Standards of Excellence - 1982 Report

This article by Diane Burke (then GBW Secretary) is taken from the Guild of Book Workers Newsletter, Summer, 1982, No. 27 (Mary C. Schlosser, editor).

Report of the 1982 Washington, D.C. Standards


The Standards Seminar of the Guild of Book Workers took place on April 16, 1982, in Washington, D.C. It was held in the Theatre of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Those attending agreed that a more perfect setting could not have been found. The authentic Shakespearean theatre was a sympathetic backdrop for a meeting of craftsmen, and The Tempest, the Theatre's concurrent production, a matchless accompaniment to a discussion of standards.

The Seminar was the end result of months of work by Don Etherington, the Chairman of the Standards Committee, who, along with other members of the Committee, planned the Seminar as the first step in their projected establishment of standards for book workers. It was decided that gathering a panel of master craftsmen to discuss their ideas of excellence would serve as a springboard for and an inspiration to the progress of standards. The Committee split the craft of hand bookbinding into five separate but inter-related groups and asked the following experts to speak on standards in the field of his or her specialty:

  • Conservation Binding: Tom Albro
  • Artists' Books: Hedi Kyle
  • Restoration Binding: Bill Anthony
  • Limited Edition Binding: Gray Parrot
  • Designer Binding: Heinke Pensky-Adams

All accepted. Later, when Mr. Parrot was unable to attend, David Bourbeau of the Thistle Bindery in Northampton, Massachusetts, was asked to speak in his place.

Karen Garlick from the Folger Library undertook the organization of the practical details: lodging for those attending, special bank accounts for fees collected, food and drink, information packages for visiting binders, all of those things that made the Seminar easy and pleasant.

The Seminar was constructed so that each speaker would lecture for forty-five minutes and answer questions for ten. A general question and answer period was scheduled for forty minutes after all of the speakers, and two breaks and a long luncheon were allowed so that the attending book workers would have adequate conversation time.

The Seminar began at 9:00 a.m. with opening remarks by Guild president Caroline Schimmel. Mrs. Schimmel welcomed the participants and thanked Dr. Hardison of the Folger Library for his generosity and Karen Garlick for her organizational efforts and her fine results. Mrs. Schimmel informed those gathered that a study of the Guild minutes from the beginning of its history revealed discussion of standards for the field of hand bookbinding. There had been, however, no concrete action until the formation of the present Standards Committee and the organization of the Standards Seminar. Mrs. Schimmel hoped that the Seminar would be "not just a conference, but the first step in establishing a system of standards." She then introduced Don Etherington, the Chairman of the Standards Committee.

Mr. Etherington pointed out that the large turnout for the Seminar. 125 applicants instead of the estimated twenty-five or thirty, reflected the great interest in the establishment of standards. His committee, consisting of Gary Frost, Jerilyn Davis, Heinke Pensky-Adams, Mary Schlosser, Karen Garlick, Doris Freitag, Polly Lada-Macarski had proposed these three steps:

  1. A Seminar where specialists would discuss individual ideas of standards.
  2. The formation of a traveling exhibition which would serve as a demonstration of standards and an inspiration.
  3. By 1985, an offering of official designation of professionalism.

Mr. Etherington felt that such designations would eliminate the need for a "grandfather clause" and urged the audience to notice the absence of the word "certification" in the plan mentioned. Mr. Etherington said that he hoped that the Seminar would be a dialogue so that future plans are shared and supported by the whole membership of the Guild. He then introduced the first speaker, Tom Albro.

Tom Albro, Head of the Rare Book Section of the Library of Congress Conservation Office, opened by stating that he thought the formulation of standards extremely difficult. His reservations were these: standards were of no use that were too low or too high, too general or too exclusive. Worse, the effort of formulating standards took time away from the bench. He feared that a list of standards might not be enough and reminded the audience that there must be excellence in every step of the work. The craft, he felt, was 2000 years old, and examples of excellence abounded. Styles and materials might change, but excellence did not. He put forth these three tenets of conservation:

  1. Treatment must be reversible.
  2. Treatment must be nonadhesive.
  3. The book must work like a book.

Materials, he directed, must be chosen with the life and integrity of the book in mind. The characteristics must be kept, mending must be sympathetic, sewing must be appropriate, each step must be considered of equal importance, and materials must be used skillfully so that they need not be pared or cut to a state of weakness in an attempt to achieve sleekness. Finishing in conservation did not generally involve complicated tooling but instead concerned itself with a lack of stretch marks, and corners that did not look overworked. Mr. Albro advocated a combination of old bookbinding techniques with technical knowledge.

