History in the Making

"Early Printed Books: History and Craft" students working in the Burns Conservation lab.

“Early Printed Books: History and Craft” students working in the Burns Conservation lab.

During the Fall 2014 semester, Professor Virginia Reinburg’s history class “Early Printed Books:  History and Craft” was enhanced by integrating books from the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections into the curriculum, and by incorporating hands-on workshops in the conservation lab, as a part of the course. Professor Reinburg specifically requested that the workshops happen in the Burns conservation lab, thereby re-defining the lab as a “makerspace” within the library.

Mason Bratberg '17 using a nipping press.  Photograph by Associate Professor Karen Miller.

Mason Bratberg ’17 using a nipping press. Photograph by Associate Professor Karen Miller.

Makerspaces are becoming popular as university libraries focus on ways to facilitate professors’ need to assist students in learning new skills and creating tangible projects. Often this relates to new and innovative technologies, but at Boston College, University Librarian Thomas B. Wall approved the use of the conservation lab as a makerspace for students to learn historic skills and traditional technologies. I taught 5 workshops to students in this class. Professor Reinburg, as well as Associate Professor Karen Miller, attended the workshops along with the students. The course focused on the revolution in ideas, culture, and technology spurred by Johan Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press around 1450, through reading and hands-on practice. The history of the book prior to 1800 was specifically addressed in the workshops. Because the conservation lab is associated with the Burns Library, I began each of the workshops by showing the students rare books in the Burns collections which illustrated the materials and techniques to be covered during the hands-on sessions. The projects in the workshops were chosen to help the students learn more about the properties of materials used by pre-1800 bookbinders, and to give them the opportunity to interact with the tools and equipment typically in use at that time.

Conservation assistants Anna Whitham '15 (on left) and James Heffernan '15 help Emma Dwyer '16 install one of the class's exhibits in the O'Neill Reading Room. Photograph by Burns Conservator Barbara Adams Hebard.

Conservation assistants Anna Whitham ’15 (on left) and James Heffernan ’15 help Emma Dwyer ’16 install one of the class’s exhibits in the O’Neill Reading Room. Photograph by Burns Conservator Barbara Adams Hebard.

The students produced imaginative items during the workshops and these items were exhibited in the Reading Room at the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Library. This proved to be an additional educational opportunity for the students. The class installed 5 exhibits in total, each curated by a particular student from the class. I guided the curators through the exhibit process. In the end, the students learned more about the history of the book prior to 1800 than would have been possible had they only experienced the books in a lecture setting. Additionally, they learned skills not generally taught in university history courses, through the hands-on workshops and exhibit curation, which will prove useful in their careers after graduation.

<a href="http://www.bc.edu/libraries/about/exhibits-new/ONReadingExhibits/puzzle.html">Puzzle purses</a> made and exhibited by students in "Early Printed Books: History and Craft."

Puzzle purses made and exhibited by students in “Early Printed Books: History and Craft.”

A fuller description of the workshops may help readers to better understand this approach to teaching a history course. The first workshop of the semester, puzzle purse construction, involved folding a 12” x 12” sheet of paper to form its own envelope. This project instructed students on the grain of paper, folding paper using a bone folder, and creating an interesting design. They chose images from Burns Library books as the decorative element or drew on the paper using their imagination. Historic books were shown for inspiration and the students browsed through the BC Libraries Digital Collections for ideas as well.

Taylor Delaney '15 smiles as she holds a bone folder.  Photograph by Associate Professor Karen Miller.

Taylor Delaney ’15 smiles as she holds a bone folder. Photograph by Associate Professor Karen Miller.

The second project, the St. Gall Book, gave the students the opportunity to learn how to make a simple booklet (no sewing, no adhesives) based on a book made by a monk using one leaf of vellum (for the workshop, paper was used in the interest of cost.)  The monk used the verso of an architectural drawing of the St. Gall Abbey as the material for his book. He folded the large piece of vellum to form 14 rectangles and then wrote The Life of St. Martin on it. The students used this model and once again working with bone folders, recreated it with their own personal stories. In preparing their books, the students had to think about and then plan their design to work within the pagination of the St. Gall Book.  They were shown vellum covered books and books with vellum pages to learn the properties of that material and see how it was used in bookbinding.

