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Posts Tagged ‘rare book school’

  1. Swell Things No. 35 // Brien Beidler

    July 31, 2016 by Erin Fletcher

    I so rarely get the chance to hang out with Brien Beidler, which is a shame since he is so delightful to be around. After first meeting in Las Vegas during the Guild of Book Workers’ Standards of Excellence Seminar, I’ve come to find that Brien is also so incredibly talented, so supportive, and so very hilarious. Brien currently lives and works in Charleston, South Carolina as the Director of the Bindery and Conservation Studio at the Charleston Library Society. He’s a Jim Croft enthusiast and proponent of historical bookbinding techniques and materials.

    Brien gave me the brilliant idea of inviting contributors for the Swell Things column, joking that his own would just be various shades of brown and not the typical vibrant colors readers are used to seeing. So the idea was planted and Brien is now the fourth contributor of Swell Things. His selections for this month are especially fascinating. His witty, yet thoughtful comments will entice you to investigate each pick further. And you will find a surprising amount of color beyond the hues of brown. Enjoy!


    1. An incredible combination of historical inspiration and contemporary setting, George Holt and Andrew Gould of New World Byzantine design buildings inspired by past practices and executed with solid materials and technique. The house in this picture, which burned down Spring of 2016, is even beautiful as a ruin, which to me serves as a testament to the timelessness of their designs.
    2. Based out of Charlottesville at the University of Virginia, Rare Book School is a one-of-a-kind academic wonderland for the book-driven flock. I just returned from an incredible week with the intrepid Todd Pattison where he taught the class 19th Century American Publishers Bindings, and I look forward to applying to many more classes in the future. Be sure to apply for the scholarships if you don’t have institutional backing!
    3. is a growing list of resources and research surrounding an incredible 17th century postal treasure trunk containing over 2600 undelivered letters, now located at the Hague in The Netherlands. Amazingly, 600 of them are still unopened, giving researchers and conservators an unprecedented opportunity to study the material culture of the early modern period by pushing the envelope in how to access the information without sacrificing the material that supports it, while also expanding their knowledge of early modern document security practices.
    4. Garip Ay is a Turkish artist who practices Ebru (what we would call marbling) in ways I’ve never really considered, and probably will never come close to emulating. Watching videos of him at work also give it a very real and substantial performance aspect. Thanks to James Davis for introducing me to Garip’s work.
    5. A medieval construction project in Treigny, France, where for the last 20 years (and for another 10 or so to come), scholars, craftsmen, and government funding are all combining forces to build a 13th century castle using only authentic materials and techniques. Now that’s a wall whose construction even I could get behind.


    6. Who knew that a tent revolution was even possible? A dynamic combination between a tent and a hammock, Tentsiles have opened up a whole new world of outdoor lodging possibilities. Soon any rainy camping trips will just be ‘water under the Tentsile.’
    7. Most of the time the only thought I give to flatware is just enough to make sure I have a means to get food from my plate to my face. Well, the ocean inspired pieces designed and executed by Ann Ladson will certainly change your whole perspective on what it means to reach for a fork. Her work is a true hybrid of function and art (the hybrid of those words, functionart, is not and should never be a word).  
    8. Living in a disposable culture gets me down sometimes, and so any time I come across someone who does their part to minimize waste is as refreshing as a slice of watermelon on a summer afternoon. And when that someone someone finds a way to make minimizing waste beautiful, it positively inspires me. With his breathtaking knives made from 100+ year-old saw mill blades, Will Manning of Heartwood Forge does both of these things, and it makes me glad.
    9. Becca Barnet, proprietor of Sisal and Tow Fine Fabrication, makes anything, and she means ANYTHING. From designing children’s museum installations, to painting fried chicken on tiles, to taxiderming fish, Sisal and Tow can make even the most boring office seem like an exciting cubicle to be in.
    10. The Lewis Chessmen are 93 late 12th – early 13th century Northern European chess pieces that were found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland in 1831. Aside from inspiring the Weasley’s chess set in the film adaption of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Lewis Chessmen have been the subject of much scholarly ado, and many interesting books on their cultural significance and materiality have been published. I mostly just like the expressions of the Bezerkers (pictured here) – they look so scared and human. I am not sure if I pity their state of perpetual fear, or envy their long and prestigious lives.

  2. My Second Trip to Rare Book School

    August 1, 2015 by Erin Fletcher

    During the week of July 5th, I spent my days walking the grounds at the University of Virginia and its surrounding neighborhoods in Charlottesville as I attended Rare Book School for the second time. This year I was pleasantly surprised by the return of many of my classmates from last year as we had all enrolled to take Jan Storm van Leeuwen’s Advanced Seminar in the History of Bookbinding. You can check out my post from last year here on the Introduction to the History of Bookbinding.

