Bookmarking Book Art — “Materials and mechanics for book conservation” by Paula Steere

With the permission of the author and The Book & Paper Gathering, this essay by Paula Steere is being reposted at Books On Books because Steere’s observations about bookbinding lead to a closer look at works in the Books On Books Collection. Keep Steere’s essay open in this window, then open another window for one of the entries in this baker’s dozen to start:

Compare images in the open windows. Just as Gary Frost’s conservation work shed light on book art, Steere’s descriptions and explanations can lead to a greater appreciation of these artists’ works and others.

Thanks are extended to Paula Steere and The Book & Paper Gathering. Note that the essay is under copyright (©, 2022) and that any use and/or duplication of this material requires express and written permission from the author Paula Steere and the site The Book & Paper Gathering.

Materials and mechanics for book conservation: Part I. Engineering concepts for spine lining design

Posted on Thursday 9th June, 2022 by thebookandpapergathering. Accessed 13 June 2022.

What stresses occur when we open a book? How do spine materials affect them? What are we really doing when we stick things on a book spine, sand them back, and then stick more things on? On what are we basing these decisions? As a book conservation student, keen to learn, I looked for spine structure information in popular conservation and bookbinding literature, but I found no satisfactory answers to my questions. So I did what I always do when I want to find out how things work: I talked to a mechanical engineer. This article is based on my MA Conservation dissertation research at Camberwell College of Arts, London. I realised early in the research process that I needed the knowledge of an engineer, and conveniently, there happened to be one in my family. Lee McIlvaine lives and works in the United States, has 30 years of mechanical engineering experience and specialises in mechanism and structural design. Five years later, we are still talking about book mechanics.

Spine lining materials are fundamental to the action of a book spine. Yet, a review of over 250 technical statements about book structure, lining materials or lining techniques from historical and contemporary conservation and bookbinding literature1 revealed that many statements are unqualified or unquantified. For example, Middleton (1998) advises that ‘when enough layers [of paper linings] have been applied, the end of the paper is trimmed off’, but he does not specify how many ‘enough’ would be. Technical information can also be contradictory between authors. For example, Szirmai (2001, p. 275) partially attributes the functional longevity of existing gothic bindings to the ‘restrained’ use of adhesive on the spine. However, Douglas Cockerell (1901, p. 152) advocates giving the spine ‘a thick coat of glue’ when lining heavy books. Diehl (1980 Vol. 1, p. 190) states that the hollow back is ‘one of the most commonest [sic] faults of construction’, but does not explain why. On the other hand, Middleton (1963) simply reports the historical use of recessed thongs with a hollow back to enable more throwup; he does not indicate whether this was a good or bad practice. Advice in the literature requires some level of experience to interpret it, and some statements in the literature reviewed are even technically incorrect2, all of which makes the advice unhelpful for learners. I felt an immediate kinship with an anonymous author who wrote in The British Bookmaker that

Vague generalities may always be used by theorists in describing a process of work, and they may suffice for those who know how to do it, and are consequently able to fill in the omissions of the unpractised and merely theoretical exponent of the craft, but for those who desire to learn, or for those who, being practised workmen, desire to extend their knowledge, vague generalities will not suffice. (1892-3, no page)

Clear and reliable information about linings is greatly needed. As Miller (2010, p. 100) rightly points out, ‘linings can sometimes be extremely damaging’. With that in mind, the starting point for my research was the well-known article by Conroy, ‘The Movement of the Book Spine’ (1987), in which he describes a fundamental engineering principle important for bindings – the tension and compression principle.

Mechanics of the book spine

When any material bends, it has a tension side and a compression side (Fig. 1). Material in the tension layer will spread apart, while material in the compression layer will, as the name suggests, compress. This principle applies when a book is opened (Figs. 2, 3). A book spine has a tension and a compression layer. The tension layer consists of the spine folds of the text block (the folded edges of the text sections) and the material adhered directly to them. All materials placed on top of this layer are in compression.

Fig. 1 – The action of a bending object, demonstrating the tension and compression principle. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering

Figs. 2, 3 – Tension (A) and compression (B) layers: the tension and compression principle applies to any open book, regardless of the binding type. Photography by Paula Steere

When a book is opened, the movement at the spine folds is largely imperceptible, but its importance should not be underestimated. Too much movement could contribute to poor opening and structural failure. Each of the spine folds moves with some degree of independence. This localised movement can be thought of as a series of flexible mini-bends (McIlvaine 2017a), as illustrated in Figure 4. These mini-bends have different radii and are affected by adhesives and sewing. (Sewing structure will be discussed in Part II.) They create localised strain (deformation) (Fig. 5), and it is this localised strain that causes the spine to fail.

Fig. 4 – Imperceptible movement of the spine folds in an opened book. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering

Fig. 5 – Localised bending at each spine fold increases strain. Sewing and adhesives also create non-uniform stiffness; for example, adhesive shrinkage pulls paper down and flattens. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering

Linings also move, and these shearing forces contribute to the deformation of the spine folds. The choice of lining materials affects the extent of the deformation. Miller (2010, p. 100) defines linings as a support that allows the spine to flex ‘without the sewn sections parting’. While in reality we cannot eliminate deformation entirely, informed choices can minimise it. 

A fundamental aim of spine linings, therefore, is to minimise deformation at the interface between the text block and the first layer (the spine folds and first lining). We can achieve this by minimising the spreading apart (deformation) of the spine folds in the tension layer. Based on principles of mechanical engineering, the first step is to place a stiff and thin first lining against the text block to minimise movement. All subsequent materials, including further linings, adhesive layers and covering material, should ideally be less stiff than this first lining. This is not always an easy task. The model in Figures 6, 7 and 8 shows how adhering a stiff material to a flexible material affects the strain distribution in a composite material. Acetate, a thin and relatively stiff material, is adhered to a sponge (Fig. 6, 7). When the sponge is bent, the stiffness of the acetate minimises movement at the acetate/sponge interface (Fig. 8A). This interface is in the tension layer, and the higher stiffness of this layer drives deformation into the less stiff outer sponge (compression layer), as shown in Figure 8B. This is a simplified model of a book spine, which is also essentially a composite of several materials.