The questions and comments that followed Mr. Albro's talk reflected concern with materials of high quality and patrons of dubious quality. Manufacturers were willing to make material to our specifications, but orders had to be large enough to make the project economically feasible for the manufacturer. Mr. Albro predicted that the Library of Congress would be able to resume the testing of materials for binders. Binders discussed the necessity of dealing with customers who for reasons of economics or poor taste require a binder to effect a less than appropriate treatment. Would each have the courage to reject such a commission? A participant asked if an institutional binder had the advantage of less economic pressure. It was answered that institutions face as many economic problems as the individual, often complicated by the sheet numbers of books begging for treatment. It was stressed by several binders that curators should be well-versed in the business of the alternatives available to conservators.

Next to speak was Hedi Kyle, Conservator, Book Preservation Center, New York Botanical Garden. Her topic was Artists' Books. Ms. Kyle defined the bookbinder-as-artist as one who makes a book that is exquisitely produced following traditional techniques. From this point she proceeded to the artists' book or one-of-a-kind book whose excellence cannot be measured by standards of craftsmanship but the positive or negative response of the viewer. It is the nature of art, Ms. Kyle felt, to draw from intellectual and cultural heritage and redefine the materials involved. The book form has great three-dimensional possibilities for the artist as a sculptural object and a holding device for multimedia materials. The literary content can be pushed beyond its limits and become purely visual. Binders are accustomed to looking for the traditional when judging books and might initially reject the artists' book out of fear. Eventually that which seems startling or even frightening can become accepted.

Contemporary artists' books cannot be viewed in historical context but began with the Dadaists who found the book form an excellent device for conveying conceptual ideas and political statements. Quality and permanence had sometimes to be sacrificed in the face of economic consideration.

To approach the idea of standards in artists' books, Ms. Kyle divided the artists into three groups:

  1. The artist who works normally in another medium without the proper skills of bookbinding. For this artist imagination and ingenuity must fill the gap of technique.
  2. The artist who works normally in other media and who demands and expects a perfect binding technique. In this case, the artist might work in collaboration with a bookbinder. The binder can remind the artist that the binding is an enhancement and not simply a sculptural object while the artist's ideas can push the binder to seek solutions to new problems with the utilization of traditional training. Hopefully, the artist will be able to afford the expense of the binder.
  3. An artist who is a bookbinder and has chosen the book as an artistic means of expression. This artist/craftsman must combine imagination and ability to make the work inspirational, and the traditional training to construct the book. Hopefully it is these individuals who will lead the field in establishing excellence. These artists will also help preserve for the entire field of bookbinding the notion of the "handness" or individuality of the book.

Ms. Kyle then showed a series of slides of "proto codex forms" suggested by her lecture. Included were oriental structures and accordion structures perfect for artists' use, sewing as part of the book's design, pages embellished with collage, stamp collections in homemade bindings, stationary sculptural objects that could be read, and many more.

The audience questioned Ms. Kyle about the education of artists in the use of archival quality materials. Spontaneity might be affected by such strictures, Ms. Kyle felt. Also, many artists were informed of conservation problems but preferred the projects to be of an ephemeral nature. Members of the audience hoped that they might be informed by the artist of pre-planned impermanence before investment.

After luncheon, Bill Anthony of Kner & Anthony Bookbinders spoke on Restoration Binding. Mr. Anthony chose to lead his audience by means of slides through the complete restoration of a late 17th century celestial atlas. The presentation was a strong argument on the side of the value of demonstrating excellent standards by showing exceptional work. The book was bound in sprinkled calf and blind tooled. The composition of the book was 75% engraving and 25% text. The book was in awful condition. Mr. Anthony proceeded step by step giving particular attention to those areas in which that particular volume was vulnerable, such as the attachment of many engravings to insure strength and avoid a bulging of the spine, as well as emphasizing those areas which are particularly sensitive in all books, such as hinges and joints. One was presented with Mr. Anthony's insistence that each step be carefully considered in relation to the book's structure and history, and that each procedure be carried out with precision and elegance.

Questions and comments following Mr. Anthony's presentation concerned :

  1. Insurance: Mr. Anthony felt that it was not possible to keep adequate insurance to cover all the valuable books that might be in one's shop and that the owners should be responsible for the books.
  2. Responsibility for missing parts of books: those who give a binder the books should have inspected the books and kept records of any missing pages or prints, but an inspection on the part of the binder is not amiss.
  3. The signing of bindings: it is difficult to sign a restoration. Mr. Anthony suggested that records of the work be kept and that these be included in some undamaging way with the book, in a drawer of the protective box, perhaps.

