A Degree of Mastery: A Journey through Book Arts Apprenticeship

A Degree of Mastery: A Journey through Book Arts Apprenticeship

by Annie Tremmel Wilcox


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In this extraordinary memoir, certain to captivate anyone who's ever appreciated the feel of a good book, Annie Tremmel Wilcox deftly explores the artistry, traditions, and precise techniques of book making and restoration. Using excerpts from her diaries, newspaper articles, exhibit notices, and correspondence, Wilcox passionately recounts her experiences learning the art of making and preserving books as the first female apprentice to the renowned book binder and conservator William Anthony. At once rendering a gorgeous, moving scrapbook of her tutelage under this consummate craftsman, and expertly demystifing the fascinating technical processes of this centuries-old art form, A Degree of Mastery is a singular achievement certain to enchant book lovers and crafts- people alike.

"Wilcox describes the restoration processes . . . with such detail that one is left with the impression that he or she is actually learning the craft rather than merely reading about another's experience."--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"True bibliophiles will find it hard to suppress a frisson of excitement as Wilcox recounts the techniques she and her colleagues used to bring crumbling manuscripts . . . back to life."--Publishers Weekly

Annie Tremmel Wilcox earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa in 1994. She has taught writing for more than fifteen years and also works privately as a rare- book and paper conservator and teacher of book arts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780140291933
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date: 07/03/2000
Edition description: REISSUE
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.16(w) x 7.68(h) x 0.43(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

and Endings

A Circumstantial Narrative of the Campaign in Russia. This book has come downstairs to my workbench in Conservation from Special Collections because it needs treatment. It's not old—it was printed in 1817—and will be a good book for me to practice conservation techniques with. I pull out a treatment survey and report sheet and begin to fill it out.

    This book's major problem is that it doesn't have any covers. All that remains attached to the text block is the original leather spine of the binding with its label. The leather appears to be calf and has red rot, a condition of older leather that causes it to turn red and crumble at the slightest touch. As I examine it, the spine leaves leather smudges all over my hands. Since this is a tight-back book where the leather cover is glued directly to the back of the text block, I will probably not be able to save the spine piece. With luck, however, I will be able to remove and reuse the label.

    Next I begin to examine the text block. As I open it, I notice the faint musty smell older books often have. I can see that the pages are foxed (spotted with rust from bits of iron in the paper there as a result of the way the paper was made or sized). I will probably be able to lighten the stains as I treat the paper but not remove them. Foxing this bad usually doesn't come out in the wash.

    I page through the text block carefully. Facing the title page is a frontispiece—the stereotypical picture of Napoleon, lock of hair over his forehead, hand in his coat front. The foxing is worse on these two pages, and as a result Napoleon has a very ruddy complexion. The rust stains continue throughout the rest of the book. The edges of the pages are ragged in places, and the frontispiece has a tear that extends from the fore edge of the page down through Napoleon's portrait and goes just past his left ear and into his shoulder.

    The other major problem with Campaign is that the paper of the text block is very soft. The edges of the pages are slightly ruffled and torn in places. Whatever internal or external sizing this paper may have will wash away, leaving these pages even softer and more vulnerable. This will be a problem. I will probably have to resize the paper to strengthen it before I reassemble the text block. One of the primary things my job as a book and paper conservator entails is leaving an item in better condition than it was when I received it.

    I complete the survey sheet, noting everything I can about Campaign and its condition. Not only will this serve as my record of the treatment, but a copy will stay here in the Conservation Department to answer any questions someone may have later about the condition of this book before treatment. Then I take a set of documentation slides that show the book's lack of covers, its spine, the title page and frontispiece of Napoleon, and sample interior pages. Once I have finished treating the book, I will take another set of slides to show how it's been improved. I take a pencil and letter the pages that aren't numbered, mostly front matter, so that I can get the pages back in the correct order later. The graphite won't hurt the book or come off during treatment.

    Now I am ready to begin "pulling" the text block—the process of taking it apart for treatment. I open a tool drawer and take out my lifting knife.