Figs. 6, 7 – A stiff material (acetate) adhered to a less stiff material (a sponge). Photography by Paula Steere

Fig. 8 – The stiffness of the acetate reduces (but does not eliminate) the spreading apart (tension) of the sponge at A. This can be a model of the spine fold – first lining interface. When the tension layer is stiffer, the deformation is driven into the compression layer at B, which represents the exterior book spine and covering material. Photography by Paula Steere

Of course, driving deformation to the outer spine layers could potentially damage the spine leather and tooling of a tight back (Franck 1941, p. 7). We also do not want to prevent movement entirely, as the spine needs to flex to some degree for the book to open well. The required degree of spine stiffness is also affected by other variables, such as the thickness of the sewing supports and type of sewing structure. Nevertheless, the tension and compression principle applies equally to all books and offers tangible criteria on which to base spine lining decisions. However, this is only the first part of the story. We must also understand the performance mechanics of the conservation spine lining materials themselves – paper, linen, cotton and adhesives.

The mechanical properties of spine lining materials determine their use

Research indicates that paper lining materials are not robust enough for book spine linings. In 1708, Zeidler wrote in his book on the philosophy of bookbinding that ‘The French do not care to glue anything on the spine. Some glue only paper strips on, putting everything slovenly over and believing they have come just as far [as putting parchment or linen cloth on neatly and exactly]’3 (p. 78). Szirmai (2001, p. 196) interprets these sentiments by saying that Zeidler ‘castigates’ French bookbinders for using paper linings in gothic books.

Conroy (1987, p. 4) supports the case against placing paper on the spine. He warns that paper is prone to breaking when stretched (due to tension) and buckles easily when compressed. McIlvaine (2017a) concurs, saying that while paper is a stiff material, it is not strong enough and is susceptible to tearing. Any imperfection would propagate easily. Paper has an irregular and random structure, which determines its physical properties (Corte and Kallmes 1961, p. 14–15; see Fig. 9). Its relative weakness could be attributed in part to this formation.

Fig. 9 (left) – Paper consists of randomly arranged separate fibres. Fig. 10 (right) – Fabric consists of twisted, woven and secure threads. Drawings by The Book & Paper Gathering

Fabrics tend to have a stronger base material and structure than paper (Fig. 10). For spine linings, the important properties of fabrics are tenacity (stress at break), extensibility (degree of stretch before breaking) and modulus (resistance to stretch). Tenacity is the term used to describe fibre strength; extensibility contributes to fold endurance; and modulus contributes to stiffness. These properties are determined by the fibre structure of the raw material. Linen is made from the bast stem fibres of Linum usitatissimum. The thick-walled, tube-like cells with small lumens or canals (hollow spaces) (Landi 1998, p. 22) are arranged in bundles, as shown in Figure 11a. Cotton, meanwhile, is made from the seed hair of Gossypium herbaceum and Gossypium hirsutum. Cotton fibres are very different from linen, forming single hollow and flat cells with a large lumen (Landi 1998, p. 21; Fig. 11b).

Fig. 11 – a: A cross-section of thick-walled linen cells arranged in bundles. b: Cross-sections of thinner, flatter cotton cells. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering

The thick walls and bundle arrangement of linen cells make linen a stiff and strong material. However, the thick cell walls lower its fold endurance and make it prone to breaking when repeatedly folded in the same place (UAL, no date), because thicker walls undergo more strain when bent. This is analogous to bending a piece of cardboard versus a piece of paper – there will be more damage (deformation) to the cardboard because of its thickness. The thicker a material, the stiffer it becomes when bent due to the neutral axis principle (McIlvaine 2017c), illustrated in Figure 12. This principle states that when a material is bent, there is no tension or compression at the centre line, but deformation increases with distance from this central plane. 

Fig. 12 – Neutral axis principle: when a material is bent, the centre plane has zero tension or compression; tension and compression increase with distance from this zero axis. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering

Linen also has less extensibility than cotton and will break more easily when stretched. Cotton has higher fold endurance than linen due to its structure: thin walls and a large lumen enable it to collapse on itself, reducing thickness locally and decreasing strain when folded (as per the neutral axis principle). These properties have been confirmed with data from fold endurance and mechanical strength tests published in the well-known books Conservation of Leather and Related Materials and The Textile Conservator’s Manual (Tables 1 and 2). 

The data in Table 2 shows that linen is, on average, stronger than cotton because of its higher tenacity. Linen also has a much higher initial modulus (resistance to extension) than cotton, making it the stiffer fabric and a good candidate for a thin, stiff first lining. The less stiff cotton is a good second lining because of its higher fold endurance, and can be used to reattach boards if needed (more on that shortly). 

In addition to fibre composition, the orientation of the yarns also affects the mechanical properties of fabric that are relevant to this spine lining design. Warp yarns (lengthwise grain, parallel to the selvage edge) stretch less (are stiffer) because they have a higher modulus than weft yarns (crosswise grain, perpendicular to the selvage edge). Warp yarns are more tightly twisted, and hence stronger (Hackler 2006), than weft yarns. They are tightly stretched during the weaving process (The Taunton Press, no date) to allow the more loosely wound weft yarns to be woven between them. I confirmed the higher stiffness of warp yarns by pulling the fabrics the same distance in both directions. Under tension, weft yarns stretched visibly more than warp yarns. Therefore, additional stiffness in the first lining can be gained by positioning the linen with the warp yarns across the spine width, which minimises the spreading apart of the spine folds. It is worth noting that the bias grain direction has been considered the strongest because the most fibres are available; however, in this orientation, the fabric also deforms easily, and therefore, could be susceptible to damage (Fig. 13).  

