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Behind the Pages

The art of bookbinding creates a customized reading experience

The art of bookbinding works with both manual creation and restoration.
The art of bookbinding works with both manual creation and restoration.
By Connie Yan, Crimson Staff Writer

Look around a bustling cafe in Harvard Square and you might see more people clutching Kindles and Nooks than paperbacks. In the age of digitization, e-books and e-readers are allowing for portable, convenient reading experiences, and it seems that weekend trips to the library and the innocent wonder of exploring the aisles of bookstores for hours are rituals of the past. But in Cambridge—as well as across the world—a select group of artisans continue to read and print books the old-fashioned way.

Bookbinderies—craft houses still practicing an art form begun in the 16th century—are flourishing in spite of this trend. How have they maintained their success in the face of digitized literature? After all, what is the point of creating a hardcover copy of a book if the text can be found in an online database with just the click of a mouse?

Even before the advent of literature on screens, though, the art of bookbinding has flown under the radar and been taken for granted. At first glance, the concept of creating covers for books and repairing spines whenever needed might seem mundane tasks to the uninformed. Bookbinders at Widener Library and local bookbinderies acknowledge this perception—they all expressed disbelief and even incredulity when faced with the possibility of an investigation into their craft. “It is a pretty arcane field,” says Tim Jones, director of design and production at Harvard University Press.

Yet, bookbinding has shown itself to be perhaps currently the most resilient art form—although new technological changes have revamped aspects of the method, bookbinding itself has withstood the test of time. As long as there is a demand for specialized books to be preserved, the craftsmanship of binding will forever be relevant. And that seems like more than could be said about the creative design of the iPad.


Kate Rich, a senior conservation technician at Widener, calls the preservation and imaging department of the library an “underground hospital.” And for good measure—one can’t help but liken the vast, open laboratory in the basement of Widener to an operating room. Every year, 30,000 books go under preservation review and if deemed repairable, will systematically be divided up among the conservation staff of the library to be restored. As Rich sews pages back onto the spine of a book, she remarks how the sewing technique she is using is the same method that was used in the 16th century. “It makes you feel like a part of the tradition,” she says.

Rich, along with the rest of the conservation technicians at Widener, all try to ensure that repairs can be made multiple times, as part of the task of bookbinding entails fixing others’ prior attempts at salvaging books. Ann Antonellis, the preservation assistant for Tozzer Library and Cabot Library, emphasizes this point by showing ragged pieces of a couple of pages held together by Scotch tape and staples, which she ultimately duplicated to be rebound in a whole edition. “We keep telling ourselves, ‘They meant well,’” Antonellis says. In the event that a book falls apart again, it is crucial that the previous repair can be easily undone so that the book can be effectively sewn and glued back together. However, sometimes book conservators will leave in traces of the previous repair because these hints can reveal much about the book’s physical history, which actually allows bookbinders like Rich and Antonellis to preserve as much of the original book as possible. “It’s like remodeling a house,” Antonellis says.

It is in conservation that many of the creative decisions of book repair come into play.  Hand-binding and producing a book from scratch might involve more artistry, but the kinds of materials and methods used in the art of bookbinding are dependent on the final purpose of the book and the time frame in which it is made. For example, the Harvard University Press generally avoids using thinner cloths when printing books for libraries because the edge of a book can easily rub off whenever it is being taken off the shelf. Japanese tissue and wheat paste are commonly used components in repairing books, while acrylic glue and machine bindings are employed to create new books; it is significantly faster and cheaper for industrial publishing companies to mass-produce bestsellers using commercial binding. Additionally, materials used in manual bookbinding are extremely hard to come by due to limited production and high cost. But the expenses of bookbinding aren’t deterring publishers, corporate or individual, from carrying on the craft.


From a business perspective, the bookbinding sector is no different from other manufacturing and craft industries. Speed and cost efficiency are taken into heavy consideration in order to maximize productivity and profits, and a balance must be found between painstakingly laying the foundation of a book and producing at a rate fast enough to be profitable. “A modern binding line needs time and a slower process to make [engravings] extremely clean with better craftsmanship,” Jones says.

This sentiment is echoed by Peter Foster, who works part-time at Widener Library and also runs his own independent bookbindery,  The Brookline Bindery. Foster experiences the high demands of fine binding whenever he adds gold stylings to the numerous cookbooks, family bibles, and dissertations that his clients bring in to be restored or rebound. “Each binder has their own certain style [in] using different procedures to improve quality and speed,” Foster says.

Foster operates his climate-controlled workshop in the basement of his house. Having transitioned from a previous career in computer science to bookbinding 10 years ago, Foster and his personal business are proof that the art of bookbinding has by no means died. His bindery has been sustained throughout its history by the multitude of projects clients have brought in over time. Surrounding the large working table in the center of the room are scrolls of differently dyed vellums, sample books full of cloths and leathers, and an assortment of finishing tools used for gold engravings. “There’s a level of pride that goes into the work done,”  Foster says. He enjoys the craft because he has the opportunity to utilize his creativity in a productive manner. “Each project is unique because there is no recipe, and you have to design and construct on your own,” he says.

