Tuesday, February 8, 2022

A Crafted Typology of the Codex: Book Modelmaking as an Approach to Material Book Study by Gary Frost

Frost, Gary. A Crafted Typology of the Codex: Book Modelmaking as an Approach to Material Book Study. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The Legacy Press, 2021. 97 pages, 10 x 7 inches, paperback, ISBN 9781953421067. $17.50.

Reviewed by Chela Metzger

I started bookbinding seriously in 1991, and I now have over 100 bookbinding models on my shelf. How many do you have? Do you have complex feelings about them? Pride? Frustration? Weariness? Curiosity about what to DO with them all as they accumulate? Gary Frost, bookbinder, conservator, and codex philosopher, has given us a whole book about bookbinding models. At ninety-six well-illustrated pages, the book is not long, but it brings together a lifetime of thinking about books and making book models. After reading Frost’s Crafted Typology of the Codex: Book Modelmaking as an Approach to Material Book Study, you may look at your own bookbinding models with new eyes.

Frost covers the book modeling territory in seven chapters. He moves from history, artisanal intuition, and typology, to the uses of model collections, several case studies involving model making, models that generate more models, and finally, not surprisingly, models during the current pandemic. This book is enriched by quotes from practitioners like Craig Jensen (Book Lab), and Karen Hanmer (Karen Hanmer Book Arts) who have their own take on models and the teaching of model making. The book includes an introduction by Julia Miller, a glossary, and a bibliography that does not include enough of Gary’s writings.

My own background, as I approach Frost’s book, is multi-layered. I am a librarian, I am a North Bennet Street School bookbinding program graduate, I am a book conservator, and I taught book conservation at the graduate level for almost 15 years. I even taught in the book lab classroom at University of Texas that was filled with many book models Gary left when he went to the University of Iowa. I have made many book models, I have taught model making, and I have graded other people’s models in an academic setting. I still love making models, and I certainly believe in them for practical reasons, and enjoy them for aesthetic reasons.

Why write a book about bookbinding model making? Why read such a book? As I counted my over 100 book models, I tried to imagine an archeologist scratching their head in one thousand years, wondering what in the world this activity was about. Hopefully that archeologist will have read Gary’s book. We need someone to write about book modelmaking because tens of thousands of book models exist. They exist because we somehow believe in them. Let’s meditate for one minute on some things most bookbinding models have in common. They have no words, nor were they really created for the purpose of filling them with words. They can be based on bookbinding styles from all over the world, from any time period, but they are always made in a particular cultural context—a context rarely discussed or encoded into the final product. No matter how old the bookbinding method you are following, most bookbinding models are made from modern materials and modern adhesives for arguably modern reasons. How in the world to classify these objects?

Frost’s typology of models is clear and sensible: edition dummies; historical book prototypes; comparative performance testing models; Conservation treatment models; instructional and workshop aids; weird or erratic models. Save for the last category, these are all arguably self-evident reasons to make book models.

Since I am not an edition binder, I am not going to address this avenue of model making. Craig Jenson addresses this type of model beautifully in Chapter 3. I am also not going to discuss the comparative performance testing model, though I could not help but notice Gary focused his comparative testing section on library binding issues, and like many if you I recently attended the American Library Association sponsored “Future of Library Binding” event, so who know the future of testing related to library binding will bring. I will discuss models made as historical prototypes, instructional aids, conservation treatment models, and of course weird or erratic models.

As a graduate of North Bennet street school I immediately started making models to put bookbinding principles into action. We always cut all our own materials for the models, with the instruction to not waste materials. The few book arts type workshops I had taken before North Bennet did not really discuss the products of our half day endeavors as models. My very first workshops focused on using the results of our time as journals, or scrapbooks, or creation for artistic effect. When my North Bennet Street School instructor Mark Esser called our work products models, I understood that each would exist on its own, and like my airplane models as kid, it should bear close inspection and hopefully activate admiration, not give rise to negative comments about errant glue spots and ignorant placements of the parts.