The properties of adhesives should also be considered. Conroy (1987, p. 4) says that an adhesive does not need to be flexible; flexibility is required only if too much adhesive is used. McIlvaine (2017b) further reminds us of the neutral axis principle (Fig. 12) – thin layers of adhesive are desirable because thin materials strain less when bent.

However, the adhesive must still be thick enough to be effective. I carried out adhesion tests on aero linen and aero cotton swatches to find the smallest amount of adhesive that still yielded strong adhesion between the two fabrics. A 1:1 mix of Evacon R and wheat starch paste (1:3 wheat starch to water v/v) was used for additional strength. A thin, medium and thick layer of adhesive was applied with a brush to clear acetate to serve as a quantity guide. The adhesive was then applied by brush to both cotton and linen swatches to be adhered together. The linen was positioned on the cotton swatches so that both the warp and weft orientations were tested in the direction of the shearing force. The cotton was not used in the bias direction. The fabrics were pressed with a bone folder and air-dried for a minimum of two hours (Fig. 14). There was no adhesive failure or obvious strength difference between the thin, medium and thick coats of adhesive mix when pulling them apart with my hands under maximum manual shearing force (Fig. 15). Therefore, the thinnest coat of adhesive could safely be used to minimise deformation and cumulative stiffness without compromising adhesion strength.

Fig. 13 (left) – Bias grain under tension deforms easily. Fig. 14 (right) – Lining design adhesion test swatches: linen and cotton adhered together with thin, medium and thick layers of adhesive. Pencil arrows show the weft (crosswise) direction. Photography by Paula Steere

Fig. 15 – Manual adhesive strength test: pulling fabrics to mimic shearing forces experienced by spine linings when a book is opened. Photography by Paula Steere

Putting the principles into practice: spine lining design

To review, for optimum functionality and durability, spine linings should minimise deformation at the interface between the spine folds and first lining material. We can achieve this by placing a stiff and thin first lining against the text block to minimise movement and keep the spine folds from spreading apart. All subsequent materials, including further linings, adhesives and covering material, should ideally be less stiff than this first lining. 

For the spine lining design based on this research, aero linen should be used as the first lining, with the stronger, stiffer warp yarns placed across the spine width from shoulder to shoulder (Figs. 16, 17). Thinner, less stiff aero cotton, with its greater fold endurance, should be used as a second lining to reattach the boards. (If the boards are still attached, a second lining may not be necessary at all.) To minimise cumulative stiffness in the outer (compression) layer, positioning cotton in the bias direction could be a good choice, since this is the least stiff of the yarn orientations. Additionally, all subsequent linings, such as the paper used to smooth an uneven tight back spine, should be kept to an absolute minimum, with thin adhesive layers throughout. For heavy text blocks, I use WSP and ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) mix (1:1) to adhere the linen to the spine folds, and I use wheat starch paste alone, without EVA, for materials in the compression layer (to reduce cumulative stiffness). For standard-sized books that are not very heavy, I use wheat starch paste on its own throughout the process; however, I have not tested swatches of wheat starch paste without EVA. 

When adding more linings after the linen (and cotton, if reattaching boards), check opening characteristics after each lining has dried thoroughly. Paper linings can be omitted altogether in some instances; for example, if the tight back spine is even, in a case binding, or in a situation where throwup does not require additional control. Keep in mind the engineering principles discussed in this article when deciding on the number of additional linings and the choice of lining material: the compression layer (everything after the first linen lining) should ideally be less stiff than the tension layer. Thinly pared leather, discussed below, can be used instead of paper for additional linings to reduce stiffness. 

Fig. 16 – Spine lining design based on the tension and compression engineering principle and the mechanical properties of spine lining materials. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering

Fig. 17 – The spine of a leather reback just before reattaching the boards. On the spine is the first lining – aero linen with warp yarns running shoulder to shoulder. It has been adhered directly against the text block spine folds. The fabric above and below the spine is aero cotton and was adhered directly to the linen to reattach the boards. Photography by Paula Steere, courtesy of the College of Arms Library, London

The  quarter leather tight back in Figure 18 has a heavy parchment text block, and I wanted to experiment with traditional leather linings because the mechanical properties of leather are excellent for the compression layer of my spine lining design: it is strong, but not stiff, because of the structure of its main component, the protein collagen. The linings in this image are made of thinly pared leather. I have used a graduated lining technique, which I was delighted to discover during my research, to further minimise stiffness in the compression layer. The graduated lining structure is attributed to Francis Bedford, a nineteenth-century bookbinder acclaimed for the ‘even strain’ (Anonymous author 1893, p. 58) of his bindings. The rationale for the graduated lining structure is that the stiffness needed for a book to open well at any given place varies. The centre of the spine takes the greatest strain and should be the stiffest, while less stiffness is required near the beginning and end sections of the text block (McIlvaine 2017b). Subsequent linings after the first one are ‘a little further in’ (Anonymous author 1893, p. 58), stopping a little short of the shoulders, as illustrated in Figure 18. 

I also adapted the graduated lining technique to the leather covering material to reduce overall stiffness. The leather over the centre spine folds is thicker than that over the beginning and end spine folds. This was achieved through tapered paring, as shown in Figures 19 and 20. A comparison of opening characteristics before and after treatment can be seen in Figures 21 and 22. 