* * *

It was a sunny day in October 1983 the first time I met Bill Anthony. I was busy setting type at Windhover Press, the University of Iowa's letterpress, where I was a student of Kim Merker's. I had been working there for three years, slowly learning all that goes into the letterpress printing of fine books. I liked the rhythm of setting type by hand and pulling freshly printed sheets of text. Eventually I hoped to become Kim's assistant at the press. I was the only person working in the shop that afternoon when he asked if I would like to go over to the health sciences library with him. A bookbinder and conservator from Chicago named Bill Anthony was bringing back some of the books he had worked on for the library's John Martin Rare Book Room. Anthony was going to show slides of the treatments he'd performed, and Kim wanted to see them.

    I had been in the health sciences library before, but never in the rare book room. It's stuck in an out-of-the-way corner on the second floor. When we arrived, a few other people were milling about looking at the books in the display cases. Kim knew who they were and went to talk to them. As I looked at the books, I noticed I was the only woman in the room. A slide projector was set up on one of the long tables. After a few minutes people began taking seats. I sat down next to Kim just as the lights were dimmed.

    The first slide was a before-treatment picture of a Vesalius, a mid-seventeenth-century medical book, that appeared to be in bad shape. The pages looked dirty and broken in places—not a book that could be handled easily. My attention was drawn, however, away from the slide to the man narrating. He appeared to be in his midfifties, a gentle man with a serious face and a soft voice. It was the voice that caught me with its strong hint of Ireland. This was Bill Anthony.

    I was fascinated as he continued through the slides. He had taken this book completely apart to treat it. I was only familiar with putting together new books. How did he get the pages apart? How was it possible to wash and dry a book? How did he ever get all the pages together again, in the right order, and bound? I was enthralled. One man off to the side kept asking questions. When the slide show was over and Kim introduced me to people, I was to discover that this was Dr. John Martin, the man who had donated a large number of valuable and rare historical medical books to the university and the man for whom this room was named. He had come all the way from Clarinda, Iowa, to see how Bill Anthony had treated his books. The Vesalius had been one of the jewels of his collection.

    The last slide showed the book, now rebound and covered in alum-tawed pigskin, a rich white leather, with tooled lines that crisscrossed in a diamond pattern on the cover. When the lights came up, the book was on a table in the front of the room. It seemed like magic that this book was now restored to a condition where people could pick it up and easily turn the pages without harming it. Dr. Martin and the others examined the Vesalius while Kim introduced me to Mr. Anthony, who warmly shook my hand. He had red hair, now going to gray, and wore khaki pants and a blue oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He smiled and patted Kim on the back as he shook his hand.

    I had just managed to tell him how much I enjoyed seeing his slides when Dr. Martin came up with the Vesalius to ask some more questions. Kim and I left, and on the way back to the press, he told me Bill Anthony was thinking of closing his business in Chicago. Kim was trying to convince the university that Bill should come to Iowa and begin a conservation department in the Main Library. Maybe Bill would even teach bookbinding classes.

    Kim knew I was interested in bookbinding as a sideline to printing because I was working a couple of afternoons a week for the local binder of the Windhover Press books. In the afternoons when I worked at the press setting type, Kim would often tell me about the Center for the Book he was scheming to create at Iowa. Having a bookbinder-conservator around sounded like a good plan. He had an idea about a young papermaker who might like to come and teach at the university too. I had liked Mr. Anthony and was amazed that he could successfully take books apart and put them back together again in better condition. I had no idea that there were people who did this sort of thing.

* * *

As I suspected, the spine leather is so rotted it comes easily away from where it is glued to the back of the text block. I slide the edge of the lifting knife under one side of the leather and slice the spine off in crumbling strips. Carefully, I remove the leather label in one piece. I'll clean the back of the rotted leather later. For now I place it in a labeled envelope so that it won't get mislaid.

