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