The Rocky Mountain Chapter is fortunate to have Katy Baum, who has served as both Secretary for the Guild of Book Workers (GBW) and Communications Coordinator for the Southeast Chapter of GBW, join our Chapter. Katy recently moved to Telluride, Colorado, nestled in the scenic San Juan mountains, to begin her job as Managing Director of the American Academy of Bookbinding (AAB), and in this interview, she gives us insight into this incredible educational institute’s high-quality instruction. In addition to breaking down the experience of attending AAB, from financial aid questions to the logistics of getting (and staying) there, Katy shares with us her personal journey into the bookbinding world and the life-changing experience that studying at AAB brought to her.
An Interview with Katy Baum: Her path into the world of fine binding, and a look at the American Academy of Bookbinding from her perspective as both student and new Managing Director.
I see that you’ve been working in the book world for a long time. Library science, letterpress, binding, all sorts of things. What was your path into bookbinding?
It was totally unexpected. I was in college when I was first introduced to bookbinding. I was an art student, attending the University of North Carolina in Asheville. I really wasn’t aware of book arts at all, but I got a part-time job working for a couple of artists and they themselves had recently discovered bookbinding, as well as papermaking and letterpress. They introduced me to Coptic binding. You hear people talk about being bit by the bug, and that’s what it was like. After that initial introduction, I was completely obsessed, so upon graduating I moved to Chicago with the intention of applying for the MFA program in Book Arts at Columbia College. I got cold feet about it, though, and I thought it might be smarter to get an MLS so that I could have a reliable day job. That ended up being an interesting decision. I feel like the skills I learned in library school have served me really well, but the actual library jobs I landed were more about sitting at a computer and working with software and spreadsheets and databases. I wasn’t handling physical books all that often. After a few years of working in libraries, I decided that it was time to get back to bookbinding. That decision led me to Penland and really moving forward in binding.
Katy at work at AAB
In your MLS program, did you take bookbinding classes?
Yes, there were classes in library school that focused on conservation. They were pretty basic. No one would come out of those classes and feel prepared to perform treatments, but because I was in Chicago, I was able to supplement my masters program with a lot of great experience within the institutions around Chicago. I did an internship in book conservation at the Art Institute, which was fantastic. I did a little volunteer work for the library at the Field Museum of Natural History. And I had a part time job for Paper Source. They used to have their own bindery in Chicago where four or five of us worked. Our manager was a North Bennett Street grad and I attribute a lot of my basic education in bookbinding to that job, even though we were just doing simple case bindings. We were using manufactured textblocks to make photo albums and datebooks and guestbooks for weddings - things like that. But the opportunity to work at a bench and to have someone offer instruction and critical feedback- it was a great way to build my hand skills and work habits. You really only get that when you’re logging consistent hours at a bench.
What kind of bookbinding skills did you get from Penland?
I took an eight-week class taught by Cathy Adelman and Alice Vaughn that focused on fine binding and enclosures. They’re both wonderful bookbinders and excellent teachers. They’ve both studied at AAB and Cathy had also studied quite a bit in Ascona, in addition to her diploma in Fine Binding from AAB, so they covered a lot of ground in 8 weeks. That class was really my first taste of fine binding. I had no idea there was anything more to bookbinding than case binding and book arts. I’d never worked with leather or parchment before. I’d never worked with these more complicated sewing structures. It was fantastic, a great experience. And while I was at Penland, I found out that I had been accepted to AAB and that I’d received a scholarship. So it was this fantastic moment in time because I had decided to quit my job as a librarian and take this leap of faith and pursue bookbinding. From Penland I went to my first class for AAB, a two-week class for Fine Binding in Summerfield, NC where Monique Lallier and Don Etherington live. Monique is just, wow! I tend to gush about everyone in bookbinding, but she was such a phenomenal teacher for that fundamentals class. She does not let you go astray. She really points you in the right direction and gives you such a solid foundation, which I think is really important with fine binding because it is so meticulous.
I have to admit you’ve learned in some beautiful places and had some really good teachers.
Yeah, I feel really lucky! All my teachers have been so generous.
That strikes me over and over again with the people I’ve met. The bookbinding community is so small and yet I don’t encounter very many people who are territorial about it.
