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On a bookbinding adventure in Pohnpei

I don’t “do” tourism very well; I can’t lie still on a beach for more than a few minutes. Four of us had decided earlier in the year to visit our friend on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. As the time approach, I wondered how I would amuse myself for 2 whole weeks.

 

I can tell you now that I re filed over 10 000 photos of ornaments and initials. That took up a bit of time.

We knew that the island would be small, and that our movements would be limited. So when a colleague from work reported that there was a library on the island, it occurred to me that I might be able to teach bookbinding on my off-excursion days.

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I sent my CV and bookbinding workshop proposal to the Pohnpei Public Library (PPL), and with a bit of help from the Australian Consulate,  three morning workshops began to take shape. I had also visited their website and found that they had a wish list of books to complement their holdings. So the girls and I decided to bring a few kilos of Australian children’s and youth fiction with us.

I had hoped that teenagers or children might be involved, but I had not reckoned on how the island works. Let me say here that this blog is not so much about the bookbinding aspect as it is of  social ramifications of a visiting teacher might engender in a small community.

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This is Lester Ezekias, the director of the PPL. He contacted his local librarians group, the equivalent of ALIA in Australia,  in the hopes of creating interest. Even on the Friday before the start of the workshops, he was emailing people to gauge interest.

Things on the island work by word of mouth or social media. Therefore on the first day we had 6 people who didn’t know what to expect. IT was lucky that Lester had attended a previous book repair workshop as he had bone folders and a few bits and pieces that were to come in very handy.

I’d come prepared with electronic notes and a presentation, but not the correct hardware. On that first day we had to crowd around my laptop to view some power points. I had made up small shows about the various different exhibitions, of Pacific and Islander material, that I had chanced upon during the year. One was a visit to the Museum of New Caledonia, compact exhibition space, but full of interesting information and artifacts relating to Kanaka culture as well as Pacific cultures in general. Another was a glimpse at the Tapa exhibition at the National Library of Australia, where the conservators had cleverly used camouflaged magnets to hold up a long tapa cloth.

And of course, a power point on a very brief history of the book in images.

My friend Kath, we whom we were staying, saved the week by providing her laptop and hardware to connect to the big screen. And as we bound books and had morning tea, the shows ran on a loop. But enough of electronic things, let’s get back to the meat of things, learning bookbinding.

Waiting for students, and Kath and Lesley helping out on the first day

I introduced the students to the wonderful uses of the telephone book and the versatility of pamphlet sewing.

At the end of the first session everyone had a few small booklets.

Bush telegraph and the next session was full; librarians from public schools and the Micronesian community college turned up to learn how to make simple housing. Wallet, four flap folders, phase box, using material locally available.

 

By the third session we were overfull; but no matter I was happy to share my knowledge with those I hope would be sharing this , in turn, with their students.

On the third and final session we made sewn board bindings. Everyone happened to be skilled at sewing, even the men. What pleasure to see surprise and smiling faces at the end of the day, book in hand, students marvel at the immediacy of the result and at having gained an understanding about the construction of books.

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My friend Lesley H. had been my assistant throughout, and for a complete novice she was a great help to others.

I have to thanks Kath Grant for her invaluable insights, as well as for inviting us for a visit. Thanks also to Lester Ezequiel for his unfailling support and to his staff who were completely in the moment, in between answering phones, checking out books to patrons and helping with passport applications.

On our penultimate day the four of us trouped over to the library to donate Australian books we had brought with us.

img_9039I think that carrying 20 kilos of books was very worthwhile.

The whole experience was all about the people; how we interacted, how different cultural views can be, how adaptable humans can be.

Perhaps I hope to go back and teach again.

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Title pages, vignettes and other decor – not watermarks

You may or may not know that I have been conducting some photo research into the bindings in the rare book stack of the National Library of Australia. For the last two years, I’ve managed to examine over 220 books ranging from 1470 to 1900. At first I was only looking at their bindings, mostly because some of the books were in such a state that I could see the spine linings of recycled parchment and other material.

And one thing led to another and hey presto, I’m also searching for watermarks. And all this research leads me to write a book; ok, maybe two books.

However, since enrolling in modules from the course The Book: Histories across space and time offered by Harvard University through the EdEx platform, I have realised that there are equally important parts of the book I had previously ignored.

For example, who really cares about a title page? Well I didn’t. To me it was just some bland page or pages at the front of the book; let me get to the meat of the subject! why bother me with all this other info? While enrolled in the History of the book in the 17th and 18th centuries as well as in Print and manuscript in Western Europe, Asia an the Middle East (1450 -1650), I discovered that there is more to the title page than I had appreciated.

The title page of today has evolved to become what it now is. To put it briefly (I do recommend auditing those two courses above), early books did not have title pages. Or at best they had very little to indicate what the reader what letting himself in for. The two images below give you the basics, plus some place to scribble:

The image below is just images, no text.

 

The back matter of the book would contain a list of the first few lines from the sections; presumably this would help the binder bind the book, and would allow the reader to make sure that he had all the pages in the correct order. The image below also has the printer’s device.

 

If we leave the 15th century, the sixteenth century now sees more elaborate text

 

More of the relevant information is at the front; saves us searching all the way to the back of the book. And as time passes and readers become more educated, or in fact, that there are now more readers in the general population, the first few pages contain the what will now be called the front matter: it will have the title, author’s name, place of printing, printer’s name, people who contributed financially to the making of the book, and possibly endorsements, royal or otherwise.

Now we enter the 17th century. As printing was firstly done in black, any other added colour made the book more expensive. The red lines in the image below I suppose would have served to remind the reader of old parchment books, now long disused.

The front matter turns into messages to the reader from the translators, or the authors, and we get royal approbations, or recommendations by other authoritative figures. Modern branding techniques owe it all to publishers in the 17th century! Sometimes, if you wanted to be secretive you printed ambiguous address and false names so that you were not persecuted for your ideas.

 

The problem with developing interests is that two years ago I didn’t take the correct photos. Now that I am interested in the other matter of books, I find that my data is now lacking in evidence. I wasn’t paying attention to the little vignettes produced by the printers:

And I could go on ad nauseum with photos. I wish I could talk to you, show you in the books all these vignettes, title pages, and yes watermarks. As Australians we are lucky that we have access, for no reason whatsoever, to all this material. All you need is a national library card; go online now and get one. There is so much wonder to see in these books, and nothing we do today, in terms of marketing, was not thought up by our ancestors.

and to end this post, I couldn’t help myself, look at this:

RB JES 4979 Historia theologico-critica de vita, scriptis, atque doctrina sanctorum patrum Augsburg 1783

RB JES 4979 Historia theologico-critica de vita, scriptis, atque doctrina sanctorum patrum Augsburg 1783

How beautiful is this plate?

My books will describe about 220 books, with over 400 watermarks. Available by March 2017, in time for the Bookbinders Symposium 2017 to be held next March in Canberra.

cheers

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