History in the Making

During the Fall semester, a Boston College 'history of the book' course was enhanced by integrating books from The John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections in the curriculum, and by incorporating hands-on workshops in the conservation lab, as a part of the course. History professor Virginia Reinburg specifically requested that the workshops happen in the conservation lab, thereby re-defining the lab as a 'makerspace' within the library.

Taylor Delaney '16, Alexandra Curran '15, conservator Barbara Adams Hebard and Dr. Tom Wall Taylor Delaney '16, Alexandra Curran '15, conservator Barbara Adams Hebard and Dr. Tom Wall
Photo credit: 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. Conservator Barbara Adams Hebard taught 5 workshops to students in the history course, Early Printed Books: History and Craft. 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 Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press around 1450, and 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 John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections, the Conservator began each of the workshops by showing the students rare books 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 bookbinders pre-1800, and to give them the opportunity to interact with the tools and equipment typically in use at that time. The students produced imaginative items during the workshops and Professor Reinburg requested that these items be exhibited in the O'Neill, Jr. Library. This proved to be an additional educational opportunity for the students. There were a total of 5 exhibits, each curated by a student from the history class. Mrs. Hebard 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, and which will prove useful in their careers after graduation.

Dr. Tom Wall, Marie Pellissier '15, and Emma Dwyer '16 watch Aash Dhruva '15 show her puzzle purse. Dr. Tom Wall, Marie Pellissier '15, and Emma Dwyer '16 watch Aash Dhruva '15 show her puzzle purse.
Photo credit: Professor Karen Miller

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 our digital collections for ideas as well.

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.

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.

Girdle books made by John Sullivan'15 (gray); Marie Pellisier '15 (blue); and grad student Kelli Farrington (brown). Girdle books made by John Sullivan'15 (gray); Marie Pellisier '15 (blue); and grad student Kelli Farrington (brown).
Photo credit: Barbara Hebard

Blind tooling was the final workshop for the history 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 the conservator 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.

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, planned by the Conservator, explored the 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, Conservator
John J. Burns Library