Able to fix old books in a single bound

Students learn and apply the art of binding

A first-year bookbinding student patiently stitches together the pages of an old journal, using a bone folder to hold her work in place. She tightens the thread, examines a companion volume to gauge the tension, then pushes her needle through the stack of recently "washed" paper.

Progress is slow. But the work demands both concentration and care. In the adjoining workroom, a second-year student positions a piece of leather on the lithography stone, used by bookbinders because it does not dull the French knives used for paring and thinning leather.

These and other students at the North Bennet Street School (NBSS), located in Boston's North End, will spend the next two years repairing and restoring historically significant volumes from a valuable collection owned by the American School for the Deaf, in West Hartford, Conn.

The timing of the project is perfect, says Gary Wait, head catalog librarian of the Connecticut Historical Society and consultant to ASD. He had just completed a survey of the collection, including recommendations for restoring and preserving materials, when NBSS offered to help. The collaboration, from his perspective, "is a natural match."

It all started when NBSS's development associate Claudia Ayers discovered that the Frank M. Barnard Foundation, established in 1982, makes annual grants for special library projects. She contacted bookbinding instructor Mark Andersson, who, recognizing the educational benefits of a collaboration to his own students, identified a suitable partner for the project.

Having students work on a valuable collection, he explains, "raises the bar on the level of work that needs to be done." Repairing a historical volume is different from restoring an item picked up at a used bookshop. "Students gain a real appreciation for what a book represents."

The North Bennett Street School was established in the late 19th century as a settlement house to serve the social and educational needs of recent immigrants. It has since evolved into one of the premier trade schools in the United States, with programs as varied as locksmithing and violin-making.

Students who complete the two-year bookbinding program master basic skills, such as folding, gathering, and sewing, as well as advanced techniques that include restoration and conservation, leather binding, and gold tooling. Through their course work, they acquire the ability to evaluate problems, make judgments about what work is required, and develop strategies for completing needed repairs.

Their expertise is especially needed for the ASD collection. A nonprofit institution established in 1817, the ASD is the oldest school for the deaf and the oldest special-education facility of any kind in the United States. Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, the school's first teachers, developed the system of American sign language that is still used today.

Aware of the groundbreaking steps the school was taking, early workers saved virtually everything - from students' composition books to personal memorabilia of 19th-century principals and famous graduates.

In addition to its own records, ASD collected professional publications from France and Germany - some of these journals date back to the 18th century - and reports from its 14 "daughter" institutions - schools founded by ASD graduates.

The NBSS bookbinders will give priority to the ASD's annual reports, which date from 1817, and the American Annal of the Deaf, the oldest professional journal in the field, published since 1847. Because ASD has complete runs of both, the sets have great historical and monetary value.

Using skills learned as part of the regular curriculum, students will pare leather and dye it to match that on existing books. They will take books apart and put them back together, again taking care to match others in the series. They will also wash and de-acidify the paper - essential to the preservation of the volumes.

These conservation measures will extend the life of the books by several hundred years. Mr. Andersson estimates that his students will be able to repair about 36 books in the two years covered by the grant, but says there is enough work to keep his classes busy for at least 10 years.

As part of the project, students have already visited the ASD library. This firsthand look has given them a sense of how the books will be used by future scholars and how much they will be used - information, Andersson points out, that will help them "conform their repairs to meet the needs of the collection."

Ruth Dunnirvine, a second-year student, says the trip gave them a "better appreciation for how people at the school view the collection and how much they care about the books."

The advantage of the grant, Richard Homer - another student - makes clear, is that they have the freedom to give the books the attention they deserve without worrying about cost.

The repair and restoration would normally run about $300 per volume. Because students will donate their labor (the grant covers the cost of supplies and tools, shipping, and insurance), the final value to ASD will be about twice that of the actual monetary award.

The project "gives us an opportunity to do work that is serving the community," says Susan Barney. "We are able to make a contribution that we could not - as professional bookbinders trying to make a living - otherwise afford to make."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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