Miller, Julia. Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings. The Legacy Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2018. 707 pp., features 717 full-color images, with an accompanying DVD an additional 650 images and a short video. $125.00.
Reviewed by Barbara Adams Hebard
Miller’s chosen topics for the first four chapters are binding styles that have not always received ample attention in binding structure or book history publications, in part because they are not generally considered to be the most glamorous styles and/or are lacking exciting ownership associations, for example. In those chapters she looks at: bindings decorated by staining, canvas bindings, over-covers, and books made for scholars. Miller clearly is fascinated by the techniques used by bookbinders of the past and, indeed, in these pages the structure of those books has become more interesting because of the questions that she poses and answers about them. Add to that, likely many an institution has examples of these styles either incorrectly, incompletely, or not identified because of the lack of readily available language with which to describe them. Miller has changed that, Meeting by accident has given catalogers and conservators precise terms to use for records or reports. The footnotes offer a wealth of information and their tone is conversational. Miller, recognizing that other conservators and bookbinders are in her reading audience, uses the footnotes to: explain her reasons for choosing a particular descriptive word, assiduously credit others either for their workshops or publications that further illuminate the topics, and offer links to on-line data-bases with additional visual aids to educate the viewer.
Chapter five, “A Gift from the Desert: A Report on the Nag Hammadi Codices”, can be summarized by Miller’s own words, “The purpose of this chapter is to give the reader an idea of what the Nag Hammadi bindings look like and how they were put together, and what they represent to the history of the codex and the history of hand bookbinding”. She completely delivers on those words and, as with the four prior chapters, has packed the numerous footnotes with more information and with the same painstaking effort to honor the research of others.
In “A Model Approach”, the final chapter in this pithy volume, Miller is, “urging the reader to engage with historical bindings by creating models of structures interesting to you. The rewards are great: you gain a better understanding of historical binding developments and you soon comprehend the possibilities (and limitations) of modern materials”. The models, she points out, have value beyond that given to creating a bookbinding—when used in a teaching setting, they offer cultural and historical importance. Seeing and interacting with a physical object engages a student beyond the knowledge gained by merely reading about its existence.
Julia Miller’s Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings, can be interpreted as a quiet yet persuasive call to preservation action, within the volume she is: asking conservators and curators to look at under-appreciated structures with new eyes; teaching them in great detail how to study book structure, thereby tempering decisions regarding the care and custody of historic materials; and fostering an appreciation of the value of historic models both for instructing the professionals as well as students.
Barbara Adams Hebard was trained in bookbinding at the North Bennet Street School. She was Book Conservator at the Boston Athenaeum for 18 ½ years and became the Conservator of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College in 2009. Ms. Hebard writes book related articles and book reviews, gives talks and presentations, exhibits her bookbindings nationally and internationally, and teaches book history classes. She is a Fellow of IIC, a Professional Associate of AIC, a board member of the New England Conservation Association, and has served several terms as an Overseer of the North Bennet Street School.