ATG NewsChannel Original: The Post-Print Era, Part 1: The Demise of Library Binderies

Nancy Hertherby Nancy K. Herther

(Part 1 of a 2 part article. Click to view part 2

In July 2015, the University of Minnesota Bindery closed after 93 years of operation, having mainly done work for the campus and University of Minnesota Libraries system. The reason was lack of business. This reportedly leaves the University of California at Berkeley as the only remaining school with its own bindery in the U.S. This Berkeley site is able to remain open because it serves the entire UC system (with a combined total of 38 million volumes) as well as others on request; however, we have clearly experienced a major shift in library operations in the past twenty years.

A Trip Back in Time

Way back in the day, information was recorded on clay tablets, walls, paintings, cuneiforms or other objects. These were followed by oriental palm books and Egyptian scrolls or papyrus rolls in legendary collections such as the Library of Alexandria. The Chinese invention of paper, along with the European switch from rolls of vellum or paper to sheets eventually led to the development of early books as these sheets were eventually placed between wooden boards to keep them ordered and prevent misshaping.

book making[3]Through the work of monastic scribes, books became works of art with illumination of texts to both aggrandize ancient documents and provide added emphasis or importance to the texts. With the rise of Johann Gutenberg’s movable type, books became easier to produce, leading to even more widespread production and distribution of information and knowledge—and the development of libraries, eventually with books without chains to prevent their misuse or theft. Despite the limits to books and reading, bookbinding rose as both an art and necessary technology. As Maurice Tauber relates it (Maurice Tauber, Library Binding Manual): “Following the innovation of cotton cloth for book covering, the next revolutionary development was the invention of book sewing machines” in the late 1870s. The bookbinders worked independently until the dawn of the 20th century when librarians and binders began to cooperative on methods and standards. In fact, Tauber noted, “amongst the oldest standards in American library science are those related to library binding.”

And, of course standards arose—the current ANSI/NISO Z39.78-2000 (R2010) Library Binding standard, last updated in 2011—provides a firm foundation for quality and methods. Just last year the Library Binding Institute (which specialized in library binding and rebinding) and Hardcover Binders International merged with the Book Manufacturers’ Institute and today includes “over eighty members continuing to represent all facets of book manufacturing with member companies producing more than 85% of the books published in the United States.”

Book binding Techniques


In 1985, ALA published a SPEC kit titled Binding Operations in ARL Libraries (SPEC Kit # 114, ALA, 1985) that noted the trend from binding as “the principal technique for preserving many research library materials and for facilitating and prolonging their use” to one in which “binding is only one of a multitude of activities serving these purposes.” Standards consisted of those of the Library Binding Institute as well as the 1986 RLG Preservation Manual. The report noted that among ARL libraries, their Guidelines for Minimal Preservation Efforts in ARL Libraries advised that libraries should “allocate to preservation an amount equal to 10% of materials budgets or 4% of overall budgets.” The report concluded that “after two or three decades of relatively little change in library binding operations, significant developments” were making changes in both a more “extensive use of commercial binders for routine, general run work” and an increased “variety of binding techniques and other preservation treatments and the development of appropriate standards for each.”

Old bindings from Ohio University

Today, with many collection budgets for books and periodicals tipping towards electronic, full text access, the need for binding is dwindling. The majority of binding is focused on preservation and repair needs. So, what is the future of these collections and services?

Moving to Print Storage and Beyond

With our latest turn of technology we now have another technology-based revolution—digitization and internet-based distribution—that is causing yet another transition. This time it is the tipping point of library bindery services—the binding of individual journal issues into volumes for easier storage and maintenance, the binding of print dissertations and theses, and the rebinding/repair of paperbacks and well-used printed works. Not that books have gone out of style. In June 2015, the Association of American Publishers estimated U.S. book and journal publishing of 2.7 billion units/volume generating $27.98 billion in net revenue for 2014. And the tension between print and ebooks continues its seesaw pattern.

hathi trust

Univ. of Michigan Libraries (CC BY 2.0)

Through the development of massive shared print repositories and various digital-only efforts, we are seeing another imminent tipping point. Over the past 20 years we have seen the rise in closed or off-site storage of lesser-used print resources in libraries. In many areas, shared print repositories—such as the Minnesota Library Access Center arose. These centers have filled faster than any funding to support their growth. At the same time, consultant Samuel Demas noted that “today, we are on cusp of an unprecedented preservation and access synergy between print and digital versions of the scholarly record.” This collaborative development—called HathiTrustnow “provides long-term preservation and access services for public domain and in copyright content from a variety of sources, including Google, the Internet Archive, Microsoft, and in-house partner institution initiatives.” Using the resources of its 100 member libraries has made it possible for anyone to search through the full texts of over 13.7 volumes; while full text access is (due to copyright) often limited to members of this key collaboration.

Binderies Deal With the New Realities

Bruce Jacobsen, Executive Vice President of Agawam, Massachusetts-based Bridgeport National Bindery, Inc., explains that “these changes in library binding have been going on for quite some time. Binding operations internal to libraries have been dwindling. It is hard to justify the time, space or cost of maintaining them. The availability of electronic versions of serials has affected the library binding business more than anything else. In the past, about 70-75% of the volumes bound in a typical library bindery were serial volumes, and the balance were books. These percentages have nearly reversed. The number of books bound has not increased; the number of serial volumes has decreased significantly. In actuality, this has provided better service to students, since their research is no longer dependent on physical volumes that may be in use by another student or professor, or shelved incorrectly, or stolen. Access to information is not limited to a physical place (the library) or time (its hours of operation). They have electronic access to the information needed at a time and place that is convenient.”

