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My Time at Rare Book School

July 24, 2014 by Erin Fletcher

Rare Book School uses the term rare not to refer to objects that are expensive and uncommon, but in regards to the object’s uniqueness and unusual excellence in artistic quality and craftsmanship. I would describe my experience at RBS as the latter sense of the word. The carefully crafted instruction that was delivered in my course by Jan Storm van Leeuwen was impeccable. His passion for bookbinding and decades-long research produced a rather intensive look through the long history of bookbinding.

Each day began with a stroll across the grounds of the University of Virginia as I made my way from the Brown College dorms to Alderman Library where the classes were held on the 4th floor. Which can be accessed by either going down three flights of stairs or taking the elevator down. Trust me.

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Once inside, we were greeted with a complimentary breakfast, complete with the necessary cup of tea to start off my day. These breaks between lectures became a frenzy of chatter as introductions were made and curiosity ensued. Any chance to mingle amongst fellow book lovers and discuss bookbinding for a week straight can only be viewed as no less than phenomenal. Amongst the sea of book nerds, were librarians, archivists, catalogers, graduate students, conservators, book dealers and, a few like myself, bookbinders.

I wish that I would have taken more pictures of the day’s events, but I found myself deeply occupied by either furious note-taking or mingling with the other students. Jan took us on a journey through bookbinding history beginning with the most earliest known bound examples up through the late 20th century. Each lecture was paired with show and tell a specimens from the massive collection held by Rare Book School.

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We ended the week with an introduction to Publishers’ Bindings, discussing the styles seen in France, England, United States, Germany and Holland. Below are some fine examples of French Publishers’ Bindings. The image on the right is referred to by Jan as a ‘Chocolate Box’ binding. The paper covers are printed and embossed before covering. A window is also cut out to showcase a small color-litho print. These prints were attached to several different titles and were not necessarily representative of the content.

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This rather small embroidered binding was one of the highlights of my week. The binding was so fragile and weak. The silk/satin had deteriorated at the board edge and had popped away from the upper (front) cover. This was quite exciting for me. For the first, time I had the opportunity to get a look at the construction of the binding and covering material. It was wonderful to see how the stitches were somewhat haphazardly applied.

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In addition to our lectures and show and tell sessions, we were tasked at deciphering leathers based on their follicle patterns and characteristics. It proved to be quite difficult at times to decide between goatskin and sheepskin. But as it wants, the sheepskin tends to turn fluffy and brittle, usually popping away from the boards

Jan also gave us a brief hands-on demonstration of his strategy for taking rubbings, which is something that should be done properly and with care so as not to abrade the surface of the binding. Using a thin sheet of custom-made paper for the The Dutch Royal Library in the Hague, we lightly brushed a soft, pure graphite stick over the surface in various patterns. The design of the bindings slowly began to emerge and as I worked the graphite stick from side to side, then diagonally and finally in circular motions, the finest details were picked up. Jan also demonstrated how to properly rub the spine of a binding and the proper way to label your rubbings.

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Now that I’m filled to the brim with bookbinding knowledge, I hope to take another trip to Rare Book School next year. If you have the opportunity to attend RBS, I highly recommend it, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the slightest.


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  • Visit My Bindery
    My name is Erin Fletcher, owner and bookbinder of Herringbone Bindery in Boston. Flash of the Hand is a space where I share my process and inspirations.
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