    Once I slice and scrape the rest of the leather off the back of the book, I must remove the animal-hide glue that holds the spine lining material on and the backs of the sections together. It has dried hard, resembling the mucilage glue I had used as a child in school. When this glue is removed the book will come apart more easily.

    The book is already in the job backer, a large iron standing press that clamps the text block firmly so that the spine is facing up and can be worked on. I prepare a dry paste about the consistency of Cream of Wheat that has sat too long and heap it in mounds all along the spine's surface. The paste allows moisture to slowly soften the lining and glue so that they can be scraped off. The book must sit for half an hour, so I drape a piece of Saran Wrap over the paste to keep it from drying out too quickly.

    Later I remove the Saran Wrap and scrape the paste off the back of the book carefully with my bone folder—a long, slender, polished piece of bone reminiscent of a tongue depressor. The mull, an open-mesh, starched fabric that was glued onto Campaign as a spine lining, is soft now and peels up from the backs of the sections. Next I take the pointed end of my bone folder and scrape the brown animal-hide glue off the backs of the sections of paper that make up this book. It comes off in most places, but another application of wheat paste is needed before it comes off completely. Moisture has softened the back of the sections, and I have to be careful not to scrape away any of the paper.

    Quickly I take the book out of the job backer and put it on my workbench. I have to pull the text before the backs of the sections dry out again. I reach into one of my tool drawers and take out a pair of curved dissecting scissors and a pair of hemostats, the delicate gripping tools used by surgeons. I open the text block to the very center of the first section where the threads of sewing show. Lifting them up just a bit with the hemostats, I clip the threads with the scissors. Then I close the section again and, grabbing it gently by the fore edge of the pages, pull it away from the rest of the text block. If there is any glue left along the spine of the section, the sections will still come away because it is damp and soft. I continue to do this for the rest of the text block. If I tried to pull the book dry, I would tear off the backs of the sections, making more repair work for myself later. Since Campaign is so thick, I have to continually redampen the spine of the sections with a large, wet cotton swab.

    Now that the sections have been pulled, it's time to wash the book. I get out several white photographic trays that are large enough to hold the sections of Campaign when they are opened flat into folios—sheets folded once in the middle. I also get out a stack of wet-strength paper that is cut to fit these trays. This paper is used to support pages during washing and deacidification. It is almost impossible to handle wet sheets of paper without tearing them. Ordinary paper loses eighty percent of its strength when it's wet. Wet-strength paper holds up because it's impregnated with a resin that coats the fibers and keeps it strong in water.

    Since there is so much foxing and staining on the pages of Campaign, I half fill one of the trays with heated deionized water out of a sterling silver tap resistant to the water's corrosive powers on metal. Warm water floats more impurities out of the paper than cold. I submerge one piece of wet-strength paper and follow by submerging two folios of Campaign on top, watching to make sure the paper wets out completely. The old book smell suddenly becomes much more pungent. I continue alternating wet-strength paper with folios of the text, adding more water to the tray as necessary. The whole book takes up two trays.

    By the time I have finished with the second tray, the water in the first is bright yellow with the impurities that have washed out of the paper. I drain off this water and add fresh, repeating this process over the course of several hours until the water ceases to turn yellow, changing the water in the trays every half hour. Now it is time to deacidify the paper.

* * *

Kim's dream for the Center for the Book began to materialize, and in the spring of 1985, I was among the students in the first bookbinding class Bill Anthony taught after setting up the Conservation Department in the university's Main Library. My work with Kim at Windhover Press had led me to a job at a local edition bindery, and I was thrilled to have a chance to move beyond the simple types of bindings I did there to study with Bill. He had seemed very nice when I had gone to get his signature on my registration sheet. He asked polite questions about the job I'd had at the bindery.

    The class met on Wednesday nights for two and a half hours in a makeshift book arts room in the Art Building. We had book presses and workbenches, but no paper cutter. Bill had to bring materials to class precut. He had planned several bindings for us to do, and each class began with a demonstration of the steps we would do that evening. Then, as we worked, Bill moved among us answering questions and helping with any problems we had. It was a tight squeeze, and my first impression was that he was genial and easy to work with, although the lack of a paper cutter obviously bothered him.

