A DYING CRAFT?
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.