I agree. I hear that over and over again. It is so refreshing to have the positive, supportive environment, no matter what your level of experience. I feel like I get that at Standards too. Absolutely. It’s a really supportive environment. I was very intimidated coming into that class at Penland and my first classes at AAB. It can be very scary, especially when you thought you knew what bookbinding was. Then you find out, oh wow, I only know about the tip of the iceberg. I was so afraid that I would be sent packing. It was great to discover that people want you to learn, and they want you to get really good at what you’re doing, to find your personal artistic voice. I think that there are a lot of wonderful people supporting the younger group of bookbinders coming up.
I can totally understand that. I was so intimidated during some of the opportunities that I had. But then you learn and it’s totally life changing; it totally changed my life in a good way. So it sounds like you took classes at Penland, and with Monique in Summerfield, and then moved to Michigan and opened a studio. Is that when you started full-time bookbinding?
I did move to Michigan, but I did not start my own studio. I took a job with Bessenberg Bindery which has been in Ann Arbor since the 1970’s. They had been purchased by Thomson-Shore, which is a mid-size book manufacturing company. When I came in, the hand bindery was in transition. There was no real leadership. It was pretty overwhelming because they basically just handed me the keys and expected me to make it work, but it was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to work in a bindery like that and to have the resources of a modern-day book manufacturer right outside the bindery door. We had a Ludlow for typecasting, digital flatbed cutters that could cut through stacks of board, a pneumatic stamping machine, a warehouse full of bookcloth. And we worked with some clients I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. We did work for Random House, and we had some big corporate clients like Merrill Lynch and Red Bull. It was a great experience. I was only there for two years, but between project management, hiring and training new employees and interns, and learning about the accounting and business side of running a bindery, it was a huge development for me. It gave me excellent insight into the challenges of making a living as a bookbinder. It’s really hard and really complicated. So when I had the opportunity to come work at AAB, it was a tough decision, but ultimately I knew I was getting burned out from the stress of meeting all the deadlines and trying to make a profit each month. I had such a strong connection to the school, I knew I had to apply for the job. I do sometimes miss the bindery work...tackling big projects and working with my hands every day. There’s nothing quite like that. But I’m trying to find ways to balance my own work with the responsibilities I have at AAB.
What are your favorite kinds of projects?
I love fine binding and working with leather. Right now I’m very focused on learning the ropes of the job at AAB, but I’m planning to continue to work toward my diploma in Fine Binding. Some of the projects that I’ve worked on over the last couple of years are ones I started at Penland. I also did an 8-week letterpress class there and produced quite a bit of printed material that I could bind for future projects. I would like to continue with that - with generating my own content and creating design bindings.
Congratulations on your position at AAB. I’m hoping to get there some day. How many years have you gone?
My first class with AAB was in 2012 in Summerfield. I haven’t been coming to Telluride for too long. I actually grew up a couple of hours away in Durango and hadn’t been back to Colorado since I was 18. I came to my first class in Telluride in 2015 and it was late September and all of the aspen leaves were a brilliant flaming yellow, and the air was incredible. To be in the San Juan mountains is pretty special. Coming here will change your life - the school, the town, the mountains. It’s an opportunity to leave all of your day-to-day obligations behind and just focus on being in the studio. We offer 24-hour studio access, so you can stay up until two in the morning and work on your project; you can come in at four in the morning and get an early start. You can move into this obsessive, completely immersive experience while you are here. I realized during that class in 2015 that I needed to make this the biggest priority in my life - just coming here for classes. So imagine my delight to have it be my entire life now, to work at the school full-time. I love that my job is bringing other people here and letting them have that experience. It’s really important to me. We just finished a class last week co-taught by Don Glaister and Suzanne Moore where everyone made deeply personal projects, and at the end of the week there were multiple students that said, “this is a life-changing experience, being here.” It was just beautiful to see how meaningful this experience can be for people.
That is what I am hoping you will share - a snapshot of what it’s like to go there and to have that experience. I’ve thought about it so many times, but it’s expensive. I understand you had a scholarship to go, and I read online that a lot of people can get some scholarship money. I would like for people to understand how possible it is for them to go take a class - how affordable it might be and where they might stay and how to get there. What would you tell someone like me who is interested in going - how can I make that happen for myself?