    The class was an odd mix of students. There were two schoolteachers with fancy manicures and clean work aprons. There was Tom, the only male in the class, who soon became one of Bill's racquetball partners. And there was Nadine. She was a graduate student in the Math Department who was good with numbers, but not with her hands. She also took everything Bill said literally.

    For example, the first night of class Bill showed slides of a conservation treatment. The slide projected on the wall depicted pages of a book washing in a tray of water. Nadine asked if the spin cycle of the washer didn't damage the pages of the book. And what about the dryer? I knew from having been at various book arts lectures with her that Nadine had a habit of asking serious questions that seemed to show a complete lack of common sense. It was a while before Bill learned to ignore her and just go on with his explanations. Never before had he taught a class where he hadn't handpicked the students from a pool of interested binders.

    And there was Greta. She worked with me at Windhover, filling book orders and keeping track of who owed what. Expecting her first child, she grew in size as the semester progressed. One night as she was putting a book in the nipping press, Greta turned the handle the wrong way so that the platen of the press flew up instead of clamping down on her book. Bill was standing next to her, watching.

    "That's the problem with women," he said to Greta, watching the platen go down toward the book as she spun the handle the other way. "They can never screw right."

    Greta looked down at her expanding waistline and back up at him and replied, "Oh, I don't know. I think I've proved that I'm pretty good at screwing." Fair-skinned Bill turned a deep crimson and laughed.

    I had no idea at the time that this gentle man with his sly sense of humor was one of the most famous book conservators and binders in the country. He and his apprentices in his shop in Chicago had bound editions for the foremost printers in the United States. His fine, one-of-a-kind leather bindings sold for thousands of dollars. He conserved rare and valuable books for libraries throughout the Chicago area and beyond. Books like the giant folio editions of Audubon's Birds of America. I knew none of this. At this point he was just another teacher, although he was one I liked and respected very much.

    One evening we were learning the Coptic, a four-needle stitch that has been used to bind Egyptian books since the second century. Bill had explained the sewing pattern to the class and was facing me over the workbench, trying to guide me through it. Nadine was sitting next to me trying to thread one of her needles.

    Bill, finally frustrated at my botched sewing of the sections of the book, came over and made me get up so that he could show me how to do it. He took up the slightly curved needles and began sewing the next section of paper to the text block. But he got mixed up at the point where the needles passed each other, changing sewing directions, and had to take the stitches out and start over again. At this point I leaned over and asked, "Are you sure you've done this before?"

    Again he turned crimson. Then he laughed and replied, "I think so." He got the sewing started again, showed me how to attach the section correctly, and I took my place at the workbench to finish sewing the text block. Nadine was still threading her needles.

* * *

I stand the photographic trays up in the big sink to drain off the deionized wash water from the folios of Campaign. After half an hour, I lay the trays back down and pour a solution of magnesium bicarbonate into them. We prepare this buffer ourselves by bubbling carbon dioxide through two large glass containers of magnesium carbonate powder mixed with deionized water, siphoning out the resulting solution into plastic jugs. Once in the trays, the buffer is adjusted with the addition of more deionized water until the pH is around 8, indicating that the solution is alkaline. The folios soak in the magnesium bicarbonate between the sheets of wet-strength tissue for about half an hour.

    This is one of the standard procedures for buffering paper. Through washing, I have removed as many soluble acids as possible, and this next bath will deposit a buffer in the paper that I hope will neutralize any acids that remain in the sheets. Although it is possible to age paper artificially and see how well it lasts after being treated this way, conservation science is still too new to know how well such treatments will endure over the years.