    The class began with Jan laying out the terminology that would be used throughout the course. As many bookbinders and other professionals working the book may know, terms regarding binding anatomy, design and tools vary from country to country. There are even multiple terms describing the same thing. For ease, Jan chose to use typical English binding terms.

    With each lecture, Jan took us through a detailed history of binding styles and design styles beginning mainly with the Middle Ages and moving through to the 19th century surveying several countries throughout Europe and briefly speaking about bindings in the United States. After several hours of lecturing and many pages of handwritten notes, we were invited to view items from Special Collections and tasked with creating detailed descriptions before comparing our own to Jan’s.

    The description process begins with an overview of the binding before narrowing the focus to each little detail. Using Jan’s extensive outline as a guide, I would note the decoration that adorned not only the covers and spine but also along the board edge, turn-in, endcap and raised bands. Attention is also given to the endbands, text block edges and any text that appears on the binding. Once the exterior of the binding is reviewed, I would then survey the endpapers and the book for any annotations and marks of ownership. The reason for such a comprehensive overview is to extract clues in order to pinpoint the binding’s country of origin and time period.


    The first binding I had the pleasure of describing was a beautifully tooled leather bound copy of La siege de Mets by Bertrand de Salignac Fenelon. From my findings I deduced that this binding may have produced sometime during the late Middle Ages in France. The Renaissance saw a Persian influence in binding with much more gold tooling. The most rewarding part of describing this binding was my discovery of very faint lettering on the spine. The lettering was blind and placed over the semé patterning (small repeating background pattern). This faint lettering confused me at first, but then I came to realize that the lettering was a result of the title having been tooled onto a label much later in the life of the binding. The label has since been removed, but proof of its prior existence still remains.

    Moving into the 18th century, I grabbed a fairly indelicate Cottage-roof style binding. That is to say, the design is quite striking, but not the work of a talented finisher. As a design style only found in England during the late 17th to the early 18th century it wasn’t too difficult to determine its origins. Inside is a calligraphic inscription: “Mary Sharland, Her Book, October 21st, 1766adorned with flourishes. In addition to the inscription were some unusual punched shapes (two dotted outlines of a circle seen faintly on either side of the date in the image below).


    One of the last bindings I had the opportunity to look at was an unusual bespoke binding from the 19th century which incorporates binding and design styles from the Middle Ages Germany to 18th century England. Lyra Germanica was published in 1859 and translated from German into English.


    The spine and joint have been tooled in a way that accentuate the raised cords as was often seen on bindings in the Middle Ages. The boards are heavily sculpted, another unusual feature for the 19th century but typical for bindings from the Middle Ages. The covers were panel stamped with a very modern geometric design. The wide frame with corner compartments is very typical in English bindings beginning in the 19th century.

    Before the course came to an end, we looked at a selection of almanacs from RBS’s collection as well as miniature almanacs from the collection of book collector Pat Pitsner (one of my classmates). Within Pat’s collection, we saw a few embroidered almanacs, one shaped like a ladybug, a silk scroll housed in an enamel case and a late-fanfare style binding with matching leather slipcase. It was a wonderful surprise and with each binding, oohs and aahs rose from the class.


    Finally, we took a look at a large sample of publisher’s binding after receiving a brief lecture from Jan. There were also a few bespoke bindings sprinkled about the table, like the binding on the right in the image below. Gifted to his newly betrothed wife, this binding is tooled over paper onlays in silver leaf that may have been mixed with other metals.


    I once again had a wonderful time at Rare Book School where I gained a deeper understanding of binding styles from around Europe during the late Middle Ages to the 19th century. It was such a treat to sit in on Jan’s class and to be exposed to his vast knowledge on bookbinding history. If you’ve been debating about whether or not to make the trip to Rare Book School, I would highly recommend it. You are guarantee to walk away with an abundance of knowledge on the topic that interests you. Plus you’ll be surrounded by charming book loving folks working in all sorts of fields and backgrounds.

  3. Conservation Conversations // An Additional Form of Documentation

    August 26, 2014 by Lauren Schott

    No one likes to think about all the little things (or, heaven forbid!, big things) that can go wrong as we work on our conservation projects. We are trained professionals. Our hands are steady. Our minds are sharp. And yet, as we work, any number of things could go wrong. A hand may slip as we lift adhered materials; a fragment may fall to the floor and crumble into a thousand irretrievable pieces. It’s sometimes intimidating to think about, but we all know in the back of our minds the myriad things that could go wrong.