A pamphlet binding workshop followed. This project was more complex because it required a series of steps and additional equipment to complete. The workshop began with making paste paper, which is a technique using pigment in paste applied with brushes to decorate the paper which we used for the book covers. While the decorated covers dried, the class was shown sewing in the 17th century pamphlet-style. The next step was to fold the decorated covers over folded text blocks, followed by using a press to form a tight crease. The 19th century presses that the students used in the lab are essentially the same format as earlier presses.  Once the books were pressed, the class used newly acquired sewing skills to sew their books. The final step was to trim the sewn books using a 19th century board shear, which is a large cutting device which resembles a giant paper cutter. Historic examples of paste paper decorated covers and end sheets were shown to the class during this workshop.

<a href = "http://www.bc.edu/libraries/about/exhibits-new/ONReadingExhibits/portablereads.html">Girdle books</a> made by Professor Reinburg and students on exhibit in the O'Neill Library Reading Room.

Girdle books made by Professor Reinburg and students on exhibit in the O’Neill Library Reading Room.

Because all the students mastered the pamphlet sewing technique, the next workshop offered more sewing. They were challenged to create a chemise girdle book, in this case, a fabric covering to fit over a paperback book. Popular circa 1300 to 1600 girdle books were small books with bindings that extended beyond the book in a tail with a knot at the end.  The knot was tucked into a person’s girdle (belt) from which the book would then hang. The books were meant to hang upside down, so that they could be easily read when swung up from the belt. Images of historic models were available for the students to view on-line. Although no girdle books are in The Burns Library collections, surviving examples most commonly feature devotional texts. Comparable small-scaled devotional books from the Jesuitica collection were shown during the workshop. All the students in the class made a chemise-style covering for the book What Are We? This publication is distributed to incoming Boston College freshmen. Special thanks to the Center for Ignatian Spirituality for generously donating copies to the class.

Students working in the Burns Conservation Lab -  from left to right: Barbara Adams Hebard, Christopher Petroff ’15 blind tooling, Kelli Farrington graduate student, Marie Pellissier ’15.

Students working in the Burns Conservation Lab – from left to right: Barbara Adams Hebard, Christopher Petroff ’15 blind tooling, Kelli Farrington graduate student, Marie Pellissier ’15.

Blind tooling was the final workshop for this class. Tooling is part of the finishing process, defined by Etherington and Roberts in Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books as “A method of decorating a book in which impressions are made in the covering material, usually leather or tawed skin, by means of heated tools, pallets, rolls, fillets, or combinations of one or more of these.” After I demonstrated blind tooling techniques, and showed the students how to heat the tools on a stove, they blind tooled small leather plaquettes both to experience the use of finishing tools and to learn to design patterns on leather. Tools regularly used in the conservation lab to recreate historic bookbinding styles were put into use by the class. Period books with tooled patterns on the covers were available for the students to see before they planned their own patterns.

John Sullivan '15 curator of the <a href="http://www.bc.edu/libraries/about/exhibits-new/ONReadingExhibits/leatherplaquettes.html">plaquette exhibit</a> for "Early Printed Books: History and Craft."

John Sullivan ’15 curator of the plaquette exhibit for “Early Printed Books: History and Craft.”

The conservation lab, as a makerspace for students to learn historic skills and traditional technologies, proved worthwhile.  Through the series of workshops, the students learned more about book production prior to 1800 than would have been possible only in a lecture setting. The workshops I planned explored book structure beginning with the interior of the book and ending with the exterior. The students experienced using tools and equipment traditionally used by the artisans who made the very books that they were introduced to during the course lectures given by Professor Reinburg.

Barbara Adams Hebard, Burns Library Conservator.

Barbara Adams Hebard, Conservator, John J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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2 Responses to History in the Making

  1. VArmour says:

    Really nice project ideas! Can you share a link to the instructions for the simple booklet students created for the St. Gall Book project?

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