At North Bennet we started with the Ethiopic Model, then made two Japanese style models, then focused on case bindings of various complexities while learning to work with paper, cloth, and leather. We made a split-board binding as well, while exploring various sewing structures throughout the year. The second year we worked on in-boards structures, wooded-boarded bindings, parchment laced-case structures, and ironically, several of Gary’s sewn board explorations. We also made plaquettes to practice tooling and leather decoration. I never questioned model making as a way to practice and build the bookbinding skills we were learning. We also did rebinding and other conservation intervention work on “real books”, as well as a small edition project. These projects all felt related to me at the time, though I have never really sat down and thought about why. I graduated with two drop-spine boxes full of quite small identically sized book models, and went out to try and become a book conservator.

At my conservation internship at Library of Congress I was surrounded by bookbinding models. Many were very interesting non-adhesive binding conservation prototypes. It was 1993 and Clarkson and others had made it clear the animal glue and spine linings I sometimes had to chisel off the spine of textblocks in my work had not always been a great thing for the health of books. In my attempts to keep all adhesive off the textblock spine AND to avoid a concertina guard AND to avoid a hollow tube, I occasionally performed incredible, even silly bookbinding contortions. I will be forever grateful for a supervisor after I left the Library of Congress who finally said, “Chela — this rebinding is just weird. Bind this like a normal book.” With my North Bennet Street training, I knew how to do normal books well, and since the weird binding I made was non-adhesive, it was a snap to start over. Most likely any of us of a certain age who work as book conservators have complex feelings about adhesive on the spine of a text we rebind. Resewing in particular brings out my own non-adhesive odd-ball conservation solution demons. I very rarely rebind as a conservation treatment these days. However, I do enjoy thinking through all the interesting ways I could solve a book problem, and I may even make a model of my solution, which is a model-making category Gary addresses well.

Quite reasonably, the section on conservation binding models focuses on Chris Clarkson and his work on Italian limp-vellum bindings, as well as referencing Roger Powell with his rebinding work on the early Irish manuscripts like the Book of Kells. Clarkson was really moving toward exploring the larger theme of book conservation in his influential limp parchment study. Powell was solving very specific parchment manuscript problems in his conservation work, and did not spend a lot of time claiming his solutions went beyond the needs of his particular projects. Clarkson was careful, as Frost notes, not to call any of his ideas a blueprint for “conservation bindings”. There are conservation principles in his work, not conservation bindings. It’s an important distinction, and I have an indelible memory of an incredulous curator indulging in a long outburst at a lecture I attended in 1992 on the stupidity (as he saw it) of all these limp vellum bindings in the 80’s and early 90’s being placed on special collections materials inappropriately. He did not claim they were hurting anything, just that they were wrong. I see his point.

Gary Frost is a teacher, and has been so a long time. Thus, the section of book models as instructional and workshop aids is especially accurate. When I bring a pile of book models as well as some “real” books to introduce library science students to book conservation, I know it is vastly more effective than a slide show. Bringing in books people can manipulate by hand is also a boon in the special collections classroom, where students are generally not allowed to touch the special collections material outside the reading room. Of course purchasing sacrificial books off of eBay also works very well for teaching. But Gary is right, touch matters, moving books in your hands is instructive in a way no other activity can provide. Frost’s investigations of “haptics”, which is learning through touch, is essential to so much of his work.

Gary spends a significant amount of time in his “Models in the Pandemic” chapter investigating teaching book model making remotely. His particular focus here is on “kits” which provide students with pre-prepared materials for creating a particular model. Gary has taught with kits, as have many others in the field. He includes a fascinating set of correspondence with Book Artist and teacher Karen Hanmer about teaching with kits, and teaching using remote learning tools during the pandemic. Just like the moccasin kit I received as a child from Tandy Leather, there is no doubt kits are ubiquitous in helping introduce people to a new craft. As a teacher, I know I have felt the tension between the task of teaching people foundational bookbinding skills aimed at creating bookbinders who can solve bookbinding problems at multiple levels, and the task of helping students complete a functional and pleasing model in a short-term workshop setting. This is a tension I am sure many of us have felt as teachers and as students in book binding and book arts workshops. The field has long casually used the terms “apprentice trained”, “workshop trained”, “self-taught”, “formally trained”, “university trained”, and I am sure there are other categories. By including conversations with a binder and book artist like Karen Hanmer in this book, the work of teaching with models before, and during the COVID pandemic, comes alive.