Fig. 18 – The graduated lining structure attributed to Francis Bedford’s workshop. According to the author in The British Bookmaker, every lining after the first is ‘a little further in’, stopping short of the shoulder. The text block of this book was made from heavy parchment, and in addition to using the spine lining design described in this article, I wanted to experiment with traditional leather linings because of their strength. Photography by Paula Steere, courtesy of the College of Arms Library, London
Fig. 19 – Adapting the graduated lining technique to leather paring. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering
Fig. 20 – Paring in progress: the thickness of the leather under the central black line will remain as is, and the leather will be pared to taper towards F and B, which indicate the width of the text block. Photography by Paula Steere
Fig. 21 – Opening characteristics of the book from Fig. 18 before treatment. Photography by Paula Steere, courtesy of the College of Arms Library, London
Fig. 22 – The same book after treatment, with improved opening characteristics. Note that some of the improvement is also due to repairs in the text block. Photography by Paula Steere, courtesy of the College of Arms Library, London

In conclusion, exploring the forces present in a book spine and the mechanical properties of familiar book conservation materials has helped me to overcome the ‘vague generalities’ found in the literature. Understanding mechanics and materials enables the conservator to take advantage of engineering concepts that offer tangible criteria on which to base spine lining decisions. I discovered several hidden gems along the way, such as Zeidler’s ire, Bedford’s famed workshop, and, of course, that anonymous kindred spirit from The British Bookmaker for whom vague generalities would not suffice.

Special thanks to my colleagues at the College of Arms, Becky Tabram and Christopher Harvey, head of conservation, who encouraged and allowed me to explore these ideas while I was a conservator there. Their experience and knowledge of books and our ongoing conversations and practical experiments in the workshop were invaluable. 


1. I reviewed approximately 36 books and articles, spanning the years 1658 (in a 1977 translation) to 2017.

2. Technical statements in the literature were cross-referenced with a mechanical engineer, Lee McILvaine, for scientific accuracy. This research document is available upon request.

3. Translation by Isana Skeete (2017). No published English translation of this book could be found.


Anonymous author (1892–3) ‘Editorial’, The British Bookmaker, 6, no page number.

Anonymous author (1893) ‘On forwarding’, The British Bookmaker, 7(75), p. 58.

Cockerell, D. (1901) Bookbinding: The classic Arts and Crafts manual. New York: Dover Publications.

Conroy, T. (1987) ‘The movement of the book spine’, The Book and Paper Group Annual, 6, pp. 1–22.

Corte, H. and Kallmes, O.J. (1961) Statistical geometry of a fibrous network. New York: Regis Paper Company.

Diehl, E. (1980) Bookbinding: Its background and technique (2 vols). Rev. edn. New York: Dover Publications.

Franck, P. (1941) A lost link in the technique of bookbinding and how I found it. Gaylordsville, Connecticut: The author.

Hackler, N. (2006) Understanding fabric grain. Rev. edn. Gainesville: University of Florida.

Landi, S. (1998) The textile conservator’s manual. Butterworth-Heinemann: Oxford.

McIlvaine, L. (2017a) Email to Paula Steere, 8 April.

McIlvaine, L. (2017b) Conversation with Paula Steere, 13 April.

McIlvaine, L. (2017c) Email to Paula Steere, 26 April.

Middleton, B.C. (1963) A history of English craft bookbinding technique. Hafner Publishing: London.

Middleton, B.C. (1998) The restoration of leather bindings. Rev. Ed. Delaware, London: Oak Knoll Press, The British Library.

Miller, J. (2010) Books will speak plain – A handbook for identifying and describing historical bindings. Michigan: Legacy Press.

Silverman, R., Cains, A., Ruzika, G., Zyats, P., Reidell, S., Primanis, O., Puglia, A., Anderson, P., Etherington, D., Minter, B., Brock, D., Zimmern, F. (2006) ‘Conservation of leather bookbindings: a mosaic of contemporary techniques’, in Kite, M. and Thomson, R. Conservation of leather and related materials. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, pp. 225–243.

Skeete, I. (2017) Translation of passage in Zeidler, J. (1708), 17 May.

Szirmai, J.A. (2001) The archaeology of medieval bookbinding. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate.

The Taunton Press (no date) ‘Grainline’. Available at: (Accessed: 16 April 2017).

University of the Arts London (no date) Sustainable fibres and fabrics: the first steps towards considered design. Available at: (Accessed: 5 February 2017).

Zeidler, J.G. (1708) Buchbinder-Philosophie oder Einleitung in die Buchbinder-Kunst. Hall im Magdeburgschen: in Rengerischer Buchhandlung.

Paula Steere has an education background and was head of Art and Design in a secondary school in London before retraining in book and archival conservation at Camberwell College of Arts from 2015 to 2017. She has worked at the College of Arms, the Wellcome Collection, the Senate House Library, the London College of Fashion Archive, the Victoria and Albert Museum and UCL Special Collections. Currently she is a preventive conservator, volunteer coordinator and grant writer at the Hershey History Centre, a nonprofit museum in Pennsylvania, US. She is also a book conservator in private practice.

Books On Books Collection – Ken Botnick

“How does a book reflect a distinct way of thinking about a subject? How does the page become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas?” So begins the description for a workshop run by Ken Botnick in 2017. His two works in the Books On Books Collection answer those questions with a resounding “This is how“.

Table of Contents (2020)

Table of Contents (2021)
Ken Botnick
Slipcased, boards with exposed sewn binding. Slipcase: H270 x W170 mm; Book: H265 xW185 mm, 56 pages.
Edition of 20, of which this is #5. Acquired from the artist, 3 May 2022.
Photos: Courtesy of the artist; Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Table of Contents has no table of contents. Instead the whole book is a meditation on a table of contents — that of James J. Gibson’s The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966). On the inside cover, Botnick characterizes Table of Contents as a “book-length visual/textual poem” and identifies the cento as its model. Cento is short for the Latin centonibus (“patchwork”) and describes the technique of appropriating others’ lines of verse to compose an original “collage” poem. Rather than lines from poems, though, Botnick has appropriated text from Gibson’s table of contents and figure labels.

Here is Gibson’s complete table of contents:

Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, pp. ix-xiv. Internet Archive.

