Bookbinding History, Conservation, and Craft

January 14, 2022
Suzanne Murdoch
Historic book being conserved



If you’ve ever lost your sense of time wandering through a used bookstore, letting your eye draw you to beautifully worn and bound books, you know the treasures to be found there. Books have existed since ancient times, used as primary vehicles to record history, impart knowledge, and entertain.

Each book tells a story, not just in what it contains, but in its journey over the years and the hands that have held it and perused its contents. Perhaps it was a gift from a loved one, or a book that has been passed down through generations. Or perhaps it is something once discarded but now discovered again as something special and worthy of care and a new home. There is nothing quite like the excitement of opening the cover of a book and turning the pages within. And the binding itself is often worthy of admiration—book bindings are often works of art in how they beautifully command space on the shelf and beckon the reader to come closer.

But books are also fragile, all-too-often victims of the environment and neglect. Paper and bindings age, weaken, and eventually fall apart. We can’t know how many books have been lost forever through gradual decline, and with them, valuable history and insights into world history and culture.

But it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Bookbinding is a unique skill that spans history, conservation, and craft. By restoring a book’s protective binding and the pages within, it once again becomes an invitation for readers to hold and discover it for years, or even generations, to come. Bookbinding is not a simple process. It involves specific hand skills including creating and repairing paper, decorative techniques, and fashioning custom bindings, some that often appear indistinguishable from the original. Bookbinding can also be an art in itself by incorporating unique materials, designs, and concepts.

If you love books, it’s difficult to adequately express the satisfaction to be found in bookbinding. Here is what Mitch Gundrum BB ’21 had to say about his favorite project: “I’ve always been into books. They’re like a physical representation of history. [This old dictionary I rebound] represents taking something that could have easily turned into dust and been forgotten, and now it’s going to survive another 200 years. I love that I was part of that.” And bookbinding isn’t just a passion, it can be an exciting and fulfilling career path for those who treasure books, history, and fine handcraft.

At NBSS, we offer a comprehensive two-year Bookbinding program that teaches how to make, restore, and preserve books and other printed media. An integral part of our teaching is exploring historic collections, and visiting conservation labs and binderies, to see bookbinding as it’s practiced. We also offer popular continuing education classes in bookbinding.

We invite you to discover the craft of bookbinding at NBSS. Get in touch to learn more.