Apprenticeships: do we want them and do they still exist?

I have to perform this week: I am making two books for two experienced bookbinders. I need to be better than my best. But I feel like a beginner.

I was just saying to my students last night that I wished I could do an apprenticeship, a “stage” or internship with a bookbinder somewhere. However at just over 50 years old, who would want me?  I don’t mean it to sound bad; I am being realistic. It costs money to train someone.   I consider myself  an advanced beginner. Although I learned much of my skills at the bench, I have gotten to where I am by teaching myself, by reading, by attending the occasional workshop. I need more bookbinding hours under my belt.  And I am the sort of person who needs a teacher at hand. It’s not that I wish to be younger, it’s about having more time.  What I really need is constant teaching, mentoring.  Someone from whom I can get answers to questions. Someone who I can watch and from whom I can learn.

Apprenticeships can last from 4 to 15 years. At work, I see the young paper conservators join us with Masters degrees. Masters of what? Theory. Words. No hand skills. The organisation employs them, but really in their first few years, the institution is training them because they can’t even tear paper. Is it the same for doctors? Do they graduate with no surgical skills? Are they trained in hospitals, in ER wards? Do institutions place any importance on this sort of training? Is this sort of training as good as a piece of paper? I don’t know about where you are, but dare I say that we seem to place more value on a piece of paper than on hand skills and experience.

You need a piece of paper stating that you are a librarian or a historian or a bookbinder if you want to travel up the corporate ladder in Australia. That you only got 51% probably doesn’t matter; the piece of paper is still more important than 25 years experience. How depressing. I am confused. Why is hands on experience worth so little?

Somehow, with the eradication of formal courses at learning institutions and the closures of bookbinding businesses, the opportunity for both formal training and apprenticeships is diminishing. And yet there is plenty of interest out in the world, as seen on Pintrest, Instagram and other social media sites.

Many artists out there do their own binding; some better than others. Some artists get a bookbinder to produce a book for them. Some bookbinders bind sheets into books or rebind books. Some bookbinders might even bind their own works in rather unorthodox manners. Some bookbinders experiment with bindings.

I am not creative enough to produce the inside; I can write, but I need a designer to make it look beautiful. Some people can do both well. When it comes to covers I am still a fledgling. But that is the beauty of art or craft – the ongoing learning journey.

What brought me to write here is a Facebook post. It’s on a bit of a tangent, but it made me think about what makes a bookbinder? Presumably someone who binds pieces of paper together so that they can be transported or read.  Someone was told they were a book artist, not a bookbinder.

Last year’s results

If you go to FB you can probably find the many peoples who supported the binder who posted this. However when you look at the person’s work, you can understand why the critic said what he said. What I think he meant was that this person was an amateur without hands skills trying to be a professional. Is that what the critic meant by book artist? I dare say many people, book artists,  would be incensed by that statement.

What is the difference between a book artist and a bookbinder? Is there a class system within the bookbinding fraternity?

I don’t pretend to know the answer. My only point of reference is whether or not the work is well executed. When you look at the results of bookbinding competitions, the fine binders who exhibit are artists; they design and create on covers, like any fine painter. So are they not also book artists?

You can go to YouTube and find bookbinding lessons by well meaning people. I once saw a person use a toilet roll and PVA on leather to make a fake rounded spine with leather covering. I was cringing with embarrassment in my lounge room, but this guy was so happy to share his knowledge that I didn’t really know how to react. He was just trying to get people to bind, and he was enthusiastic, and from a distance the end product looked OK. As a binder I was shaking my head in disbelief that this sort of information is out there, ready to assail the unwary.

Bookbinding is a lifelong learning journey. One must strive to learn the basics well; to continuous improvement of one’s current skills and then to build up those skills. So i come back to the notion of apprenticeship and mentorships. It’s all a great big circle.

 

Any thoughts?

 

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4 Comments

Filed under bookbinding, libraries

4 responses to “Apprenticeships: do we want them and do they still exist?

  1. Alf

    Hi Erika, I like the idea that the perfection of a form’s function carries an instrinic beauty that is itself the essence of art. So something created with one-pointed concentration and intent to serve its purpose is beautiful, timeless good design. I don’t think this negates the idea that someone can knock something together in an unskilled but utlitarian fashion as an artistic expression, but how universally apealing it will be depends on the energy behind it and the contents of the container. I feel for your conundrum though, but all masters serve their art with the spirit of an eternal beginner which is your approach. Sometimes progress comes from looking in another direction, it brings insights and inspiration which we can bring back to our goal. All the things in my life, including artistic expressions of various sorts, which have changed for the better or improved have happened as a result of meditation. Please forgive me, I really don’t mean to proselytise, but whenever I ponder the nature of art I always end up reflecting on the source – the inner life. I really enjoyed your bookbinding classes. A teacher has something to give and the student wants to receive something. If there is nothing to be learnt, then who can give and receive? Neither one is superior for how can there be one without the other? The student makes the teacher as much as the other way around. It is all a lesson in expansion. Enjoy 🙂

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  2. Justine Cullinan

    Very thoughtful piece — thank you.

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  3. I so like this post! I’ve been trying to find an opening in bookbinding for some time now. I class myself as an ‘enthusiastic amateur”. I’m 57yo, disabled (walking stick user), living in the UK. I even wrote to 4 bookbinders offering myself as an unpaid studio assistant for 6-12 months (I’m on permanent disability benefit so need no salary and have friends in the binders areas who would let me live rent free). I enclosed samples of my work. Only one bothered to reply and he said he only took on graduates as “they have the necessary theoretical background in the arts”

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  4. Reblogged this on Look at Both Sides Now and commented:
    Having served a six-year apprenticeship in letterpress printing, I found this article interesting. It speaks of the willingness of today’s society to accept less than top quality. 

    Like

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