“Our business has evolved over the past twelve years from primarily binding to book manufacturing in the print-on-demand market,” Jacobson notes. “If we had not actively pursued this course of action, we probably would have joined many of the other library binderies in merging or ceasing operations. As it stands today, we have grown significantly in providing digital printing and binding services to both traditional academic and trade publishers as well as the self-publishing market. We expect digital book production to continue to take market share from traditional offset book manufacturers as quantities per title decrease and delivery schedules shorten. As an example, about 75% of the book orders we produce are a quantity of one, shipped to discrete locations around the world.”

Gregor Campbell, of Minneapolis-based Campbell-Logan Bindery, Inc., which has been in operation campbell-logan logosince 1949, explains that “at one time we preformed library binding for nearly every college, university and school in the area—save the U of M. Ten years ago we bound approximately 45,000 periodicals for various customers. This year we are on a pace to bind fewer than 8,000! We also once employed 22 staff. We are now down to 10. We have not really ‘lost’ any library customers. The volume of work being sent to us is about 20% of what it was once. In addition, much of the library binding business that is left is now being performed by two very large, national, binderies. As our library binding business began to evaporate we have adjusted our thinking and have managed to carry on with specialty work, edition binding, repair, restoration and the occasional library order.”

“We do not foresee the library business increasing,” Campbell observes. “Even 3M is pulling the plug on their library division. It is a vanishing business. BUT! Somebody in this world still makes buggy whips and I bet they are very busy. If we survive as library binders we may be the last one standing.”

Erik L. Lindseth, Indiana University history professor and Vice President of National Library Bindery Co. of Indiana is philosophical on this transition. “We don’t typically bind for large institutions such as universities that might have had internal bindery operations, however we have seen an increase in thesis binding and special projects from universities which might [his emphasis] previously have done such work internally. At the same time though, we have also seen the closing of a number of private printing and binding operations nationally so there may be a number of forces at work shifting work around. Digital generally does not seem to be an alternative method of archival preservation of print materials, it is just a different set of data being preserved. We’ve even had a significant number of customers sending us email print-outs and digital dissertations to be bound because the digital version is ‘not permanent’ enough.”

Lindseth also sees changes in his company’s business model. “About a decade ago we did establish a self-publishing branch of National Library Bindery as ‘Literary Garden Publishing’ which does pull some new business, but also builds good contacts with printers and other ‘publishers as that term is evolving. We are a very old company that has maintained roots in traditional hand-binding methods and equipment, which has interestingly brought us new customers from the world of advertising and marketing as they are reaching out to a customer base which is reacting against everything being digital—and wanting to have something solid ‘in hand’.” He adds that “I know that most of my students at the university no longer read e-mail and really dislike reading digital texts.”

Library of Congress book stacks

Books As Art

Books aren’t fading away without a fight. In 1977, Librarian of Congress Dr. Daniel J. Boorstin founded the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book, which was established by Congress in public law 95-129 to promote books, reading, literacy and libraries, as well as the scholarly study of books. There are now affiliated centers throughout the U.S. to “support the diverse disciplines of the book arts and has been actively dedicated to promoting all hand bookmaking crafts and contemporary book arts.” Book arts guilds have arisen along with local efforts such as the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, which operates as a nonprofit to “celebrate the book as a vibrant contemporary art form that takes many shapes. Our mission is clear: to lead the advancement of the book as an evolving art form.”

The National Library Bindery Co. of Indiana provides Book Restoration class to providehands-on experience with restoration and repair of books.” The American Academy of Bookbinding, “a school of excellence in bookbinding education,” also provides a series of classes for people interested in learning the art of the physical book. Their program aims to “graduate professional-level binders who have the knowledge and skills to provide the highest quality work and the ability to pass on those skills to the next generation.”

The Book Arts Program in the College of Communication and Information Sciences, School of Library andCoptic style binding from the Smithsonian Information Studies, at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa offers a M.F.A in the Book Arts Program that “develops book artists who have well-honed technical knowledge of the various facets of contemporary bookmaking, and who have an understanding of the historical evolution of the book including its materiality, and the role of the book in society. Courses explore the reconciliation of modern sensibilities with historic craft. It is to be remembered that the M.F.A. degree, and the 2.5-3 years leading to it, is a starting point in what is a lifelong process of acquiring skills and sensibilities in the art and craft of making books.”

Books—in any format—are written to be read. As author Neil Gaiman has noted: “don’t ever apologize to an author for buying something in paperback, or taking it out from a library (that’s what they’re there for. Use your library). Don’t apologize to this author for buying books second hand, or getting them from bookcrossing or borrowing a friend’s copy. What’s important to me is that people read the books and enjoy them, and that, at some point in there, the book was bought by someone. And that people who like things, tell other people. The most important thing is that people read… ”

In the second part of this look at books and binderies, we examine how libraries are changing their practices, appearances, and futures.

Nancy K. Herther is librarian for American Studies, Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.

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