Here is Botnick’s selection of text:

Table of Contents
Compression waves from a vibratory event
How are associations between events detected?
The stationary information for seeing one thing through another
Radiation from a luminous source
The physical reality of speech
The diffusion of volatile substances
The development of selective attention
The superfluous appeal to memory
The consequences of inadequate information
The consequences of rigidity
The special consequences of light
Transmitted light and transparent surfaces
The structuring of light by means other than reflection
The structuring of light by alphabetic writing
The stable and unbounded character of the phenomenal visual world
The perception of chemical values in the sea
The inspired air
The beginning of a theory

But that is not how Botnick’s cento is presented. In calling it a “visual/textual poem”, Botnick is too modest. It is much more than visual/textual: it is visual, textual, auditory and haptic — and is so from the start, proceeding by contrasts and complements, provoking multi-sensory activity and responses.

First of all, the slipcase is more of a “slipsleeve” from which the spine protrudes for fingers and eyes to feel the exposed binding threads, the pattern of knots and the ridges of the gathered signatures. This is the sewn boards structure, credited to Gary Frost, more on that later. The spine and fore edge offer bright colors that contrast with the deeply black sleeve that displays three slanting parallel cutouts in the cloth, exposing the board it covers. The pattern those cutouts make will become a recurrent visual and tactile theme as the pages turn.

As the tightly fitting sleeve pulls away from the board-stiff book, they make a “shirring” sound together. As the front cover turns, the title page bows upward showing nine impressed parallel lines beneath the words “Table of Contents”, and when that page turns, it crackles and makes a shuffling sound as its edge drags across the following bright blue page.

Through that bright blue translucence, the pattern from the slipsleeve reappears but rearranged and multiplied into a zigzag spectrum of colors. The physical turning of the translucent page “exposes” that zigzag spectrum and the second line of text in this poem: “Compression waves from a vibratory event”. Gibson’s text refers to the perception of sound or physical vibrations, and Botnick poetically overlays this with his selection of papers and introduction of zigzag waves of color. The zigzag pattern and its rounded elements, which on some pages are scattered, elongated, cross-hatched or sharp-edged, contribute a recurrent visual syncopated rhythm through the book. Toward the end, the zigzag moves into a more consistently vertical and angular, almost helical, appearance.

First leaf turned, second leaf turning, third leaf revealed.

Zigzag pattern scattered. Zigzag pattern become helical.

To deliver other visual and haptic effects, Botnick prints his translucent papers sometimes only on their reverse sides, sometimes on both, sometimes to the point of opacity as with the first leaf and other times to the point of transforming the colors about to appear on the next sheet beneath as with the second and third leaves. Of course, this changes the feel of the sheet from one side to the other. Botnick also uses six different paper types (including one with a watermark designed for this edition and made at Dieu Donné Paper). The variety in printing and papers introduces additional tactile and visual rhythms: slick and matte, smooth and rough, dark and light, etc. Again, proceeding by contrasts and complements, provoking multi-sensory activity and responses.

Visual effects achieved by printing on both sides of translucent paper layered over fine print paper.

Visual effects achieved by printing translucent paper to near opacity on one side, spot printing on the other side and layering that sheet over a translucent paper printed on one side.

Variation of paper types.

The sewn boards structure, executed by Emdash studio member Robin Siddall, offers the most effective means of achieving the sensory effects intended with the variety of papers, ink colors and printing techniques, as well as delivering a lay-flat binding. Each four-page signature consists of two separate sheets glued to the inner edges of a narrow folded card (the board) sewn and linked to the boards of the signatures before and after. The card used for those hinges is a Japanese washi called Moriki, known for its folding strength and colors, but how particularly apt those multiple hinges and colors are for this patchwork poem.

Detail of an open signature exposing the thread sewn through the board and showing the leaves glued to the edges of the board.

Gibson defines the haptic system as that “by which animals and men are literally in touch with the environment” (p.97). On the penultimate double-page spread, Botnick reveals the environment that touched his “book-length visual/textual poem” into existence: one of pandemic, isolation, violent exposure of institutionalized racism, the “Big Lie” and insurrection. Set in the now familiar zigzag pattern, the revelatory text annotates the lines of appropriated text and the prints, connecting both with the environment and the meditation on perception. Botnick’s book is certainly a distinctive interweaving way of thinking about these threads.

It is telling that Table of Contents ends with black and gray, the colors that dominate the other work in the collection: Diderot Project (2015), which presents this pronouncement from Odilon Redon:

Even without the prismatic range of colors in Table of Contents, Botnick’s Diderot Project (2015) may outstrip the former in the number of ways in which Botnick makes not only the page but also the codex itself “become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas”.

Diderot Project (2015)

Diderot Project (2015)
Ken Botnick
H290 x W194 mm, 150 pages. Edition of 70, of which this is #32. Acquired from the artist,
Photos: Courtesy of the artist; Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Clearly, like Table of Contents, this work is a “book-length visual/textual poem”, so it offers some insights on the book artist’s favorite rhymes, rhythms, metaphors, techniques and themes. First and foremost is his taking a literary work as his muse. With Table of Contents, it is James J. Gibson’s psychology book; in this case, it is Denis Diderot’s multi-volume Encyclopédie (Encyclopedia), a decades-long project with Jean le Rond d’Alembert and 138 other contributors. Nodding to the multiple volumes of the Encyclopedia, the artist refers to the sections of his work as Volumes 1, 2 and 3, although they are bound as one binding. The three volumes’ titles follow the Encyclopedia‘s overarching categories in its “System of Human Knowledge”: Memory, Reason, and Imagination. Digitally captured images from the Encyclopedia‘s plate volumes abound.

Table of Contents

Diderot Project, however, is not a condensed version or description of the Encyclopedia. Like literary works of ekphrasis whose words meditate on a visual object, Diderot Project is book art that meditates — inversely — on a literary work. The cover to Diderot Project does not show its name where the title is expected, rather it shows the name of its object of meditation. And it displays that name in a distinctive monumental way.

