"Suave Mechanicals"

RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage reviews books, reports, new periodicals, databases, websites, blogs, and other electronic resources, as well as exhibition, book, and auction catalogs pertaining directly and indirectly to the fields of rare book librarianship, manuscripts curatorship, archives management, and special collections administration. Publishers, librarians, and archivists are asked to send appropriate publications for review or notice to the Reviews Editor.

Julia Miller, ed.: Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding, vol. 6. Ann Arbor, MI: Legacy Press, 2020. Hardcover, xix, 505p. $95 (ISBN 978-1-940965-16-1).

For those interested in the history, study, and practice of bookbinding, the release of a new volume in editor Julia Miller’s monumental Suave Mechanicals series is nothing short of a treat. Now in its sixth iteration, this collection of essays by leading binding scholars, conservators, and curators continues to elevate bookbinding and the study of book structures as an increasingly rich area of scholarly inquiry, and offers an important venue for the presentation of emerging research. Miller herself is well known for her long and storied career in conservation, much of it spent at the University of Michigan, and particularly for her 2010 contribution to the field, Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings (also from Legacy Press), which both presents a comprehensive history of bookbinding and proposes a template for creating binding descriptions, thereby increasing visibility of and access to this material aspect of the codex.

Volume 6 of Suave Mechanicals (the series takes its name from a 2003 exhibition curated by Miller at Michigan) is composed of nine essays by different authors on various binding-related topics. It is dedicated to another “great” in the bookbinding world, Bernard C. Middleton, MBE (1924–2019), who devoted his 62-year career to amassing an astounding amount of bookbinding knowledge through evidence-based observations and then imparting that knowledge to others. A number of remembrances, compiled as a preface to the volume, speak to Middleton’s influence as a teacher, mentor, and friend, while a biography and bibliography crafted by Randy Silverman attest to Middleton’s prolific output as an author and scholar—A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique (1963) and The Restoration of Leather Bindings (1972) are widely considered to be foundation texts and grace many a bookshelf.

Other essays drill down into their subjects at a highly technical level. Morgan Simms Adams’s “Identifying Evidence of Textile Curtains in Medieval Manuscripts in the Morgan Library & Museum,” while not about bindings per se, focuses on a fascinating architectural aspect of the European medieval codex. Her detailed examination of the physical evidence left behind after textile curtains once covering manuscript illuminations are lost offers new insights into how widespread the practice may have been, and challenges us to carry her work forward, especially to other book traditions (several prominent examples of Ethiopian manuscripts with surviving curtains immediately spring to mind). Similarly, Katherine Beaty’s exacting study of Italian Renaissance stationary bindings in the Baker Library at Harvard Business School (“Tackets, Buckles, and Overbands”) reminds those of us working with collections of business records to consider the materiality of our account and ledger books and the contextual understanding those physical details may offer. Karen Jutzi offers a comprehensive analysis on a late Coptic binding from the Egyptian monastery of Anba Bishôi (now held by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University) that works through each element of its construction to illustrate how many different Eastern Mediterranean binding traditions contributed to the fabrication of a single hybrid object. A more recent phenomenon, the square-back, stiff-spine case binding, is given ample consideration by Shannon Zachary. Her essay, which addresses what she terms a “peculiar impossibility” (461) lays out the production reasons for why this twentieth- and twenty-first-century book structure persists and the problems it poses in terms of preservation. This topic, while normally something binding enthusiasts might just roll their eyes at and lament as a terrible method of modern book construction—though not, thankfully, one employed by the Legacy Press on the present volume—becomes in Zachary’s hands compelling reading with very real ramifications for collection managers.

