An exhibition at Cabot Library showcases books hand-crafted by Harvard Library staff members.
March 19, 2013—Displaying a kaleidoscopic range of color, texture, and interpretation, a new exhibit of books in Cabot Library is helping the Harvard community to see its employees in a different light.
“These books, these works of art, are really a celebration of people’s individual spirits and aesthetic,” said Heather Caldwell, Head of Collections Care in the Preservation, Conservation, and Digital Imaging Department of the Harvard Library. “The fact that some of these books were crafted by Harvard employees, whom we work alongside every day, to see their creativity and talent—that’s a wonderful insight.”
The 21 books in the exhibit were crafted by local and regional book artists, three of whom are members of Harvard’s Collections Care department: Conservation Technicians Katherine Westermann Gray and Sabrena Johnson, and Collections Conservator Todd Pattison. All three have jobs in the Collections Care lab, repairing items that are actively in use at Harvard’s libraries.
The exhibit was coordinated by the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers, an organization dedicated to promoting interest in and awareness of the traditions of book and paper arts, which issued a challenge to its members to build a book around the theme of “secondary colors,” and invited them to explore that subject however they liked. The only guideline was an encouragement to create alternative book styles, such as accordions, pop-ups, map folds, pockets, or foldouts. The resulting works of diverse, three-dimensional book art are currently on display through May 19.
As with the theme, the books themselves are made up of two parts: the folded internal pages, known as a “signature” in book-art parlance, and the binding that houses the signature. The members bound their signatures themselves using a variety of materials and approaches, allowing for even greater variety and creative expression. The bindings incorporated materials as diverse as acrylic-painted wooden boards, handmade paper, and watercolor-dyed thread, as well as traditional bookbinding materials, such as leather and parchment.
“Because it’s such a wide-open topic, you wind up with a lot of takes on it,” said Pattison, whose book featured colored Tyvek, a synthetic material made of high-density fibers. “It’s a great idea for a collaborative book, too, because secondary colors are by their very nature collaborative: you can’t have a secondary color without two primary parts.”
Johnson’s book used three-dimensional pop-ups to feature the various pieces and combinations of secondary colors, an interpretation that reflects her impression of the motion and energy inherent in creating and mixing colors. “My interpretation centered on the idea that primary is elemental, tertiary is refined, and secondary colors are both,” she said. “I wanted to create a bold, provocative, urkraft design that reflected the nature of these colors throughout the signature and binding.”
Gray, whose book depicted various phases of the moon waxing and waning, said that her understanding of books evolved over time. “For a long time, I didn’t realize that people could make books,” Gray said. “It was a hobby for a long time until I discovered you could have a career as a bookbinder. I love the way books feel in the first place, and there’s so much potential to each book. The field for me is great because there are so many paths to explore—the history of books, the construction of them—I’ll be learning for the rest of my career.”
In addition to creating each book, each artist also made multiple copies of his/her final project so that the artists could keep a tangible copy of all individual works created for the project in a collaborative volume. The artists also made extra copies of their work so that collaborative volumes could be donated to the Houghton Library’s collection of artistic books and auctioned at the Guild of Book Workers’ annual fundraiser.
“It’s a nice concept because it creates not only a shared experience, but a collaborative result that you get to take away with you and keep,” said Pattison, who is also the chair of the New England Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers. The layers of creativity and collaboration went even deeper, Pattison said, because each artist created his or her own binding for the 21 signatures as a whole, creating their own house for the collection.
“I’m really happy we’re able to have this exhibit, because the conservation technicians are really talented and creative people,” Pattison added. “It’s great for the Harvard community to see the talent that different people have—to be able to see that multifaceted, artistic, creative ability on display.”
“It’s all bookbinding to me,” Gray said. “People who are attracted to this field are creative problem-solvers. Whether you need to come up with a creative idea for content, or you’re trying to put a book back together… it’s all part of the same thing.”