Communion Of Dreams


A bookbinding mystery.

Been a while since I posted about book conservation. But I thought I would share a little mystery I came upon recently in my work.

First, a simple lesson in bookbinding history, with some terms used in the profession …

When books are sewn together, that sewing goes through a group of sheets which are folded in half. Each folded sheet is called a folio. The group — whether it is a single folio or multiple folios — is called a section (also a signature, a gathering, or a quire).  Most books consist of many different sections, all sewn together in a particular sequence, in order to keep the pages in the correct order.  The number of folios in each section can vary greatly, but it was common for it to be 2 or 4 folios until fairly recently (8 folios per section is common now).

To make it a little easier to keep everything straight and in the right order, printers developed some common practices (or conventions). Numbering the pages seems like an obvious way to do this, but page numbering conventions are surprisingly convoluted and confusing. So they came up with some other tricks for the bookbinders to follow. One was to give each section a letter designation. And another was to have a number combined with that letter designation, so the bookbinder would be able to make sure that they had all the folios for a given section. And just to be extra certain, for a long time printers would place at the very bottom of the printing on each page the start of the word on the *next* page.

Here are three images which show this, from a 1744 book awaiting my attention:

Mystery 1

OK, look at the right-hand page (called recto), at the bottom of the print. See the capital letter E? That shows that this was the start of the new section. And if you look in the same line as that E, you’ll see the word “and”.

Take a look at the next image:

Mystery 2

Note there on the top of the left page (called verso) the print starts with the word “and”. Look at the bottom of that page, and you can see the word “will”, which is the first word on the top of the next page. Got it?

Also, look at the bottom of the recto page, and you’ll see “E2”, meaning that this is the second folio of the section. And there, off to the far right, is the word “which”.

Next image:

Mystery 3

See? The first word on the top of the verso page is “which”, and the page numbering is sequential. At the bottom of that page is the word “faid” (which is actually the word “said”, using an f in place of a long s), and that is the same word on the top of the recto page. The page numbering is again sequential in going to the recto page. But look — there’s no section and folio marking at the bottom of the recto page. That means that this book has sections of just two folios. And if you look at the gutter of the book in this image, you can see the original sewing: the two discolored bits of thread at the top and bottom of the book.

Simple, right? Yup, and this was the way that almost everyone in Europe printed books for about 300 years. (There’s a lot more interesting history connected with this, but for now we’ll just leave it at that.)

OK, let’s take a look at one final image:

Mystery 4

This is from a different book. A bible. One printed sometime around 1644 in German.

Look at the bottom of the text there on the recto, in the lower right of the image. See the section and folio marks? It’s a lower case “e” for the section, and then “iiij.” So this should be the fourth folio of section “e”, right?

But look at the gutter of the book, there on the left hand side of the image. That’s the sewing of the book. In fact, if you look carefully, you can see that there is the original sewing thread, and then brighter sewing thread, where I have added new thread to strengthen these first few sections of the book.

What gives?

I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. This book has three-folio sections, but it is marked as though it should be four folios per section. That’s through the whole book (well, according to my random examination of multiple sections … I haven’t examined every one, since this is a big ol’ bible).

It really threw me at first, because the book came to me with a number of loose pages front and back. Initially I thought that there must be a lot of missing pages (there are a couple), but I started using the other printing conventions of the starting part of a word, and was able to clearly establish that I did indeed have most of the pages. Then I went and checked some of the intact sections of the book, and saw this weird mystery.

Why on earth the printer did this, I can only guess. And that guess is that he did it to make someone think that there were more printed pages in the whole text than there actually are, since a casual examination using the normal printing conventions would suggest that there should be 25% more folios than are really there. Is this a case of some unscrupulous printer ripping off the church or whoever paid for the work? Maybe.

But that’s just a guess.

 

Jim Downey



Knowing when to walk away.

The summer before this past one I almost lost my wife to appendicitis.

All my adult life I have known that sudden, unexpected death can strike those we love. And I have tried to live my life accordingly.

