Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 108
October 1996


Notes on Servi Textus: Servants of the Text 1996

Servi Textus: Servants of the Text, a symposium held at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. July 10 - 14, 1996, was dedicated to Rutherford Aris, a noted scientist and scholar interested in letters. Father Eric Hollas, OSB, director of the Hill Monastic Library at St. John's, and the entire campus community gave their gracious cooperation and support to the symposium organizer, Jo White, and her able staff of volunteers. The goal was to bring together scholars, curators, librarians, conservators, collectors, critics, artists, exhibition coordinators, calligraphers and friends of the book arts for "topical discussions on the history and tradition of the book arts; to identify common grounds of interest and mutual dependency of these various disciplines; and to evoke an appreciation for the integral role each plays in preserving these traditions in the future." The four-day symposium consisted of lectures, slide presentations, panel discussions, a show of contemporary calligraphy, and commercial vendors' tables.

Keynote presentations were delivered by Father Leonard Boyle, O.P., Prefect of the Vatican Library, Rome; Christopher de Hamel, Director of Western Medieval and Oriental Manuscripts at Sothebys, London; and Donald Jackson, M.V.O., Scribe to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Crown Office at the Lords, London. A number of medieval scholars, booksellers, museum directors, curators, writers and educators lectured on historical manuscripts and scribes, bookselling in the 21st century, and museum curating. The artists showed and discussed their work. Peter Waters, retired conservation officer at the Library of Congress, was unable to attend, but his wife, Sheila Waters, the noted calligrapher, delivered his lecture, "What impact may the information super highway have upon the preservation of library material?" Sheila said that Peter had spent his whole life as a servant of the text, protecting the text in books with bindings. Peter emphasized the use of preventative conservation: the improvement of book environments, increased knowledge of book handlers, and the use of non-acidic storage containers for books are paramount in the care of the enormous number of volumes housed in our libraries today.

Approximately 130 attended the symposium given by 40 presenters, a manageable size for group discussions, allowing participants to talk to everyone. As at any conference where there is so much to absorb, the most inspirational and heartfelt conversations were held over meal times in the cafeteria. I asked two of the medievalists, Dr. Richard Rouse and Dr. Mary Rouse, what advice they had to give us contemporary makers of illuminated manuscripts. They both commented that much of their work is detective work and noted the importance of keeping records of the working process, not simply the materials and techniques that were used but what motivates the work and what we are thinking as we create it. If that type of information is not recorded, it will most likely be lost to future historians. I find this type of lecture and discussion symposium beneficial. It is never a waste of time to talk with one's peers.

The first day's discussion focused on lettering: is it an "art" or is it a "craft"? This is a moot point to some of us who make books for a living. Perhaps we need to ask a more definitive question of all work, "Is it memorable?" Several scholars were bothered by the "illegibility" of texts. Why write something no one can read? Father Boyle commented that scribes had become servants of the letter rather than the text and said, as a paleographer, his role was to "address a text and compel it to communicate". Several scribes see their role as master of, rather than servant to, the text. Father Boyle spoke of the development of free flowing writing forms using Rustic capitals as a model, then working through the other more written hands, such as Uncial and Half-uncial, to the humanistic Carolingian hands. "Writing," he said, "Is an extension of the spirit... the divine expression of the self." The importance of truth and legibility of the text was reflected in the conference title, Servi Textus: Servants of the Text.

It all made for lively and spirited discussion, though many wondered if scholars and artists had anything in common. Ewan Clayton, a scribe and presenter, pointed out, with a show of hands from the audience, that all scribes present studied historical forms and relied on the work of scholars to bring manuscripts and their insights into light. Several scholars were unfamiliar with the technique of lettering and were enlightened as to the manner in which manuscripts were quickly decorated with a quill and paint in an overhead demonstration during Donald Jackson's lecture. As a group we never really did get to the crux of why we were there - the text. It was the one thing we all had in common, but we didn't discuss the importance of, or use of, text in our work, whether it was a manuscript book or a broadside. And, although the conference advertised itself as "focusing on the history and tradition of the book arts", there were few books in the sixteen-artist show. The show, An Exhibition of 20th Century Calligraphy, will be on display at St. John's through August 28, when it moves to the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, from November 15 to January 26, 1997. It is a sample of the trend of calligraphy being done today.

St. John's University is built around a Benedictine Monastery and is situated in a contemplative setting between two lakes, an hour and a half's drive northwest of Minneapolis. The church, designed by Marcel Breuer, is a beautiful structure and houses a magnificent wall of stained glass. The Hill Monastic Library (HMML) at St. John's dedicates itself to the preservation of medieval hand-written texts and is currently attempting to put many of them on-line. Father Eric Hollas wrote that "those texts continue to have the power to inform and inspire". I would have liked to have more time to view manuscripts at HMML, but did not want to miss any of the presentations. Even with a full hour and a half for lunches, there didn't seem to be enough time to do everything. St. John's deserves another visit.

Nancy Leavitt, book artist and calligrapher, lives in Stillwater, Maine.,
where she has her Tomato Press.