    This, of course, is why we take the preliminary photos so often considered as “simply routine.” With them, we preserve a record of what the book once was. Imperfect though they may be, photographic evidence is better than no evidence at all. But what if a photograph doesn’t show just what we were hoping?

    I recently had the opportunity to fulfill the role of the William Reese Fellow at Rare Book School in Charlottesville, VA. The fellowship provided a week of class for a week of service to RBS. In my case, specifically, I acted as an on-site conservator for some of their most in-need collections. The class I took was Jan Storm Van Leeuwen’s “Introduction to the History of Bookbinding,” which coincidentally was the same class attended by Erin Fletcher, the proprietor of this blog. The conservation projects were wide and varied, as RBS’s large collection is intended for teaching students of the book with countless focuses and interests.

    One of the books I was presented with was a first edition of Joel Barlow’s The Columbiad—A Poem. Of course, RBS valued this copy not only for its edition, but for its binding. The binding was original; in full calf, decorated in gold and blind tooling, it was an exquisite example of early American deluxe binding.

    The upper board was entirely detached, and the bottom was in imminent danger of becoming so. The tight back spine was cracked and suffered redrot, and it was evident that a leather reback was necessary to preserve the book’s utility to the school. The danger of this treatment, of course, is that, should anything go wrong with lifting the spine, its beautiful panel tooling might be lost.

    I photographed the book before commencing work, documenting individual tools as well as the overall patterns in which they were used, and then I began.

    First, of course, was consolidating with redrot cocktail, a combination of SC6000 and Klucel G. This in and of itself revealed a new element to the book. With the darkened leather characteristic of redrot cocktail, blind tooling was revealed on the spine where originally it had appeared as an empty intermediary panel. I re-photographed the spine to document this tool, but it was difficult to make out even with a naked eye, let alone through the lens of my camera.


    I then realized I could make use of one of the techniques taught to me in Van Leeuwen’s class. This is something Van Leeuwen made use of frequently in his time as Keeper of the Book at the Dutch Royal Library in the Hague, and which I now hope to employ more regularly in my documentation. In short, he took rubbings of the decorative covers of the library’s books.

    Van Leeuwen uses an artist’s soft graphite pencil and a light wove paper he commissioned specially for the practice. He lays the paper over the area to be documented, plants one hand firmly to keep the assembly in place, and begins his work. Holding the pencil at a nearly 45 degree angle, he rubs gently horizontally, vertically, and to every angle. He changes the angle of the pencil as he works to capture the specific aspects he wishes to be revealed in the tooling, sometimes circling the pencil, sometimes pressing harder or softer. Varied depths and lacework lines reveal themselves in great detail as he works, rendering a copy in shades of black and white of the book’s decoration. Van Leeuwen takes care to note the book being documented, to what portions of the book each image belongs, as well as the date and the taker of the rubbing to provide a good record for researchers.


    It was with great excitement that I was able to use this technique in a real-life situation so shortly after having learned it. I experimented with various tissues intended for repair. Their soft texture and flexibility offered a good medium for capturing the imagery of the tooling that the camera would not. It took several trials to find a suitable paper that would provide the suppleness to sink into the tooling, yet not tear with the use of the graphite pencil, but once the proper paper was found and the rubbing taken, the image of the tool was revealed in greater detail even than could be seen simply by the eye. A satisfying result indeed!


    Having taken the rubbing, I faced the spine with solvent set tissue, lifted it in one solid piece, performed the reback, readhered it, and once again removed the tissue. In all, the added precautions of taking the rubbing were not strictly necessary, but it was a reassuring way to expiate the danger of losing this piece of early American tooling in its entirety.


  4. 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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.

  5. Rare Book School – Here I Come

    July 4, 2014 by Erin Fletcher


    After reading through 1,275 pages of content detailing the history of bookbinding, I’m ready for my week-long course at the Rare Book School. For the following week, I’ll be spending my days at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville filling my brain with even more detailed information on the history of bookbinding! RBS was founded by Terry Belanger in 1983 at Columbia University as an institute to support the study of the history of books and printing and related topics for scholars and professionals working in these fields. RBS was moved to the University of Virginia in 1992.

    I’ll be taking Introduction to the History of Bookbinding, which is a course that has been taught by Jan Storm van Leeuwen for over ten years. He is the retired Keeper of the Binding Collection at the Dutch Royal Library in The Hague. In his retired years, he continues to publish and lecture widely on the history of bookbinding. 

    While I’m in Virginia, the blog will be a bit quiet. Once I return to Boston, filled with greater bookbinding knowledge, you can look forward to a post about my experience at RBS.

  • 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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