July 21, 2008

"I Cannot Live Without Books": A Class at the Rare Book School

Elizabeth Uhlig
Eugene, Oregon

A Report on the Rare Book School - “Introduction to the History of Bookbinding” taught by Jan Storm van Leeuwen

“I cannot live without books.” This quote by Thomas Jefferson to John Adams in 1815 is on a book bag I bought at Monticello just after I finished a week (June 9-13) at the Rare Book School in Charlottesville, Virginia. I took a class “Introduction to the History of Bookbinding” and thought about nothing but old and rare books and their bindings for an entire week.

It was an amazing experience - challenging, intense, fun, and totally worthwhile. My day job is as archivist at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, but what I’m most interested in outside of work is the history and culture of the book, historical bookbinding, and making of books. I especially enjoy making historical book structures, so this course was something I have long hoped to take and I certainly was not disappointed.

The Rare Book School was founded in 1983 at Columbia University by Terry Belanger and was moved to the University of Virginia in 1992. The RBS offers week-long, non-credit courses on various topics related to books and bibliography, mostly during the summer in Charlottesville, but also during the fall, winter and spring in New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.
For me, the application process was a two-stage process – last fall I applied first for a tuition scholarship, and then in the winter I applied for admission to the “Introduction to the History of Bookbinding” course. The other students in the course were mainly catalogers, curators of rare books and special collections, or conservators; I believe I was the only bookbinder in the class. And while the course did not include hands-on bookbinding instruction, it provided me with a wealth of information and inspiration that I can use when making my own books.

The RBS Week

Upon arrival at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, you are quickly drawn into the RBS experience and culture which provides many opportunities for networking and meeting fellow book enthusiasts and professionals as well as a high level of instruction. The RBS Week started on Sunday afternoon with a guided walking tour of the UVa campus followed by registration and wine reception, Sunday night supper, and an orientation lecture by RBS director Terry Belanger.
The typical RBS day runs from Monday to Friday, 8:00 am to 5:00 pm and includes breakfast and two coffee breaks at the RBS offices, and a lunch break. There are four sessions every day for a total of 6 hours of instruction.

There are optional evening lectures and social activities so you are frequently kept busy until late in the evening. Monday was Lecture Night and we heard a lecture by Steve Beare, an independent scholar who shared his research, much of which was conducted on the internet, into the lives and careers of two 19th century engravers.

Tuesday evening was Movie Night. We first saw a documentary “Book Wars: Life & Death on the Streets of New York, 2000” about the world of NYC street booksellers. Then we saw “The Lindisfarne Gospels: A Masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon Book Painting.” Earlier in the day, we had a lunch-time tour of Special Collections.

Wednesday night was Study Night when the RBS library was open and we were able to peruse lots of old and rare books in the RBS teaching collection as well as books in their reference library.

Thursday night was Bookseller Night when several Charlottesville used and rare bookshops stayed open especially for us. Charlottesville is only a town of 40,000 but has more rare and used bookshops than any other city in Virginia.

On Friday our class had lunch with our instructor and in late afternoon there was a closing reception and a chance to buy RBS t-shirts, mugs, bags, and other souvenirs.

The Course: Introduction to the History of Bookbinding

The class I chose to attend, “Introduction to the History of Bookbinding,” was not a hands-on, practical binding course, but rather a historical and art historical look at the principal techniques and materials used in Western bookbinding. The teacher was Jan Storm van Leeuwen who is the retired keeper of the binding collection at the Dutch Royal Library in The Hague.
In the introduction to the course and historical bookbinding, Jan Storm van Leeuwan explained that we would focus on two functions of bookbinding: the binding structure which both protects the text block and also makes a book out of separate leaves of paper, and the decoration on the covers, spine, and fore-edges that have turned binding into a work of decorative art. Every day the course was a combination of lecture using images of books in a PowerPoint presentation followed by viewing dozens and dozens of books from the RBS teaching collection and from the university library’s collection of rare books.