The front cover’s silver slab serif italic letters in all caps on textured, triple-dyed flax paper and the back cover’s diagram in the same palette strike chords that reverberate throughout the work. The chords are both obvious and subtle. Immediately, with a pattern of silver-gray compasses and directional stars, the doublures repeat the cover’s black and silver notes but on a less textured paper. Curiously the fly leaves of the doublures are not really fly leaves because they are pasted at their fore edges to separate leaves of black paper: a subtle hint to look beneath the surface, inquire into the mechanics. (An irresistible side note on the mechanics of the binding: the binder Daniel E. Kelm, in tipping the black fly leaf to the outer printed one, extends the fly leaf further into the book as a tipped-on hinge inserted through the first two signatures. The detailed image below on the right shows the hinging edge of the fly leaf between the signatures.)

L-R: Inside back cover, doublure with compass and directional star motif; Inside front cover, doublure leaf anchored to fly leaf; Binding detailed view of hinging edge of fly leaf extending between signatures.

Following that almost-Chinese fold of a flyleaf, the half-title drops any pretense of hinting. Turning the half-title with its 3×4 grid of black, brown, tan and gray squares on translucent paper reveals that the squares have been created by printing in silver, copper, light brown tint and no ink on the reverse. Underneath the half-title leaf lies another black page with the recurring silver-gray image of four buckets linked by their handles. The pattern of buckets is parallel to the interlinked image of compass and directional star on the doublures. It is another subtle hint: this time, to look at patterns for their similarities and differences arising from the mechanics of effects, to consider the commonality of tools whether at the low or high end of culture.

L-R: Half-title on translucent paper; inked reverse of half-title and the interlinking buckets.

If this reaction to the prelims seems a stretch, then the following run of folios surely validates it. Not only does the text articulate the parity of craft and tools (métier) with art and science, the watermark hand gestures to it, then the watermark hand joins its mirror image “to tie” the knot of the binding thread, and then the second watermark hand joins its printed mirror image at the same point. These six pages enact parallels of similarities and differences.

The layering of translucent paper printed on one or both sides, which also occurs in Table of Contents, is another of Botnick’s favorite techniques. He has even delivered a lecture at the Getty Research Institute entitled “Transparency as Metaphor“. Botnick’s use of it in the sequence below invites the reader/viewer to meditate with him on “the nature of craft, tools, memory, and imagination, while provoking questions about authorship in artists’ books”.

Running across the four pages of the two leaves of UV Ultra Clearfold, the enlarged present, past and future letters call on perception, memory and imagination to decipher the name: Diderot, emerged and submerged. However large his name is cast, though, is Diderot the author? By bracketing these transparencies with an image of a manufactory or workshop and a crowd of listeners and observers with pens poised, Botnick evokes the other 139 contributors to the Encyclopedia and his own host of collaborators, including Kelm (binding), Paul Wong (papermaking) and, importantly the Emdash studio (Catherine Johnson, Ben Kiel, Karen Werner and, in New Delhi, Ira Raja).

Tools, the workplace and studio lie at the heart of the Diderot Project‘s second volume, which boasts the following complex foldout which in itself validates Roland Barthes’ statement from his essay on the Encyclopedia‘s plates: “The object is the world’s human signature”.

Sensation, perception and the natural world lie at the heart of the third volume, and here is another of Botnick’s favorite techniques: typographic distinction. The right-side up text on the verso page is set in Walbaum, as is every instance of Diderot’s text. The upside down text on the verso and all the text on the recto are set in Trade Gothic, as is the case for more contemporary authors (Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin, respectively, in these instances). Note how Foucault’s upside down text reflects the action in the image of the camera obscura, and picks up the theme of perceptual flipping initiated with the watermark hand in Volume 1 and Diderot’s enlarged name across the translucent pages in Volume 2.

Both Table of Contents and Diderot Project reward revisiting for this kind of close reading, close looking, close fingering and close listening. Close comparison and contrast as well because together they answer “How does a book reflect a distinct way of thinking about a subject? How does the page become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas?”

Further Reading

Notes on ‘Inverse Ekphrasis’ as a way into book art“. 17 June 2022. Bookmarking Book Art.

Artist Books: From Idea to Form – Workshop by Ken Botnick“. 18 March 2017. Lawrence Art Center, Lawrence, Kansas. Accessed 2 June 2019.

Botnick, Ken. 23 April 2015. Transcription of talk given as the annual Enid Mark Lecture. Smith College.

Botnick, Ken. 1 October 2015. “Diderot Project: Making the Book to Discover my Subject“. Boston Athenaeum. Video. Accessed 1 June 2019.

Diderot, D., & Alembert, J. L. R. 1967. Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences des arts et des métiers. Stuttgart- Bad Cannstatt: Friedrich Fromann.

Frost, Gary. 2012. Adventures in Book Preservation. Coralville, IA: Iowa Book Works. See “Sewn Board Bookbinding More than a Thousand Years Later”.

Gibson, James J. 1966. The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gibson, James Jerome. 1950. The Perception of the Visual World. [With illustrations]. Riverside Press: Cambridge, Mass.

“Jim Blaine and His Grandfather’s Ram” – Or How to Enjoy Codex VII

The seventh biennial Codex book fair and symposium in Berkeley and Richmond, California have come to a close. Of what use it is now to explain how to enjoy them, you be the judge. Your first step is to read the story in Mark Twain’s Roughing It of “Jim Blaine and His Grandfather’s Ram”. Being the story of a story — book art being so self-reflexive and all — it is the best way to commence:

Every now and then, in these days, the boys used to tell me I ought to get one Jim Blaine to tell me the stirring story of his grandfather’s old ram—but they always added that I must not mention the matter unless Jim was drunk at the time—just comfortably and sociably drunk.

Not to advise drink before the fair.

