As part of my placement, I got a half day to learn about preservation techniques, by getting hands on experience in book binding. Leading the lesson was Nic Rayner, Conservation Officer at Archives+ – the archive partnership the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre is a part of. Nic assists the Centre by assessing the condition of new archival material acquired, and in general advises on preservation.
By my side was Hannah Landsman, a student at Withington Girls School, who is currently volunteering in the conservation studio. Hannah was inspired to volunteer when Nic was invited to her school to do a demonstration on how to handle books.
To prep for our lesson, Hannah and I selected the colour buckram archival cloth we wanted to use for our books. My decision was made quickly, as I opted for the colour purple to represent the University of Manchester. Hannah found the selection too tempting at first to pick just one colour, but went for a beautiful dark brown. After that, we started the process of binding our books.
Step 1 Fold archival text. This type of paper is supposed to last 500 years. Talk about longevity! This determines the thickness of the book, which can be challenging to bind the more paper you use.
Step 2 Select and fold printed end paper. These sheets are on the inside of the cover of a book, and though they are not as durable as archival text, Nic pointed out that you can glue end paper to archival text to strengthen it.
Step 3 Sew together the folded sheets with unbleached cotton thread. This was done after having bored holes in the centre of the folded sheets. The unbleached thread is stronger to use in binding. We all know how damaging bleach can be.
Step 4 Measure paper to decide on the size of the block (content of the book). Hannah used a lot of precision to make sure her book had straight lines.
Step 5 Plough with a lay press and plough to trim the block. For Hannah, this probably was the most fun part of the process!
Step 6 Measure and cut the millboard to make the cover. Millboard is a standard book binding board. The machine we used was the largest guillotine I have ever seen! It was safe and gave us a clean cut.
Step 7 Cut the archival cloth and adhere to the millboard to create the cover. This was set aside to dry for about 25 minutes. The adhesive used is called archival reversible PVA (poly vinyl acetate). Quite a fancy name for glue, lol.
Step 8 Set up type by selecting a font and size, laying out your words reading from right to left.
Step 9 Test a ‘pull’ of your letters using gold foil on the blocking press, then select placement on the cover to imprint text. The test is necessary so you can spot any issues like spacing and even spelling errors. Nic recalled the story of a volunteer who did spell their own name incorrectly. It happens to the best of us.
Step 10 Finally, glue the block into the case (cover), then press to get bubbles out and lay the book flat using a nipping press. You can take the finished book as Hannah did, or leave it under weight overnight, as I did.
And ta-da! You got a book!
Nic indicated that there are about 260 archive conservators in Britain, some of whom are book binders. For just over 30 years, he has been doing conservation work, though he is somewhat a jack-of-all-trades, doing everything from logistics, risk assessment to resolving IT issues for the office. And while he gets volunteers, he would like an apprentice or two.
I do believe it is important to pass on knowledge, and practical techniques like conservation that help preserve not only objects, but the practice itself. So why not learn to bind a book? I did, and I am already thinking of popping into conservation for another lesson.