He also recommended that binders keep a careful record of work-hours spent on each volume as a guide to pricing.

A discussion was raised as to the value of potassium lactate. Mr. Etherington reported that the Library of Congress has found it useful as a pre-covering wash for leather but discourages indiscriminate use.

Limited Edition Binding was the next topic and David Bourbeau of the Thistle Bindery the next speaker. Mr. Bourbeau felt that limited edition binding necessitated a careful balance between the practical and the ideal. It required a reorganization of the traditional elements of hand bookbinding in order to produce the finest possible binding in large quantities and within economic feasibility. One example is the breaking up of an edition of books into smaller lots, remaining sensitive to the quantity necessary to approach in an "assembly line" fashion to speed production while retaining the serial quality of progressive steps from start to finish that characterizes the method usual to hand bookbinding. The most important thing for a limited edition binder, Mr. Borbeau felt, is the correct attitude toward the workmanship: precision and accuracy. These characteristics create a beautiful book as well as guaranteeing no waste of energy, time, or materials. Mr. Bourbeau felt that the selection of a proper teacher was of paramount importance as the teacher's values are sure to be handed down to students. Each binder will, of course, develop his or her own characteristics and variations on the traditional themes. In fact, Mr. Bourbeau felt that flexibility is essential and presented several examples wherein the evaluation of other binders' procedures and reevaluation of his own methods and prejudices allowed for enlargement of his binding spectrum. Mr. Bourbeau suggested the development of machines to do those parts of the work which might comfortably be mechanized in order to allow more time for hand work where it counted most. He also utilized several "simple machines" in his own bindery such as templates and similar devices to assure that repetitious procedures are accurate and consistent.

After tea, Heinke Pensky-Adams, Head, Midwest Book & Paper Conservation, Monastery Hill Bindery, spoke as a representative of Designer Binders. Mrs. Pensky-Adams chose an autobiographical approach to standards to demonstrate the usefulness of a strong background in binding technique: binding, she emphasized, is not simple.

Mrs. Pensky-Adams began her career with art school where she was drawn to books, illustration, and design. She did not feel, however, that even thorough art school training made up for the lack of an apprenticeship. Her apprenticeship included all of the basics of binding and then the finishing steps, with instruction reinforced by hands-on application of the lesson to enormous numbers of books. Knowledge was to be applied not only correctly, but consistently and rapidly. Tests taken to complete such an apprenticeship included the completion of a prescribed and large number of books to specifications within stringent time limits: limits that would be imposed by the necessity of economics in a shop. After this extensive training in commercial binding, Mrs. Pensky-Adams came to America and met two binders who changed her conception of binding as a craft, Deborah Evetts and Carolyn Horton. Inspired by their work and teaching, Mrs. Pensky-Adams combined her art school training and her technical background and went to Donnelly & Sons to work in graphics conservation under Harold Tribolet. In time she started her own bindery where she accepts commissions and teaches students.

Mrs. Pensky-Adams felt that there was a lot of interest in books in the United States. The problem was, however, that she found the American binder largely self-taught in night classes, conferences, and workshops, a fact which caused contemporary bindings to suffer from lack of skill. She suggested that long term training programs be developed in which the history of books and binding would be combined with bench work. Perhaps one of the universities would be the place for this training. Books as art, she said, were not above standards.

Topics which followed in the general question and answer period centered on training and measurement of training. Can those binders who have been able to obtain extensive training cull the important facts and methods and pass them along to other binders, or is it necessary to build the skills through repetition? Everyone says that standards are terrible, but where can we go to get the proper training? Job-sharing? Part-time apprentices? Volunteer work? It was brought out that some members thought that teachers should be "qualified" before being allowed to teach and that existing opportunities for study should be filled with brilliant, qualified people. Badly trained binders become, to quote Fritz Eberhardt..."cannon fodder for the arrogant hirers of cheap labor..."

It was suggested that competitions and exhibitions would encourage binding standards to be high. Perhaps a nucleus of excellent binders should be chosen to be a jury for teachers and those who wish to accept commissions? Should well-trained and successful binders be expected to give time and effort to training new binders and establishing standards? Most of all, what exactly will be the role of the Guild: Will it remain aloof and judge, or will it teach?

It would be fair to say that all of the Guild's problems concerning standards were not solved in a day's seminar in Washington, D.C. It can be said, however, that a panel of binders who had chosen different formats for presentations and expressed different perspectives and concerns in their contents, held together by their excellence in their work, were a fitting metaphor for the job ahead of the Guild.