For the start of this Codex, rain and mist hover outside the hangar. The polished concrete floor looks wet but isn’t — so first-time visitors step to avoid slips that won’t really occur. The old-timers though stride from table to table arms wide, bussing each other on the cheek or humping crates around and placing and re-placing their works for the right effect. Arriving early to watch adds a certain enjoyment.

At last, one evening I hurried to his cabin, for I learned that this time his situation was such that … he was tranquilly, serenely, symmetrically drunk—not a hiccup to mar his voice, not a cloud upon his brain thick enough to obscure his memory. As I entered, he was sitting upon an empty powder- keg, with a clay pipe in one hand and the other raised to command silence. … On the pine table stood a candle, and its dim light revealed “the boys” sitting here and there on bunks, candle-boxes, powder-kegs, etc. They said: “Sh—! Don’t speak—he’s going to commence.”

‘I don’t reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more bullier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois—got him of a man by the name of Yates—Bill Yates—maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon—Baptist—and he was a rustler, too; a man had to get up ruther early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved west.

‘Seth Green was prob’ly the pick of the flock; he married a Wilkerson—Sarah Wilkerson—good cretur, she was—one of the likeliest heifers that was ever raised in old Stoddard, everybody said that knowed her. She could heft a bar’l of flour as easy as I can flirt a flapjack. And spin? Don’t mention it! Independent? Humph! When Sile Hawkins come a browsing around her, she let him know that for all his tin he couldn’t trot in harness alongside of her. You see, Sile Hawkins was—no, it warn’t Sile Hawkins, after all—it was a galoot by the name of Filkins—I disremember his first name; but he was a stump—come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary …

Which reminds me of Emily Martin and her politically biting King Leer

King Leer: A Tragedy in Five Puppets (2018)
Emily Martin

There is plenty more somber work to go around: Lorena Velázquez from Mexico has followed up her powerful Cuarenta y tres with Exit, her hope in our turbulent times;

Barcelona’s Ximena Perez Grobet has 2.10.1968-2018 on display, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City; Sue Anderson and Gwen Harrison from Australia offer Phantomwise Flew the Black Cockatoo, an indictment of a cruel welfare system; and there is Islam Aly from Egypt with Inception, Bedaya, inspired by stories and journeys of refugees. Book art everywhere wears its heart on its cover.

Still, book artists are a convivial bunch and cheerful in their internationality. On Monday evening, Mary Heebner (Simplemente Maria Press) and her husband photographer Macduff Everton are in the Berkeley City Club’s off-limits members’ room settling down to a bottle of Santa Barbara red, and here come upstate New Yorker Leonard Seastone (Tidelines Press), Anglo-German Caroline Saltzwedel (Hirundo Press), Irishman Jamie Murphy (The Salvage Press) and Geordie David Esslemont (Solmentes Press). Macduff is launched on a tale about running into Queen Elizabeth on her horse-riding visit to Ronald Reagan’s ranch, when David remembers rounding down a path in the Lake District during an art residency to find Prince Charles legging it up the same — by which time Macduff has just returned from his room with a bottle of single malt — which reminds Caroline of a stormy weather hike along Hadrian’s Wall, where Macduff diverts onto a tale of nearly being blown off the same and making his shaky, near-death way back to a bed-and-breakfast for a hot bath and terrible food from the grumpy owners, which launches Leonard onto the story about his local Russian butcher/grocer/refugee who refuses to sell him salad but insists on providing chiropractic services one day and adopts Leonard as his only friend in the US with whom he can have true political debate. Jamie still wants to know why the Russian wouldn’t sell Leonard any salad.

Speaking of greens — Robin Price’s prototype for Witnessing Ecology: the agave plant book again displays that thread of social concern, but this work and Price herself draw attention to another thread of enjoyment to pursue: the recurrence of collaboration among book artists. One artist leads to another.

Witnessing Ecology: the agave plant book (2019)
Robin Price
Photo: Mike Rhodes

As with the now-famous The Anatomy Lesson by Joyce Cutler-Shaw, Price has joined forces again with Daniel Kelm on the agave plant book, Kelm also collaborated with Ken Botnick on the long-gestating Diderot Project on display here just a few tables away, Botnick collaborated with the novelist and translator William Gass on A Defense of the Book, who in turn with the photographer Michael Eastman — who lives over in Oakland — created the digital-only book Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time. Whatever the medium, the book just naturally encourages collaboration — and chance. As Price’s book Counting on Chance implies and as so many book artists echo — as does Jim Blaine —

‘… There ain’t no such a thing as an accident. When my uncle Lem was leaning up agin a scaffolding once, sick, or drunk, or suthin, an Irishman with a hod full of bricks fell on him out of the third story and broke the old man’s back in two places. People said it was an accident. Much accident there was about that. He didn’t know what he was there for, but he was there for a good object. If he hadn’t been there the Irishman would have been killed. Nobody can ever make me believe anything different from that. Uncle Lem’s dog was there. Why didn’t the Irishman fall on the dog? Becuz the dog would a seen him a coming and stood from under. That’s the reason the dog warn’t appinted. A dog can’t be depended on to carry out a special providence. Mark my words it was a put-up thing. Accidents don’t happen, boys. Uncle Lem’s dog—I wish you could a seen that dog. He was a reglar shepherd—or ruther he was part bull and part shepherd—splendid animal; belonged to parson Hagar before Uncle Lem got him.’

Chance, luck or accident — if you are to enjoy this book fair, you need to count on them, not just allow for them. How likely was it that in pursuit of Mary Heebner’s Intimacy: Drawing with light, Drawn from stone, I would be caught up with that crew in the off-limits members’ club?

Intimacy: Drawing with light, Drawn from Stone (2017)
Mary Heebner

Or if I weren’t staying a good walking distance from the symposium, how would I have come across a hummingbird in the cold of February after being delighted with Sue Leopard’s Hummingbird?