AUTOUR du LIVRE: First International Conference AIR neuf, with Art & Métiers du Livre. June 7 -10, 1996 at the Chateau Les Fontaines, Chantilly, France.

Monday's lunch (the last gathering of the conference) was held in the now-familiar dining hall with new and old colleagues and friends. The spirit was enthusiastic, the goodbyes heartfelt, and the feeling was that of having spent time doing something really worth doing. The first international bookbinding conference of AIR neuf was a resounding success.

Several elements worked together to create this achievement: the choice of speakers and topics, the diversity of people attending, the elements outside the presentations, the format and pacing, the location, and the superb organization.

The Congrès ran from lunch on Friday June 7 to lunch on Monday June 10. Nearly everyone attending stayed at the Conference center, the beautiful château Les Fon-taines, just outside Chantilly (an hour north of Paris). The high-ceilinged, wood paneled rooms of the château were used for demonstrations. A modern wing attached to the château provided rooms for the participants as well as the amphitheater and dining hall. Open seating at tables of six to twelve in the dining hall made it theoretically possible to have a meal with nearly everyone attending.

Speakers and topics.

The plenary sessions were led by connoisseurs of fine bookbinding: Michele Laurent from the Bibliothèque Municipale of Riom; Jean Toulet, recently retired from the Bibliothèque Nationale; Jacques Quentin, rare book dealer from Geneva; Emile Van der Vekene, Conservator of Rare Books at the Bibliothèque Nationale of Luxemburg; and Jan Storm van Leeuwen, conservator at the Bibliothèque Royale in The Hague. They presented their, sometimes quite different, viewpoints about the nature and future of fine bookbinding.

Presentation/demonstrations were given in smaller groups and included: techniques of decoration by Noir of France; sculptural book structures by Dahlstedt of Sweden; marbling by Doizy of France; the quest for different material, worked plexiglass bindings by Frère Claes of Belgium; visible sewing on soft structure by Drapeau of Canada; a new method of leather collages by Evrard of France; gaufrage of leather by Kriisa of Estonia; experiments with paper by Rousseau (president of AIR neuf) of France; and coptic structure for 21st century bindings by Sonnichsen of the U.S., to name just a few.

Evening debates were preceded by remarks serving to set the nature of the discussion to follow: systems of teaching bookbinding, chaired by Pascal Fulacher of Art & Metiers du Livre; what books are being bound today - how- what will be the book of tomorrow?, chaired by Sun Evrard; and structure versus decorations, an especially lively discussion, preceded by Stéphane Ipert's new system of classification of structures and chaired by Florent Rousseau.

Format and pacing.

Breakfast was served between 7 and 8:30, followed by a plenary meeting in the amphitheater from 9 to 10. After a coffee break, demonstrations were given, (theoretically) lasting an hour each. The hour between the demonstrations and lunch left time to explore three other areas of interest (described below), review notes from the demonstration, chat with friends, or take a short nap. Lunch ended at two, followed by demonstrations from 2:30 to 3:30, and again from 4 to 5. A plenary session from 6 to 7 was followed by dinner from 7:30 to 9, at which point all participants joined in the amphitheater for a short presentation, followed by debate open to all.

Elements outside the presentations.

Between formal sessions, participants had several different areas to explore (in addition to those of the château grounds). Calligrapher Franck Lalou made a book during the Congrés, and his studio was open to all who wanted to watch the work in process. One part of the amphitheater was set aside for short exhibitions: unusual student work from the bookbinding school in Leksand, Sweden; the experimental exhibition, "Containers for Intragrammes"; bindings done for In Witness, by P. Riou, from the Riom Library; twenty bindings by Carmencho Arregui; and, on the last day, the book made during the Congrés by Franck Lalou. One room was set aside for vendors: Saturday featured displays of fine printers, Sunday featured displays of paper decorators.

The diversity of people attending.

Twenty-eight of those attending were involved with presentation of one sort or another. The cut-off number of additional participants was exceeded only by one, for an additional 91, not including vendors. Most of the participants were from France, however several other countries were also represented: Belgium, Canada, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Japan, Luxemburg, Monaco, New Caledonia, Poland, Réunion, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. French was the common language of the conference, with translation in presentation only from Flemish to French (ably done by August Kulch), and with a few questions during the debate from English to French. There was diversity, too, in profession, including fine bookbinders, restorers and conservators, antiquarian dealers, collectors, and librarians.


The organizers did a prodigious job of keeping all of these elements interlocking smoothly. The AIR neuf/Art & Métiers du Livre office was available to help in every way possible, whether with housing, official tee shirts, questions about schedules, or back issues of Art & Métiers du Livre. Each participant was given a white portfolio containing pen, note pad, schedule, a plan of the building, and a 132-page notebook containing full information about all aspects of the Congrés, including names and addresses of all presenters and participants. One other nice addition, Didier Foubert, bookbinding photographer and recorder of the Congrés, was also available to photograph individual bindings. Well Done!

Joanne Sonnichsen, 18 June 1996