Bookbinding Education: A Sensory Experience

August 15, 2023 By Andrew S. Holbrook, iSchool Graduate Student and Special Collections Library Assistant

Dear Friends of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Libraries,

I can’t thank you enough for the scholarship that enabled me to attend Rare Book School at the University of Virginia earlier this month. The class that I took, Introduction to the History of Bookbinding, was an outstanding learning experience and a sensory feast. Each day, we studied handmade fine bindings from the 15th through 21st centuries. Instructor Karen Limper-Herz, a lead curator at the British Library, guided us through the process of identifying and describing each feature, from the decorations on the covers to the sewing structure underneath. We learned how to distinguish goat, calf, pig, and sheep skins; how to smell for certain treatments that the leather may have received; how to listen for the difference between wooden boards and pasteboards; how to feel where endbands may have been tied down. All of our senses were involved in the process — except for taste. I was interested to hear Limper-Herz explain how she has used these sensory elements to make materials at the British Library more accessible to visitors who are blind or visually impaired.

In addition to detailed lectures and slideshows, we benefited from a number of hands-on activities. Throughout the week, we examined items from Rare Book School’s extensive teaching collection, gradually growing more assured in our ability to differentiate countries and time periods. We also visited UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, where we looked at volumes from famous collectors such as Jean Grolier and Madame de Pompadour, and watched demonstrations by professional bookbinder Amanda Nelsen. On the last afternoon, we tried our hands at using bronze tools to impress gold leaf into leather. I was surprised at how much strength it took. In addition to the precision and artistry of fine bindings, this experience gave me a better appreciation for the physicality involved.

I would like to highlight how much I appreciate that the Friends make this grant available to students like me who are just starting out within the field. My classmates included PhD candidates, professors, rare book dealers, librarians, and catalogers. Meeting such a wide variety of professionals opened my mind to new thoughts about where I may want to take my iSchool degree someday. In the meantime, what I learned at RBS will enrich my work at Special Collections this coming school year. I imagine that when I’m retrieving or reshelving items or assisting patrons in the reading room, I will linger to examine the bindings and test myself to see if I can identify their styles or materials. Even more than the specific topics and terms we covered, what made the experience of RBS so valuable was that it refined my eye and taught me how to look more closely and carefully. It’s no exaggeration to say that I will never see a book quite the same way again.


Andrew S. Holbrook