Finally the weird or erratic model category bears mentioning. I have a model given as a gift in which the creators tried to make a book with every possible bookbinding mistake. It actually is amazing, if difficult, to handle. Heidi Kyle’s flag book is mentioned as a weird or erratic model, though perhaps models of artist books should have their own category. Frost ends this section by mentioning Keith Smith’s many books, and the great unending abstract life of book action Smith’s publications represents. Frost is clear that more book model categories may need to be added to the typology.

After creating his typology and describing it, Frost spends the rest of the book interspersing case studies with philosophical jumps into the future of books and reading. Those familiar with Frosts writings and drawing will not be surprised to find a focus on sewn-boards bindings, tight joint wooden-boarded bindings, and German and American case bindings. His section on creating “Silk Road” models based on the books found in the Dunhuang Project is beneficial new territory. Another fascinating section involves using models as part of a study of bookbinding practice at the Inspirationist Amana colony in Iowa.

Frost’s case study involving industrial, commercial, and library binding structure is unique. I know of no other writer in bookbinding practice who is currently and competently addressing the industrial side of bookbinding. Certainly it is hard to find voices applying ideas from the book arts in intriguing ways to industrial practices. I wish there had been a diagram with labels in this section. I may understand what a “fold bound flange end” is, but I may not. I particularly appreciate discussion of the “provocation” of paperback failure and I admit to being “haunted by fractured opening” in these materials. As he notes, current use of polyurethane adhesives is likely changing the old paperback problems to new ones. I remain grateful and amazed that Frost happily moves from papyrus book action to modern industrialized bookmaking adhesives.

The fluid, interdisciplinary curiosity, humor, and smarts about books and reading Gary Frost shares here are part of a lifetime of publishing, lecturing, teaching, and making. Julia Miller’s short introduction to the book gives an excellent summary of Gary Frost’s influence and ongoing work. Do yourself a favor, read Frost, make models, enjoy yourself, and pass it on. Agree or disagree with his categories and conclusion, just remember, when you make book models you are part of a particular stream of book thought, and Gary’s thinking has likely been part of that stream you swim in.

Further Reading:

Gary has done a great deal of publishing. I am not aware of any one place to find his complete bibliography, but starting with his recent essay in Suave Mechanicals is not a bad way to go.

Frost, Gary. “Book Interventions: Books Remade by Use.” In Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding. Vol. 4. Ed Julia Miller, 156-180. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The Legacy Press, 2017.
[Note: This volume is out of print and will not be reprinted]

Chela Metzger started her official association with books by working as a library assistant at the age of 9. She graduated from Simmons College as a card-carrying librarian in 1990, and began her more intimate association with the craft of bookbinding at the North Bennet Street School in 1991, working 2 years with Mark Esser. She followed that with an internship in rare-book conservation at the Library of Congress in 1993, and began her paid conservation career as a project conservator at the Huntington Library in 1994. She began teaching book conservation to visiting Latin American interns in 1999, and moved into full-time lecturer work in 2001 at the University of Texas at Austin. From 2011 until 2014 she was Conservator of Library Collections at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Winterthur,  DE. Since 2014 she has been at the University of California Los Angeles Libraries, first as Head of the Library Conservation Center, and since 2020, Head of Preservation & Conservation. Having been the recipient of amazingly generous teaching in the past, she hopes to help carry on the tradition, integrity and discipline of bookwork in all its facets. On-going bookish research interests include: history of the book, binding in Spain and Latin America, future of books and libraries, the binding of archival materials historically, how books are depicted in art, social life of books. She was also a member of the Editorial Board of The Bonefolder.