The flip side of that, of course, is that I know I could die suddenly, as well. And while I have done a number of crazy and stupid things, I’ve always tried to keep an eye on the real risks involved. It’s not smart to lose track of the fact that you’re mortal.

But being there in the hospital with my wife, as she recovered from an emergency appendectomy, reflection on my own mortality took a slightly different direction. Rather than just thinking about what I had accomplished, and whether it had been a full life, I got to thinking about what I had to offer. And one thing I started thinking about was that I had accumulated a lot of very specific experience which was fairly rare: my book conservation skills.

Now, there are some really good schools out there to train conservators. As well as professional organizations, and workshops and all the sorts of things you would expect. But not a lot. Certainly not enough to meet the need for trained conservators; a need which will only continue to grow as more and more books and articles are published only in electronic format, and the current inventory of printed material starts to age and grow fragile.

Since I have been in private practice as a conservator for 20+ years, I haven’t done a lot of just low-level routine repairs. Rather, I’ve worked on the more valuable items from both private and public collections — the sorts of things which individuals and institutions felt it was worth paying me for my expertise. In other words, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on the cream of the crop from multiple collections, as it were, which has given me the opportunity to further hone a wide range of techniques and demanded that I do my very best by the books and documents entrusted to my care. And with that experience came judgment about what techniques are appropriate in what cases, what will work and what won’t. Judgment which often isn’t even conscious, but lives in my fingertips and can only be shared by close example and repetition.

That’s what I have to offer. And that’s what would be lost were I to die suddenly.

That’s what I got to thinking.

As luck would have it, about the same time I started working with an old acquaintance who had developed an interest in medieval bookbinding. He doesn’t live close, so we had to discuss things online and over the phone, with his coming to visit for weekend training now and then. Because *nothing* compares to hands-on, face-to-face training.

And working with him reminded me of how much I enjoy sharing my skills and love for my craft. Oh, I’ve taught plenty of bookbinding classes over the years, and that has been enjoyable. But there is nothing like working with a student who shares my intense passion for caring for historical texts, rather than someone who just wants to make some blank books for Christmas gifts or needs to have another example for their arts portfolio.

So I got to thinking of how I could find another mechanism to share my skills with people who already share my passion. And I decided to sound out a local institution about perhaps training some of their staff (many large libraries and archives have one or a few preservation technicians, who do the valuable basic repair work on the collection). I knew that while the budget environment wasn’t good, there might be a way for us to work out an arrangement for long-term, careful training in depth of some of their staff, allowing me to transfer both specific skills but more importantly nuances in judgment through hands-on work of items in their collection.

The institution was certainly receptive, and for a while we worked hard to see how to bring my initial thoughts into reality within their system.  Meetings were held, brain-storming sessions conducted. Lots and lots of meetings, involving lots of different people and departments, different budget lines and facilities. The prospects were very promising, and I was very excited about the possibilities to begin a new phase of my book conservation career, teaching others part-time. But ultimately the bureaucracy proved too hard to overcome; rather than starting a long-term, fairly permanent training program, the bureaucracy could only accommodate a temporary ‘pilot’ program within its usual rules and guidelines for professional development.

And here is where the title of this post comes into play: knowing when to walk away.

Because when all was said and done, there was a chance … but only a chance … that the temporary pilot program teaching two or three people might find a home (and funding) within the institution. Maybe.

What should I do?

I considered and consulted with some close friends. After all the discussions, after all the meetings and brainstorming, I was deeply vested in seeing this work out.

But I had to take a step back and think about my initial goals, and rationally assess whether or not this would accomplish what I wanted. I decided that it didn’t — that I would be committing too much time and energy to trying to meet the needs of the bureaucracy rather than my own needs, and that I would have too little control over what I could teach.

I can’t blame the bureaucracy; it exists for a reason. Trying to change it, to get it to do something unique and risky, was probably a fools errand from the start.

So, failure.

Maybe.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, though. The bureaucracy at the institution in question, as well as the bureaucracy at many such institutions, is already set up to handle another version of training for their staff: specific workshops conducted by outside consultants, lasting from a few hours to a few days.