Techniques such as gold stamping help to add a customizable element to bookbinding. Rather than randomly attaching whatever seemed visually appealing to the outside of a book, around the mid-1800s bookbinders began to add simple symbols to the cover to make the outer design relevant to the theme of the book.  Crosses began to appear on the covers of bibles, and little insignias like anchors covered books concerning sailing. It was during this period that wealthy people began to view books as luxury items and requested bookbinders to create adornments on the spines of their books to help embellish personal libraries. Textual and symbolic additions onto the covers of books are now used to communicate the content of the book. “Text is no longer an afterthought at this point,” says Todd Pattison, the collections conservator for the Harvard College Library. “Before, the publisher controlled the appearance of the cover and used it to sell books and, as they say, to ‘follow the money.’”

However, much of the current aesthetic decision-making still comes from the bookbinders or publishers themselves. “Nine times out of 10, clients choose my sample designs because they don’t want to take a risk,” says Jeffrey Altepeter, head of the bookbinding department at the North Bennet Street School in downtown Boston.

Foster has also discovered this trend in his customers’ behavior when he holds design consultations. “I sometimes have to limit the number of color and paper options I offer, since they tend to become overwhelmed.”


Before these artistic choices can be made, aspiring bookbinders must first develop a broad foundation of skills in the art and become versed in a variety of techniques. At North Bennet Street School, which offers the only full-time bookbinding program in the entire country, students learn the basic procedures and fundamental skills of bookbinding over a two-year period. During the first year, students learn 18th-century-style binding techniques such as making composite models of traditional binding structures by sewing signatures—unbound sections of a book—to the spine. During the second year, students venture into creating leather covers for books using materials like calf and pig skins. As they gain more experience, many of the students usually try to implement what they learn into presentation work, making folders, portfolios, and gift boxes. Altepeter tries to make the course applicable, which sometimes entails allowing students to work on small, custom-edition projects for willing customers. The quality of the materials his students handle is also very important to Altepeter. “There’s not much of a point in making a cover if it’s going to be a throwaway,” he says.

The curriculum of the North Bennet Street School is focused on imitating historical styles in the interest of crafting books from scratch, but the biggest demand for hand-binding outside of the educational environment has still been in repair and conservation. “Bookbinders haven’t been involved in making books for a really long time,” says Katherine Gray, a conservation technician at Widener Library who studied at the North Bennet Street School. “Most students go on to do conservation because that’s what’s available after graduation. There’s a high employment rate for repair since the industry has turned towards making nicer books for bookish people, rather than paperbacks.”

Due partially to technological changes in the industry, the focus of the art form has shifted from making large editions of books by hand to working with books of a much smaller, personal scale. “Technology has changed our field, what drives our work, and what our work is,” Altepeter says. “No large volumes are made by hand now. That’s just not the way it works anymore.” Although machine-quality binding is faster, it cannot be used in conservation.


Contrary to expectation, e-reader technology and the higher productivity rate of commercial binding have not been significantly detrimental to the hand bookbinding industry. In fact, the people that are going to such bookbinderies in order to preserve their beloved books reflect a current trend: there is now a higher appreciation for the binderies among the general public and a greater emphasis on specialized, individual production. Independent binderies do quite well, according to Altepeter, since they are set up for the right scale of hand bookbinding work, which is not conducive to the “large-shop approach.”

Altepeter also firmly believes bookbinding is considered an art form, even though the underlying purpose for the craft has primarily been repair and conservation of other art. To him, every step of the process is entirely creative, from designing the shape of the outer boards to selecting the appropriate texture of leather in which to bind the book. Using the skills of bookbinding also allows creative binders to freely explore other projects. For example, Foster is in the process of creating his own book, a two-by-two-inch novel about an angel trapped in a net, presented physically on the inside cover of the book with webbing and a small paper angel. With the same techniques he employs to repair library textbooks, Foster is thus able to create art from scratch and produce an interactive book.

Additionally, most bookbinders have expressed their belief that people are now beginning to value books on a different level and to think critically about the books that were special to them and their families. The conservators at Widener Library say they have seen this positive change in their patrons and consider themselves lucky that those patrons are very engaged with the condition of the books they borrow. “It is a tremendous asset that our users care about the collections,” Rich says.

Foster also believes that the e-reader trend will mostly affect commercial binding because the materials that are typically digitized, he feels, are transient publications like computer programming materials. “The art of hand-binding will continue because people like the beauty of books. People will always like the feeling of opening up a book and taking the time to turn a page. With the electronic screen, there is a pressure to move along quickly,” he says.

Altepeter agrees. “My grandkids are not going to say, ‘This is Grandpa Jeff’s Kindle!’ They’re not going to relate to that. People don’t want to read certain things on an iPad, like literature or poetry.” The bookbinding instructor also thinks that the growing desire among the general public to reconnect with their beloved books, to treasure the unique experience that is reading and holding a physical copy of a book, has slowed the e-book craze.

“I want to think it’s a long-term phase,” he says. “I hope so.”

—Staff writer Connie Yan can be reached at

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