Bookbinding and the Materiality of Archives

Bookbinding and the Materiality of Archives

Two handmade books created by the author.

Not to brag, but I made my first book the other day. Two, actually. Along with fellow iSchooler Itza Carabajal, I recently completed a six-week Intro to Bookbinding course at the Austin Book Arts Center, funded by a scholarship opportunity I found through the iSchool Insider listserv. It’s been an enriching experience—I’m now planning to incorporate a handmade book into my final presentation for another course, plus I have a bunch of fun new words to throw around. Kettle Stitch: basic bookbinding technique by day, hard-boiled Memphis P.I. by night! Crash: not just an undeserving Oscar winner anymore, now I know it’s also a small square of fabric affixed to a text block to strengthen it! Conservators prefer to use airplane cotton, which is also a thing! Fore edge, flyleaf, gutter and jig—surely my fellow iSchoolers will forgive me for loving this new hobby partly for its unique lexicon.

But apart from the vocabulary (and after informing my family that they can expect presents of handmade books at every holiday for the foreseeable future), this bookbinding class has also prompted some deeper considerations. I’ve been wondering: what is so special about a book, anyway? Particularly as digitization becomes a ubiquitous facet of the archives landscape—with more materials migrating online, more acquisition of born-digital records, and more research taking place in digital environments—archivists will have to ask ourselves what, if anything, is unique to the physical record, and whether and how that particularity can be conveyed by digital means.

The top book displays a deckle edge, meaning the paper is untrimmed. The bottom book has a sprinkled edge, achieved by scattering diluted acrylic paint over the exposed edges of a text block using a fan brush.

Making books from scratch, and learning the principles of their construction, has given those questions a new cast for me. I’ve always been into books as things in themselves, apart from the ideas they contain. I’m particularly fond of old books—the texture of laid paper, the smell of the leather, the kooky ancient typography and gorgeous marbled endpapers—I love it all. The aesthetic and sensory pleasure I take in books is at least part of why I’m becoming an archivist. While there are many exciting research avenues opened by the digital humanities, bookbinding has reminded me that books are beautiful in a way that an image on an LED screen simply can’t convey.

Considering books as material objects also forces you to recognize their durability. One of the books we made in this class used a rounding and backing process, which involves, to use a technical term, wailing on the spine with a hammer for half an hour. It’s hard to see books as delicate flowers after you do that. As archivists we’re often dealing with fragile and sometimes damaged volumes, but it’s worthwhile to remember that in many ways books are pretty hard to mess with. Again, I find myself comparing books to digital media, with all its unique vulnerabilities. If you make a book, and make it right, you can count on it lasting a good long time without much effort beyond ensuring it doesn’t get set on fire. Not so for a digital object, which needs a certain measure of constant TLC (updating file formats as technology changes, for example) to remain accessible over the long term. It might be old-fashioned, but learning bookbinding has only intensified my feeling that there’s ultimately nothing like having a book to hold in your hand. #sorrynotsorry


Bookbinding notes and diagrams made by the author.

Now that I’ve started paying attention to the way that a book is constructed, I can’t stop. I was recently working on an archival project at the Harry Ransom Center and came across a chapbook in the Nancy Cunard papers. Cunard was a British aristocrat and writer who started a private press called the Hours out of her Normandy farmhouse in 1928 (having purchased a distinguished Mathieu press and some Caslon type for a cool £300). The Hours folded in 1931, but Cunard kept the old Mathieu in a stable and continued to print volumes of poetry and war reportage throughout the 1930s. Shortly after the Nazis invaded France, a friend still living in Réanville got a message through to Cunard in England —Plus rien. All’s gone. The Germans had come to the farmhouse, and then the French police, and after that the looters.1 It was shortly after this that Cunard made the chapbook I’ve been looking at, to showcase nineteen of her poems written over the course of thirty years.

Handling that chapbook, fresh off my bookbinding class, I could see that Cunard hadn’t constructed it according to the principles I’ve been taught. She’d glued several strips of paper horizontally to form the spine, running against the grain, which decreases its durability. The cover had pulled away from the text block in the back. I thought about Cunard, far away from the ruins of the press she’d founded and the house she’d loved, cobbling together this little anthology of her favorite work. Six weeks ago I wouldn’t have had the words to describe it, but now I can conjure an image of her typing and folding the pages, punching holes through the back fold with an awl, sewing them together (using a kettle stitch), pasting the endsheets, cutting and fixing the cardstock covers onto them, and finally wrapping it all in a Japanese paper (purple with silver chevrons). Observing these details, it’s a struggle not to let my historical imagination run away with me. She didn’t have the Hours any longer; the printing press itself was a ransacked ruin. So she made her own book. She sat down and laid it out and sewed and glued it together, and when she was finished there was a book, where before there had been none. This moves me.

As archivists we are often caught up with either the materiality of our collections—preserving them, repairing them, moving them from place to place, reminding researchers not to lean on them, please—or the abstract value of them, their intellectual arrangement and historical content. Learning to make books by hand has forced me to reconsider the site where those two modes of relating to records come together: the material history of the object, how and where and of what it was made. In some ways my mediation on the binding of the Cunard chapbook means more to me than the (rather pedestrian) poetry it contains. That form of meaning—the story that can be told only through the physical object itself—is, I think, the genesis of the romance of the archive, the magical properties that we ascribe to historical documents. A strain of the classic Micheletian metaphor still runs through the way we talk about archives: that they are, in some fundamental sense, where history lives, the place where the body is buried, where the dead “rise up…from the sepulcher” to speak to us.2

Engaging with books as material objects through bookbinding lends itself to a broader engagement with the sensual and affective experience of the archive. Historian Harriet Bradley has called this a seduction, and like all seductions it can be dangerous.3 When I touch Cunard’s chapbook, I imagine her making it—just like the books I’ve been making!—and I feel a connection, a sense of closeness. I am seduced. How does that feeling shape what I can say about Cunard, the way I write about her life? Which histories does the archival seduction accommodate, and which does it foreclose? Thinking more deeply about the feelings and sensations that physically handling books and manuscripts evokes might begin to reveal how implicated we are in the histories we create, and the extent to which we are almost always telling the stories we most long to hear.


1 Cunard, Nancy, These Were the Hours: Memories of My Hours Press, Réanville and Paris 1928-1931 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969): 4-6, 196-199.
2 Francis X. Blouin and William G. Rosenberg, Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011): 25.
3 Harriet Bradley, “The Seductions of the Archive: Voices Lost and Found,” History of the Human Sciences 12, no. 2 (1999): 107–122.

Kate Orazem
Kate is a first-year student pursuing dual Masters degrees in Information Science and Women's and Gender Studies. Her current research is an examination of race, affect, and power in the archive and in archivy through the lens of white women's literatures of empire. Kate is interested in promoting dialogue between archivists and humanities scholars, radical collecting, and intersectional approaches to everyday archival practice.

Kate Orazem

Kate is a first-year student pursuing dual Masters degrees in Information Science and Women's and Gender Studies. Her current research is an examination of race, affect, and power in the archive and in archivy through the lens of white women's literatures of empire. Kate is interested in promoting dialogue between archivists and humanities scholars, radical collecting, and intersectional approaches to everyday archival practice.

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