January 1995 Issue 14
Review: 'New Horizons': the designer bookbinders' conference
Oxford, 31 August -3 September 1994
The Designer Bookbinders' conference 'New Horizons' was a rare event - their last conference was 10 years ago. 250 delegates - mainly bookbinders and conservators, but also students, teachers, book artists and publishers - came together for four days to hear, see, learn and discuss book designs and book structures.
The conference was held in the Examination Hall in Oxford, a building with atmosphere and a number of large and small rooms suitable for the lectures. The programme was extensive: each day started with a presentation for all delegates, dealing mostly with contemporary bookbinding, book design and its development. A great quantity of slides illustrated the points made. Afterwards the participants were split into smaller groups to attend pre-booked seminars which gave opportunities for practical demonstrations and discussions in smaller circles. Quite a number of the seminars were given by conservators or dealt with book structure rather than design, which made it an important conference for my colleague and myself to attend.
I would like to mention some of the lectures and seminars that I attended. Hedi Kyle, a conservator and book artist from the USA, gave a very inspiring presentation on her book models. These are often non-adhesive structures, sometimes derived from historical pamphlet forms, at other times developed in new ways to attach textblock to covers. The combination of conservator/ book artist might sound strange at first, but some of the more unconventional structures can be very useful when looking for solutions to a problem, e.g. storing pamphlets or looking for non-adhesive ways of attaching the elements of a book.
Betsy Palmer Eldridge, Canada, managed to devise a system to categorise and demonstrate 60 sewing techniques in 1.5 hours. Gary Frost and Priscilla Spitler, USA, presented their company BookLab, an innovative enterprise providing library preservation services, limited edition binding and other book arts services. I was very impressed by the enthusiastic team spirit that came over in the slides; unconventional ways to speed up processes (e.g. paint rollers to apply PVAC (polyvinyl acetate) onto large surfaces) and their willingness to share ideas and information (such as a weekly practical training evening for staff; evening courses for the public and sending out leaflets on techniques on request). I also learned that the preferred way of preserving brittle books in libraries in the USA, instead of micro-filming them, is to cut the spine, photocopy the pages and bind them up in book form; the original leaves are kept as the 'mastercopy', and the photocopy is issued to be read.
James Brockman, UK, introduced a controversial new concept of the shape of a book. He noted the natural tendency of book spines to become concave unless prevented from doing so by rounding and lining. He also observed the enormous strain on the book structure when going from a convex round when closed to a concave one when opened and the damage that is caused by that strain. His idea was to produce a rigid concave spine from the beginning so that no strain would occur on opening; such a form looks strange at first but should be tried.
Finally I want to mention Dr Jan Szirmai, The Netherlands, who drew lessons from the medieval library of St Gallen where he had examined the effects of unsympathetic rebinding, as early as the fifteenth century, and the lack of under-standing of the mechanics in book structure. He also connected these findings to today's binding practices. His passionate appeal to treat each book with the necessary respect and understanding was answered with an applause that did not want to end.
Most of the lectures were very interesting, although the length of 1.5 hours for lectures and seminars seemed only appropriate for the practical sessions and was very exhausting in others. Many lectures were also disturbed by frequent difficulties with the slide projectors. For an otherwise well organised (and expensive) conference it was hard to understand why there were not any projector operators. Apart from the official programme an exhibition of modern bookbindings showed recent work of some of the binders present at the conference. There were also two lunchtime presentations and one in the evening.The area for the Trade Fair was used for coffee and tea breaks which in theory enabled one to browse, buy material and meet people at the same time, but left me feeling rushed and distracted, and doing none of these properly - especially as there were so many other things I wanted to fit in as well.
Most of the delegates stayed in college at Christ Church; taking our meals in the Hall at long narrow tables was a good opportunity to talk to other participants. A very enjoyable evening boat trip on the river completed the social side of the conference, a sunny evening after the grey drizzle we had had for most of the time. It seems that, in general, conferences on Paper and Book Conservation are concentrating more on materials and research, and book structures do not feature strongly. Therefore I found this conference as a whole very useful and inspiring, and I came back with a notebook full of ideas and drawings waiting to be tried out.