Hagar is a common Nordic name. But how likely was it that Twain would use that particular name in his California mining-camp story and that Codex VII is hosting “Codex Nordica”? Mark my words it was a put-up thing.

That not one of the symposium presenters introducing us to “Codex Nordica” is named Hagar should not be held against the organizers. Their choices — Åse Eg Jørgensen (co-editor of Pist Protta, Denmark’s longest running contemporary artists’ journal), Tatjana Bergelt (multilingual, of German-Russian-Jewish culture and settled in Finland), Thomas Millroth (art historian from Malmö) — are entertaining, informative and good humoured (proof at least for the Danes that they can’t all be Hamlet or Søren Kierkegaard). What they have to say and show speaks to book art’s uncanny rhyming across geographies and times.

With every issue the outcome of guest editing, artists’ contributions and a mandate to be unlike any previous issue, Pist Protta is a cross between Other Books and Sothe collaborative, gallery-challenging venture of Ulises Carrión in the last century, and Brad Freeman’s US-based Journal of Artists’ Books. Printed Matter has faithfully carried every issue of Pist Protta, so there is little excuse to be unaware of it and its liveliness. Fitting for someone who thinks of herself as a collage of cultures, Tatjana Bergelt’s barfuß im Schnee-álásjulggiid muohttagis  (“Barefoot in the Snow”) is a photo-collage of old maps, satellite maps, poetic texts, landscapes and portraits of the Sámi, the dwindling inhabitants of the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Murmansk Oblast. It reminds me of UK-based Nancy Campbell’s Vantar/Missing.

Vantar/Missing (2014)
Nancy Campbell
Digitally printed on Munken Polar, hand-sewn binding with hand-incised design, edition of 300

Both works delve into the vulnerable and disappearance — be it culture, gender or environment. Vantar‘s cold diptychs recording the mountain snow cover and barely perceptible signs of life in the ghost town Siglufjörður chime with Bergelt’s final slide:

From Finland barefoot in snow”, Codex VII, 4 February 2019
Tatjana Bergelt
barfuß im Schnee-álásjulggiid muohttagis (2015)
Tatjana Bergelt
2 books in linen cassette, edition of 4, in each book 6 poems by Nils Aslak Valkeapää in Sámi, Finnish and German languages, translations P.Sammallahti, C.Schlosser

The bus from the symposium in Berkeley to the fair itself in Richmond is another chance for chance to play its role. One day I’m sitting next to Amanda Degener (Cave Paper), who delights in our common acquaintance with Ioana Stoian and Eric Gjerde; the next, it’s Jeanne Drewes (Library of Congress), who introduces me to Mark Dimunation (Library of Congress), who regales us and the collector Duke Collier with tales of the British artist Ken Campbell. But the terrible thing about chance is that it takes up so much time and, at the same time, shows you what you wish you had more time for.

You could listen for hours to Peter Koch (Peter Koch, Printers) and Don Farnsworth (Magnolia Editions) about their making of Watermark by Joseph Brodsky:

The conclusion to Watermark and Koch’s homage to Aldus Manutius

Or to Russell Maret discussing his work Character Traits and Geoffroy Tory’s Champ Fleury: The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face (1529):

Character Traits (2018)
Russell Maret
Champ fleury (1529)
Geoffroy Tory

Or to Gaylord Schanilec (Midnight Paper Sales) enjoying his work on a woodblock:

Or to Till Verclas (Un Anno Un Libro) explaining how his children helped achieve the effect of snow falling over Friedrich Hölderlin‘s words in Winterbuch:

Or to Sarah Bryant (Shift-Lab and Big Jump Press) revelling in the set up of The Radiant Republic, the result of her Kickstarter project:

Or to Sam Winston (ARC Editions) sharing his Reading Closed Books, which like Darkness Visible, sprang from his 7 Days performance in a blacked-out studio:

Sam is kind enough to introduce me to his colleagues at ARC Editions (Victoria Bean, Rick Myers and Haein Song). Individually and together, they are forces to watch. Myers’ An Excavation, which I’d had the pleasure to see previously in The Hague, can be partly experienced in these videos, and Song’s fine bindings and artist’s books must be seen. Bean’s symposium talk is on Check, her portfolio of typewriter prints featuring fifty writers, from Oscar Wilde to Joan Didion, and the checks they wore, and on Flag, the follow-up series of artist’s books that takes a writer from Check and uses colour, cloth and typewriter prints to explore an individual work by that writer.

Slide from “Flag”, Codex VII, 5 February 2019
Victoria Bean
Typewriter prints from Check by Victoria Bean
Tess (2019)
Victoria Bean
The red and black ribbons and white linen are drawn from images in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles symbolizing Tess and critical events of her life and death.
Detail of Tess
Victoria Bean
Detail of Tess
Victoria Bean

Check and Flag illustrate that bright enjoyable thread that shows up again and again at Codex and book art at its prime — the integration of letter, image, material, form, process and subject in a way that self-consciously calls attention to them yet yields a work of art that simply is — on its own terms.

Which, if you have read “Jim Blaine and His Grandfather’s Ram”, ought to remind you that

… Parson Hagar belonged to the Western Reserve Hagars; prime family; his mother was a Watson; one of his sisters married a Wheeler; they settled in Morgan county, and he got nipped by the machinery in a carpet factory and went through in less than a quarter of a minute; his widder bought the piece of carpet that had his remains wove in, and people come a hundred mile to ‘tend the funeral. There was fourteen yards in the piece.

‘She wouldn’t let them roll him up, but planted him just so—full length. The church was middling small where they preached the funeral, and they had to let one end of the coffin stick out of the window. They didn’t bury him—they planted one end, and let him stand up, same as a monument.

With its 222 exhibitors here weaving the threads of book art and the book arts, Codex VII is a monument to enjoy. As for that old ram, you will have to read the story — and prepare for Codex VIII.