Perhaps the meatiest contribution to the volume is Consuela Metzger, Erin Hammeke, and Alexander Lawrence Ames’s “The Faith that Binds: Swiss Anabaptist Devotional Bookbindings in Early America.” This qualitative study considers more than sixty examples held in American repositories (as well as examples in Switzerland) of books bound in a Germanic style often associated with Swiss Anabaptist religious communities (principally Mennonite and Amish) in southeastern Pennsylvania. These imprints were produced mainly before 1850 in Germantown and Philadelphia. The authors contextualize with care and sensitivity the books and their bindings within the Anabaptist movement generally, and more specifically within the particular religious minority communities that produced and used them. Attention is given not only to the physicality of the bindings and their relation, more broadly speaking, to wider Germanic binding practices, but also to how the materiality of the bindings might figure into the users’ relationship with the texts contained therein. Pulling together object and cultural histories in this manner leads to a highly instructive interpretation and understanding of a type of binding as material culture artifact. The essay, with its rich technical analysis accompanied by case studies of styles, binders, and bindings, offers a significant contribution to the literature and a valuable expansion of our knowledge of the early American book.

The importance of creating and studying binding models is stressed in two essays: Elise Hochhalter and Giselle Simón’s “Life So Far: A Book Model Collection” and Julia Miller’s own contribution, “Modeling Ambiguity: The al-Mudil Codex (David Psalter).” The former provides a history of the development of the University of Iowa Conservation Lab’s Book Model Collection, now numbering some “240 unique artifacts related to the history of the book that include models, exemplars, workshop materials, technical drawings, and other objects” (121), while the latter details Miller’s process in creating models of a single codex, in this case a manuscript known to be one of the oldest and most complete Coptic psalters, to which she had extensive access during a 2009 conservation survey at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, where the book is held. Both essays emphasize the instructive qualities inherent in binding models. For the maker, who must—when faced with limited and fragmentary surviving evidence—of necessity employ conjecture in producing a workable model, the learning experience is one of informed experimentation. Miller speaks of the way models can “really change our perception, not only of a particular manuscript, but also of the long reach of the past to the present, about how the codex has changed, yes, but also how it has remained the same” (309). For the user of models, the tactile experience of safely manipulating a historic binding structure provides a way to truly understand how it functions beyond what can be achieved through written descriptions, diagrams, illustrations, and the like. Hochhalter and Simón detail their efforts to gain intellectual control of the Book Model Collection at Iowa through survey, provenance investigation, and descriptive efforts; one looks forward to seeing where these efforts will lead in terms of future use of the collection.

Finally, Holly Prochaska and Ashleigh N. Ferguson Schieszer discuss what they term “adding value” in their essay about the work and mission of preservation labs (365). Specifically, they detail the structure and workflows of their home institution, the Preservation Lab, which jointly serves the University of Cincinnati and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, with a secondary function to serve smaller institutions in the region. Launched in 2012 as the first collaborative academic/public book and paper lab in the country, the Preservation Lab is an intriguing model, made more so in that it pushes beyond the traditional conservation/preservation mandate of treatment, environment, and storage and handling. The lab, with the inclusion of imaging professionals, provides extensive photo documentation and digitization preparation; engages with a variety of audiences through outreach, instruction, and exhibitions; and, crucially, has decided to make its treatment documentation accessible to researchers, a practice that is, as yet, rare across institutions. The authors cite the increasingly multidisciplinary nature of research as part of their rationale for doing so, and it is indeed laudable (with the caveat of not packaging this information in a “how-to” format for irresponsible DIY use). Again, we must await feedback over time as to how this increased access will be a boon to scholarship, and how this progressive lab model continues to work and flourish (the authors allude to experiencing challenges but do not elaborate on what those challenges are).

Like the Preservation Lab, this volume of Suave Mechanicals—and indeed the series as a whole—brings topics that often come from the world of book conservation into a multidisciplinary space. Those who are deeply invested in the technical aspects of bookbinding will certainly gobble up a collection of thoroughly researched and well-written essays, but others who are interested in various aspects of the book as a material object will have much to sink their teeth into as well. This volume would be a valuable addition to any bookshelf concerned with the codex, its readership and use, and its accessibility.

—Diane E. Bockrath, Hagley Museum and Library