Our Monday class session began with an overview of bookbinding terms and processes – this introduction was quite complex and necessary, not only for a bookbinder, but also for all the others in the class who were librarians and curators with backgrounds in cataloging, conservation, and librarianship. There is a lack of fixed terminology in English, which can complicate things. Jan covered the different parts of a book, decorative techniques (onlay, inlay, mosaic, blind and gold tooling), covering material (calf, goat, sheep, or pig leather, parchment/vellum, textiles, and paper), sewing and binding techniques, and much more. We looked at four models: a 4th century Nag Hammadi/Coptic book, a 9-11th century Carolingian/Romanesque book, a 14th century gothic book, and a French 16th century binding. And he also showed us numerous books from the RBS collection and we viewed a DVD on binding by the Plantin Museum in Antwerp, Belgium.


Our Tuesday class began with an introduction to various leather samples. Then Jan began a chronological survey of Western bookbinding beginning with books produced in the 2nd century in the Roman Empire. We moved through the Middle Ages looking at Coptic books, Carolingian and Romanesque books, bindings in velvet, untooled leather bindings, and 15th century German girdle bindings. Jan talked about the St. Cuthbert Gospel and I showed some photos I had taken at the St. Cuthbert’s Gospel of St. John workshop I had taken last year, November 9-11, in Boston. Jim Bloxum and Kristine Rose, two conservators from the Cambridge University Library, taught a 3-day workshop making a model of this 7th century, Anglo-Saxon book, the oldest surviving book in Europe in its original binding.

We looked at books from Middle Ages from the different European countries, mainly Germany, England, France, the Netherlands, and pre-Renaissance Italy and Spain – all with differing techniques and decorations, but also showing much influence from one part of Europe to the other. Jan talked about the structures and materials, and spent quite a lot of time on the decorative covers using blind and gold tooling, the variations of which help to date the bindings and determine how and where the bindings were created. Tuesday’s chronological overview concluded with a discussion of Renaissance binding in Italy and France. And the afternoon ended with a look at decorated paper – marbled paper, printed paper, and paste paper used both for covers and end sheets.


Wednesday morning continued with the chronological overview with a look at pre-Renaissance Italy, specifically the books of Jean Grolier collected for his library. We looked at Renaissance books in Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England. Jan discussed not only structure, materials, and decorative techniques, but also the social and economic aspects of bookbinding, publishing, and selling of books. Moving through the centuries, we came to 17th century America and 17th century bindings in France and the Netherlands. Wednesday afternoon ended with an in-depth look at 19th century and early 20th century publisher’s bindings when books began to be made by machines. We looked at both luxurious bindings and also at simple publisher bindings throughout Europe and the United States.


On Thursday we continued the chronological survey by turning back to the 18th century France, England (including Canada and Scotland), the United States, and the Netherlands. We spent the afternoon at the University of Virginia Special Collections and looked at original bindings from their collection. We viewed Islamic bindings as well as books from throughout Europe from the 16th to 19th centuries.


On Friday we finished up the chronological survey with a look at 19th and 20th century French, Dutch, Belgian, British, and American bindings.

Our final exercise was an attempt to date seventeen books which we had looked at on Monday morning – hopefully our dating was more accurate after a week of learning about the various structures and decorative techniques.

We were provided with a detailed syllabus which included a guide to the description of book bindings (something which was very useful to the catalogers, but which unfortunately we didn’t have time to cover in class); a timeline of year, historical/cultural events, artistic style, binding landmarks (styles, significant books, collectors, etc.), and the names of binders, if known; and a reading/reference list of important books and websites on the history of bookbinding.

This is a brief summary of an amazing week at the Rare Book School. If you’d like more information, check out the RBS website at: http://www.rarebookschool.org/

I have posted some photos that I took of the four models as well as some of the publisher’s bindings we were shown. There are also a few photographs taken at the St. Cuthbert workshop. http://picasaweb.google.com/emuhlig

And, please email me if you have questions or want more information: emuhlig@gmail.com

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