Sunday, September 2, 2012

The American Bookbinders Museum, San Francisco

By way of introduction: 
My name is Al Brown, and I’ve been a member of PCB for four years. I’m a retired technical writer and editor. You might say books and book arts are in my blood: my great grandfather was a Philadelphia bookbinder around the end of the 19th century. The marketing committee has asked me to help with the PCB blog, so here goes.

The highpoint of a recent trip to San Francisco was my visit to the American Bookbinders Museum; I was enthralled by its mix of book arts, technology, and social history. It chronicles the industrialization of bookbinding during the 19th century into the 20th century. On display are early versions of bookbinding machines, often along with the hand tools they replaced. The collection also includes illustrations, photos, operation manuals, business records, union contracts, and other papers from all over the country that chronicle how binderies operated. 
The two parts of the museum’s collection complement each other in interesting ways. On the one hand, it shows how technological developments affected bookbinding. For example, book presses using levers instead of screws made it easier to apply greater pressure; they could withstand the force because they were made from cast iron instead of wood. The last process to be mechanized, sewing, was a special application of the sewing machine.
On the other hand, it raises the question: What was the impact of industrialization on the workers? Not surprisingly, the collection documents a lot of disruption. The organization of binderies changed as hand operations gradually vanished and workers were displaced. The mix of products changed as well. 
We tend to look at books as objects or as the products of individual artistic inspiration or craft. A visit to the American Bookbinders Museum puts them into a more social, human context.
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