So that’s what I am going to do. In the next couple of months I will put together the initial offerings of training workshops for specific conservation techniques. All will have detailed descriptions of what the workshop will include. All will include plenty of hands-on practice under close supervision. All will be completely modular, so that any institution can select from the menu of offered workshops without being committed to other workshops.

I may not be able to do in-depth training of a small number of people, but I can share my skills and judgment with a much wider selection of institutions. It’ll be a lot more work on my part, but will hopefully also accomplish more.

We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted as to developments as things happen.

 

Jim Downey



Psst … hey, wanna buy some bookbinding tools?

C’mon, admit it … you’ve always wanted to have your very own guillotine, right? Here’s a very nice one:

paper guillotine

paper guillotine

 

Yeah, that’s a bookbinding tool, not the kind designed for decapitations. With it, you can easily slice through a stack of paper about 6″ thick. I have one very much like it.

OK, so here’s the deal: another bookbinder I know is retiring. And she wants to find a good home for all her tools and equipment. Including that beauty above, a number of book presses of various sizes, hot foil stamping machines (and type) and a *bunch* of handtools. It’d be sort of like how I got some of my tools from another bookbinder who was retiring.

If you’d like to see more of the tools and equipment, go over to Facebook. Yes, I know that it’s evil, etc. But it won’t kill you to use it for this very specific purpose. Check out these two album sets on her Facebook Page: One, Two. And while I haven’t seen all the prices she is asking for the different items, the ones I have seen are *very* reasonable. You can contact her directly on Facebook, or if you need an email address, just contact me.

This equipment is fairly rare. And if you’ve ever had a desire to learn the craft of bookbinding, this is a great opportunity.

 

Jim Downey



Making “French” corners.

This is a small bookbinding lesson to share with some friends, which I am putting here for lack of another good place to put it. Eventually, I plan on doing a video of this and some other techniques just for reference.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Making “French” corners:

There are a number of different techniques to form a corner from covering material, such that the corner is fully covered and protected. Each has advantages & disadvantages, and not all are appropriate for all covering material. This is one common technique which will work with most covering materials. It is called the “French” corner.

For purposes of illustration and clarity, I’m first going to use a large block of wood to represent the overall board material. At the end I’ll demonstrate the process with actual bookboard.

OK, we start with the block and a piece of paper which would be our cover material. Keep in mind that both of these are supposed to be just the little corner bit of a much larger board and piece of cover material:

a

Same block and paper, but now with guide lines drawn. The lines just represent the continuation of the lines of the board edges:

b

Now we draw a parallel line along the ‘bottom’ of the edge of the board. This line is the same distance from the edge of the board as the board is thick:

c

Now we remove the board, but I have marked the paper to show where it would be. Then I cut an approximate 45 degree angle off the corner of the cover material like so:

d

Remove the triangle of superfluous material, and cut along the line as indicated to create “Tab A”:

e

Reposition the block of wood, then fold the cover material along the lines indicated:

f

The first fold positions the cover material up the side of the board:

g

And the second fold brings it over onto the top surface of the board:

h

Then fold “Tab A” at the corner, so that it extends up the side of the board like this:

i

Then fold up the remaining cover stock over the side of the board where “Tab A” now is:

j

Then fold over onto the top of the board, covering the first piece of cover material:

k

Got it? This results in clean edges, with the entire corner of the board protected. There is a double thickness of covering material on one edge and on the ‘top’ of the board (which would typically be the inside of the book cover).

Here’s the same process using actual bookboard and one piece of paper. Please note that this just shows the bottom of the cover.

Boards mounted to cover material, with the corners cut as needed:

l

Turn in the bottom edge of the cover material. This leaves the little tab (darkened with pencil for contrast) ready to be pasted and mounted to the side of the board:

m

Here’s looking at the whole bottom structure, with both tabs ready to be pasted and mounted:

n

Mount the tab, then paste out and turn in the side strips of the cover material:

o

And you can also see how the finished corner looks on the inside. Done.

Jim Downey