That is something that we hear a lot. It’s true; it takes a lot to get to Telluride. We are physically remote; it’s hard to get here; it’s expensive. I really understand that, so we offer as much financial assistance as we can for students. We have tuition assistance packages available that are based on the AAB financial aid application. We offer a number of scholarships that are completely merit-based, which doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an experienced bookbinder. We had a student come this year who had a background in poetry and silversmithing. It’s about your intention and your interest in bookbinding. We also have the annual Fine Binding scholarship which provides $3000 toward tuition and housing. We work very hard to find affordable housing for our students. It’s a challenge because Telluride is a resort town, but we’re lucky to have several locals who are willing to rent out their condos and their homes to us. So we’re able to offer housing for students at a pretty reasonable rate, considering the environment. But at the end of the day, I still hear students say, it’s the journey of getting to Telluride that is challenging for people. But I’ve also heard so many students say that it’s completely worth it for the experience of being in the studio, and being in this beautiful mountain town. I try to encourage people to just come once and see what it’s all about and see that it’s completely worth all of the effort in getting here.
You’re selling me. What are the diplomas? There is still the fine binding diploma, but I see that the conservation program was dropped and was replaced by another.
Yes, the big reason why that’s coming to a close is that a true program in Conservation nowadays requires coursework in science and lab facilities. We’re just not set up for that at this time. Meanwhile, we had Peter Geraty who was interested in starting the Integrated Studies Program which offers a bit of everything. Some students come to it with very little experience. They start with an Introduction to Bookbinding class; they learn leather binding; they take book repair classes; they take paper conservation with Renate Mesmer from the Folger Shakespeare Library; and they have a business class, and a history of the book class. All of this with the idea that by the time you’re done with the ISP diploma, you’re able to hang out a shingle and work as a professional bookbinder.
The Fine Binding program is obviously more specific to fine leather binding, and developing the meticulous hand skills required and your artistic sensibilities. They are very different programs but as a student I found myself looking at the requirements for both and thinking, “I want to take all of those classes. They’re all so important and all so valuable for someone who wants to be pursuing this at a serious level.”
What are the requirements for completing the diplomas?
Well, there’s a list of required courses for each diploma. And for those who aren’t that familiar with how our school is set up, the time frame for completion is decided by the student. It might take someone four years to complete the diploma, or it might take them seven years. We want you to keep your momentum going, but we understand that you may only be able to come for one week a year, or maybe you can come for four weeks a year. Meanwhile, there is an expectation that you are working at home when you are not here at the school. Each time you come to class, we’re expecting students to bring their homework books that they’ve completed on their own. I think it’s a really important part of our diploma. In some of the programs that are here in the US, you have an incredible opportunity to work in a fully- equipped studio where you have everything available to you, but then when you graduate you need to get all the equipment and tools, find a space to work, etc. A nice part of our program, I think, is that the students are steadily working toward that goal of getting their home studio set up as they are going through the program.
Once they’ve completed their courses, they start meeting regularly with the director of their program - in the Fine Binding Program, it’s Don Glaister, and in the ISP, it’s Peter Geraty. Just completing the required courses is not enough. We’re very serious about the quality of the work, and making sure that the students are the best they can possibly be in terms of technical skills. Once we feel that their work is at that stage, then they start preparing for their jury, which is comprised of three members of the bookbinding community who evaluate their bindings. The students also prepare a portfolio to show to the jury, in addition to a research project. It’s a lot of work! Our diploma students are extremely dedicated.
It’s great that AAB has become involved in starting the triennial Open Set Exhibition. I attended the reception in Denver and got to visit with Deb Stevens and Lang Ingalls who were so instrumental in the project. The bindings were fabulous. It is rare to have such an exhibit in the U.S. that just features fine bindings. The only other one that comes to mind is the Helen Warren DeGolyer Triennial Exhibition and Competition for American Bookbinding.
Yes, that was the intent behind creating this triennial opportunity, to give fine binders a chance to exhibit their work, but also to draw attention in the U.S. to fine binding. I think book arts have become more and more well-known throughout the U.S. There are so many centers popping up that have book arts classes, and there are university programs. But a lot of people still don’t know what fine binding is or that it exists. We thought this was a great way to showcase it as an art form. It’s a wonderful opportunity for bookbinders in the U.S., and really throughout the world. A lot of the prize winners and participants were from outside of the U.S. It was a lovely thing to see all of the international participants.
Thank you, Katy, for sharing about AAB and Open Set, and for inspiring us with your story about how you got into bookbinding. I really enjoyed talking with you and look forward to meeting you.
Thank you so much for talking with me. It’s really an honor. I’m thrilled to be a part of the Rocky Mountain Chapter.
Thank you again.