    After half an hour, I stand the trays up again and drain off the magnesium bicarbonate solution. I carefully place the sets of wet-strength, each with two folios of the text trapped between them, on the drying racks to air-dry overnight. The next morning, I remove the papers from the drying racks, peel apart the sets, and separate the folios from the wet-strength paper. It amazes me to see how little the sheets have cockled in the drying process. Because this paper is so soft, the slight tear across Napoleon's portrait has lengthened during handling. Other edge tears will also need repair. But the pages are noticeably cleaner and less stained and spotted after treatment.

    I can feel how much softer the pages have become as a result of being washed and buffered. The sizing in the paper, put in originally to protect and strengthen it like spray starch on shirts, contributed greatly to the yellow color of the wash water and is almost completely gone. I could go ahead and mend the sheets and rebind the book, but the pages would be more susceptible to dirt and tears if left this way. It will be better if I resize them first.

    I make the solution for resizing by mixing a third of a cup of Methocel 4AC into hot water. The fine white methyl cellulose powder disperses in hot water but does not dissolve. I then add a cup of room-temperature deionized water and the mixture begins to thicken. Adding another cup of cold deionized water from the refrigerator causes the Methocel to thicken more into a smooth solution not unlike runny Jell-O. This is the magic powder that is sold by the ton to McDonald's to keep their shakes thick. I thin mine out a little more until it's runny, but still a bit slimy to the touch, and pour it into one of the trays.

    I place each folio of Campaign between two sheets of Hollytex, a thin sheet of spun polyester, and submerge it into the Methocel. The Hollytex has an open texture, and the liquid passes through it easily. Yet it is strong enough to support the weight of the wet, resized sheet as I lift it out of the solution and lay it to drain on a slanted sheet of Plexiglas in the sink. I blot each folio to remove excess moisture, carefully transfer it to dry sheets of Hollytex, and place it back on the drying rack. To do this for more than two hundred pages of text takes a very long time. Several days, in fact, because I can only lay out a dozen sets of folios on the drying racks at once.

    As the sheets are finished, I carefully refold them into sections following the pagination and my own penciled notations. I layer the sections between pieces of binder's board and weight them gently over several days, gradually pressing out what slight cockling has occurred as a result of resizing, but not pressing out the impression made by the type when the pages were printed. Next the tears will be mended.

* * *

During that first semester I studied with Bill, I began to feel a companionship with him I had never known with any other teacher. He had a deep love for his work that I found contagious. He was always enthusiastic. He always listened to his students when we spoke to him. Even Nadine was a valued and important member of the class, no matter how far from common sense she strayed. For me, it was like being in a room with a chocolate cake: I always wanted more. Late that spring I also discovered the great talent of this craftsman.

    In February, Bill had mounted an exhibit of bindings in the University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Art and Craft of Bookbinding. One class night in April just before the exhibit was to come down, he arranged for a museum guard to let us see the exhibit after hours. As we waited on the steps of the museum to be let in, I had no idea what to expect. Other than the work Bill had demonstrated in class, I had only seen the Vesalius he had treated for the health sciences library. I had no idea what other types of work he did. The binder I had worked for took letterpress editions and put them into plain paper and cloth covers a lot like what you find under the dust jackets of hardcovers in the bookstore. I was about to be enlightened.

    A guard wearing a gun met us at the door and let us in the museum, showing us where to hang up our coats and backpacks. Lighting was low except in a small gallery up the stairs to the right as we went in. Bill handed each of us a glossy exhibit brochure containing a brief history of bookbinding and told us to look around and let him know if we had any questions. Freestanding cases throughout the room were filled with books of designs and styles that I could never have imagined. I walked from one Plexiglas-covered case to another in a state of openmouthed amazement.

    There were conservation treatments Bill had done for the library. A fourteenth-century manuscript written on vellum had been rebound in a warm honey-brown leather with windowpane lines tooled into the covers. I wanted to pick it up and open the small brass clasps holding it shut to see the pages inside. Another one of Bill's bindings was a German book from 1687 bound in vellum with intricate lettering on its wide spine. It was held closed by tiny pegs resembling small bone folders slipped through alum-tawed pigskin thongs. A big book, it looked quite light in its vellum cover. I wanted to open it and see how the vellum cover moved in my hands.

