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Art Seto has been teaching the binding and finishing course at Ryerson, one of the only ones taught at a four-year university program in Canada, since 2006. “I don’t think books are going anywhere. Print is not going anywhere. If anything, it’s evolving rather than disappearing,” said 57-year-old Seto.
His course shows students how to build a book by hand, from the cover to the spine, and is a requirement for all students who are in the graphic communications management program (GCM) at Ryerson. This program was originally created 60 years ago when Ryerson was a trade school. “Binding has always been a part of the print industry,” Seto said. “This is the art of taking a printed sheet, folding it, trimming it and making into something larger, making it into a book.”
Seto, who won the dean’s award for teaching excellence based on this course, started binding books when he took a graphics art class in high school. Since then he has put together hundreds, taught the business behind printing products and is currently a part of Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild. His first job was as a bookbinder at a large printing company where they published text books.
“There is a significant market base for this industry and it’s growing because of all the different things we can do with binding. There are so many different mediums of print,” he said.
The GCM program has eight sections of students, 21 students per section. The binding and finishing is divided between a lecture, which focuses on the history of books, and a lab, which provides students with hands-on experience.
On March 16, 1916, a German soldier drew a detailed sketch of the Verdala Barracks prisoner of war camp in Malta. This is only one of hundreds of images left by inmates from around the world in a little green book, the word “Album” embossed on its cover. A piece of living history from the First World War, it contains paintings of scenic landscapes, calligraphy, caricatures, even music. Exchanged from one man to the next, this six-by-seven-inch artifact is a symbol of the brotherhood. Its pages now frayed, the little green book awaits restoration on a large wooden table at the studio of Don Taylor and Kate Murdoch Bookbinders.
While brick-and-mortar bookstores close down and countless volumes are shovelled into landfills, the trade of book restoration serves as a reminder that some still value ink on paper.In their own small way, Murdoch and a handful of her Toronto colleagues help print survive.
Murdoch sees book restoration as a process of discovery. She reads passages in the books, examines inscriptions and notices the tiniest slip-ups made by the original binders. “A binder’s mistake is a sort of memory embedded on the text,” she says. Customers come to her with classic novels, popular literature, religious scriptures and other kinds of texts. Murdoch also mentors young students interested in this trade. Books written by unknown authors may not be worth much, but they can hold considerable sentimental value if they are gifts from significant others long deceased, family heirlooms or texts bound with memories. Among the thousands of books she has restored, the oldest is a five-volume Qu’ran from the early 1300s that has been in the same family for several generations. These sort of repairs vary in price depending on the hours of work put in, but on average cost around $120.
Successful book restoration is part skill and part luck. Old books are weak and unpredictable. They don’t always respond the way a restorer expects. It’s the book restorer’s job to understand the text and to explore more than just its appearance. As Murdoch talks about the possibility of ruining a book’s character, she gently flips through torn pages stitched together and strokes weak spines, admiring the original bookbinder’s craftsmanship.
For Murdoch, this process is nerve-racking. “Using scalpels to lift crumbling paper, matching colours and cutting through a broken text with a blade is all distressing. I lose sleep over these things.” Ideally, her work is meant to be invisible. The new should fit in with the old and faded. Most restorers stay true to the original appearance of the work because the beauty of the text lies in the fact that it is, in fact, old.
Polina Braynina, a second-year GCM student, feels taking this class makes students appreciate the original way of building, before everyone wanted things in digital form.
“This part of the program gives you knowledge about an almost extinct field and if you put it on your resumé it shows that a person is well-rounded in the field,” she said.
Though the price and functionality of ebooks draw customers in, scrolling down a screen doesn’t allow readers to interact with texts the way bound paper books do.
“There is something involved in picking up a physical book and reading it that transfers the words into your psyche,” says Joanne McNeish, a marketing professor at Ryerson University researching the persistence of paper artifacts. There are a small number of people interested in book restoration, and maybe that is all that’s needed to keep the craft alive. Surrounded by piles of books she has yet to mend, Murdoch remains optimistic.
“There will always be books, so there will always be a need for book restorers.”
Murdoch spends most of her days in a cluttered studio on John Street. She says the greatest pleasure and challenge of her job is working on assignments for people like Marylyn Peringer, 78, who brought in the little green book. Though it’s falling to pieces and desperately needs repairs, the seasoned restorer fears fixing its threadbare corners will erase its history.
“We enter the book,” she says, “and live on with the repairs in an anonymous way.”
Braynina’s favourite part of taking the binding and finishing course was making a cover for her book.
“All of the books were full of blank pages, the cover is what made your book different from other people in the class. I based mine on a novel about a girl moving from a small town to a big city. It was sort of like a journal,” she said.