Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Bookbinding Anatomy 101

Pass me the scalpel whilst I make an incision across the spine…through which to insert the needle…keep the bone folder on standby to ensure nice clean precision along the joints….

Bookbinding, I have come to appreciate, is a delicate operation. What better place perhaps, to learn about this skill for first time within the context of a medical library in a hospital?!

During two-hour sessions over a period of four consecutive Tuesday evenings, staff at Musgrove Park Hospital participated in making four different books under the tuition of professional bookbinder, Megan Stallworthy. The workshop, programmed by Emma Quick for Art for Life (the Trust’s art and wellbeing initiative), was part of a series of artist-led workshops for NHS staff taking place at Musgrove Park Hospital.

As a member of the Library Service team and a complete novice bookbinder it was my pleasure to help facilitate and attend these evenings! We were keen for the workshop to take place within the library as a way of promoting and encouraging the space as a place for wellbeing-based activities and thinking that learning book-binding in the context of books themselves was an appealingly romanticised place to do so. This was a context that had previously worked well in the bookshop from my prior experiences as a bookseller. By necessity the hospital site is largely a functional, sterilised or clerical-based place, so I would like to think for many staff that there is something contrastingly comforting about being in an environment surrounded by books. 

Despite my art background and years spent stacking, selling, displaying and shelving books, I confess to having never attempted making one. I know very little about the origins of how the physical part of a book is produced; like many perhaps, knowing slightly more about what is involved in writing the words and content. Fortunately for me, I was not alone! The nine of us taking part also had no prior or limited experience and Megan, the ever-patient tutor was highly organised in breaking down the steps needed to make each book so what at first felt like it could be a complicated task became manageably enjoyable.

Over the sessions we managed to make four books:  two variations of an accordion book, a single section case binding and a long stitch binding. All four involved various different techniques, each new skill demonstrated under Megan’s precision and expertise along with being equipped with the proper tools like the bone-fold, bradawl, waxed-thread, grey board, glue and papers that make a significant difference from being shown how to make something and actually producing an object that is something one will keep and is proud of. It was the opportunity to learn the meaning of terms such as ‘creep’ and which direction to cut/fold based on the grain of the paper to how to measure cover paper and spine widths, different techniques to apply glue (who knew?) and how to make a sewing template for stitching pages together. For the second time this year, I the reluctant sewer attempted to thread needles as I stitched the cartridge paper into my pre-measured casing holes. My resulting long stitch binding was rather shaky, but I had still managed to produce something that held itself together. My favourite to make though were the accordion books as these involved no stitching whatsoever and were more involved with gluing and folding techniques. With these books in particular I found myself planning what might go inside them and ideas for things I could write or draw.

I enjoyed conversations about the ‘hand of the maker’ involved in each of the individual books that we were making; how our own ‘imperfections’ of how we may have cut the paper or bound the pages together are not necessarily faults but characteristics or quirks of their handmade origins. Something of an anti-perfectionist myself, I like to celebrate those traces of hand and uniqueness that come from the handmade object that can never be recreated in the mass produced. I think there is a Japanese word, ‘wabi sabi’, which succinctly encapsulates what I am referring to here- an ‘acceptance of imperfection’.

Apart from learning a new skill, these sessions were also a chance to talk and meet new people, all of whom have different roles/responsibilities throughout the hospital from nursing to managerial and clerical. It was good to come together for a shared experience at the end of the busy working day as a group of people who were all eager to learn something new. We all had four books to show for our efforts and I for one can now say I’ve made my own book -in a library! Though I do not expect to be something of an expert when it comes to any future book repairs…

More information about Megan Stallworthy's workshops and beautiful handmade books can be found here:

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