    There were cases and cases of French and English "fine bindings." Bill explained to us that these were books decorated more artistically than the conservation bindings—usually in colored leathers with designs of leather inlaid and edged with gold tooling. Many were on loan from Dr. Samuel Rosenthal, a friend of Bill's from Chicago. A number of the fine bindings had been done by Bill.

    I was transfixed in front of a case containing a large book by Bill covered in bright green leather. On its cover were onlaid strips of bright red leather that formed a rectangle with a diamond interwoven with it. These were framed by two larger red leather-strip rectangles. Everywhere the red and the green met was a perfectly straight line of gold tooling. The colors were more vivid than any I had ever seen before on a book cover. I looked up to see Bill standing on the other side of the case, looking at me with amusement.

    "How did you do this?" I asked him. "How did you keep the gold line so straight?" As he proceeded with an explanation involving gold foil and things called "rolls" and "pieces of line," I knew that whatever the process, I wanted to learn how to do it. I wanted to be this man's student until I knew how to make books as beautiful as these. I wanted the whole chocolate cake.

    So I continued to take Bill's class. In the fall of 1985, he moved us from the Art Building to the Conservation Department in the Main Library so that we could have access to the equipment we needed. There were some new students (we had lost the two tidy schoolteachers—but the rest of the class remained). Bill decided to have everyone do the same initial project, and then let us each choose what we wanted to do after that.

    We started out by making three small quarter-cloth bindings with marbled paper on the front and back covers. None of us had ever done any case binding, which, unlike the nonadhesive bindings we had done the semester before, required using adhesives. We learned quickly that it was a bit tricky to keep the glue only where we wanted it. I enjoyed making these three books, all exactly the same except for the different marbled papers I used on their covers.

    Bill had given us free rein over the materials in the department, and I was often paralyzed by the choices. I spent most of one evening just leafing through the two drawers of marbled papers, each sheet carefully decorated by hand. They were the most beautiful sheets of paper I had ever seen. Bill finally came over and teased me about taking so long to make up my mind, even though I was still ahead of almost everyone else in getting my books completed. I was to learn later he didn't much care for marbled papers and almost never used them on his own bindings. He generously bought these for his students to use. Some of them had been given to him by former students and friends who made marbled papers.

    I responded to his teasing by picking out three of the brightest and wildest papers I could find. The first had fine veins of teal blue, brown, and two shades of bright orange. The second had a fine feathery pattern in glowing turquoise and green. And the third was scalloped in purple, sky blue, and white. But they were all made on base sheets of dark cream that almost matched perfectly the cloth I chose for the spines. My books turned out well and felt nice in my hands. And the colors made Bill wince noticeably. Many years later, I discovered that these vivid papers were marbled by Norma Rubovits, one of America's foremost paper marblers and a former binding student of Bill's in Chicago.

    By the time the semester was over I was hooked. The previous summer, I had quit working for the edition binder in town who did the Windhover books. I had definitely decided that doing one or two similar bindings was much more agreeable than doing two hundred and fifty exactly alike. I liked Bill's approach to his work. He was meticulous and didn't panic when things didn't go fight with our books. He simply helped us correct them, calmly and carefully. He said that there was no mistake in binding that you couldn't correct or redo, and I found that comforting.


Table of Contents

Beginnings and Endings1
In the Public Eye127

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A Degree of Mastery: A Journey through Book Arts Apprenticeship 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
clifflandis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although I'm willing to bet that folks unfamiliar with book arts might be confused or bored by this text, for those of us with a love for the craft, it is a masterful tale of one woman's experience in her apprenticeship--something that would-be conservators and bookbinders would do well to read.
JBD1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A neat little memoir of book culture from the conservatorial standpoint. Quite well written, and enjoyable. My only quibble with the paperback edition is that it's printed on horribly crappy paper and has yellowed already ... quite ironic considering the subject matter! Highly recommended nonetheless.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago