Here at Books Tell You Why, we love all things Charleston, especially the Charleston Library Society. Recently the Society opened up a new bindery and asked an emerging talent in the book binding world to take its helm. At 22, Brien represents a new generation of dedication to rare and antiquarian books. Brien was kind enough to chat with us about how he discovered the craft of book binding, the projects he's worked on, and the future of his craft.
Books Tell You Why: How did you discover the art of book binding?Brien: It was really a series of fortunate events. I got interested in high school art class and thought it would be really cool to learn how to make books the old way. I've always been obsessed with older things, and with JRR Tolkien, so the two seem to fit. I went on to work at the Winthrop Library and was exposed to the world of rare books there.
Then in 2009, at the College of Charleston, I was reading an old book and the cover ripped off. I knew there had to be a way to fix it, some special adhesive or tape. So I decided I wanted to learn what that was. I took it to Special Collections and ended up meeting Marie Ferrara, Head of Special Collections at the college. She showed me how to fix it properly, and from then on I was hooked.
Books Tell You Why: You studied Chemistry at the College of Charleston. How does your degree fit with book binding and restoration?Brien: A lot of Masters programs in conservation require a chemistry background. Right now our operation at the Charleston Library Society isn't quite that sophisticated, but we could get there one day. Even though I'm not using the chemistry per se, the thought process is the similar. You have to be methodical, but also open to improvisation. The science of restoration is also a growing concern in the field as a whole.
Books Tell You Why: What was your first binding project?
Brien: You know, people always say to start with something basic, but I really wanted to jump right into working with leather. I convinced Marie to let me give it a try, and she agreed to guide me. So my first project was a bound, blank leather journal, which I gave to my then-girlfriend, now wife.
Books Tell You Why: Tell us more about your apprenticeship.Brien: This is a craft that you really have to learn by doing, and I was so lucky to have Marie working with me. She really gave me most of my bench experience, as we call it. Then I've also done three week-long apprenticeships with Don Rash, up in Pennsylvania. That experience is invaluable, because you can really immerse yourself in binding, for a full 40 or so hours per week. That's where you learn all the techniques you've been reading about, and also run into new complications and challenges.
I'm really grateful for the goodness of other people who've given me so much of their time, especially Marie. Without her, there's no way I'd have found this path. I'm really looking forward to becoming more involved in this community and learning from everyone.
Books Tell You Why: You worked on the Mackenzie Library Project at the Addlestone Library. What were the highlights of the project, and your work there?Brien: Mackenzie's library originally included about 800 volumes, but it suffered considerable damage. Now there are only about 80 or so left. We earned a grant for the restoration project and set out rather ambitiously to rebind twelve or thirteen books. We got seven completely rebound, and others in various stages of repair. We did a lot of tissue repair. That was the first time I really got to go head over heels into the world of book binding. Just doing it every day gives you so much experience.
Books Tell You Why: What's a typical day like for you at the Charleston Library Society bindery?Brien: It's pretty exciting because I get to do a little bit of everything. First off, patrons can bring in books that have broken bindings or need some other repair. My favorite projects are when patrons bring in books that need new bindings, and they have a creative vision for a really beautiful or artistic binding. I'm also working on the repairing books from our collections here, which is a pretty momentous task.
My other responsibility is education. I recently taught a class at Wando High School, my alma mater. It was a pleasure to be able to give back, so to speak, in the place where my own inspiration hit. This month I'll also be offering a class here at the Charleston Library Society.
Books Tell You Why: You seem to have a true passion for antiquarian books. Do you collect rare books yourself?Brien: I'm so obsessed with old books of any sort, that I've amassed quite a number of them. But I need some kind of focus to what I'm collecting. Now it seems natural to collect books on book binding.
Books Tell You Why: Many would consider book binding a dying art. How do you respond to that?Brien: Funny, that's often a term that comes up. I get a little offended, definitely. It seems uncommon, but there are people all over doing what I do. We're just quieter types, so it's not really known. I can think of four or five other people right here in Charleston who are in the book binding business. So it's certainly not a dying art.
Craftsmanship is what people are fighting to keep alive. Kindles and different tablets are actually helping books. They threaten books as objects, but what we're seeing is how much people really value the beauty and physicality of their books. They're now willing to invest more in getting books hand bound than they were, say, ten or fifteen years ago. It's such a satisfying way to store ideas: you can read, save your place, put it down, think about these new ideas for a while, and come right back to where you left off.
Books Tell You Why: How do people react when you tell them what you do? What questions do they ask?Brien: The first thing people say is, "How are you going to make a living?" That was especially common before I actually got hired. My parents have been very supportive. I don't know why or how--if I'd have had me as a kid, I'd have freaked out.
After people ask how I'll make a living, they usually say, "I have this old book. Can you take a look at it?" This is when people realize that, hey, there is really a future in this, and they're a part of it. I love talking to people who have even just a little bit of knowledge about their books, or about the craftsmanship behind books. That really opens up the opportunity for great discussion.
Books Tell You Why: What do you think is next for you?Brien: I'm looking forward to delving into my work here at the Charleston Library Society. It's such a great opportunity to make a name for myself. I'm really lucky not to have to worry about the financial stuff, which most people in my field have to do at first. Down the line, my dream project would be to create some special edition of Tolkien'sLord of the Rings or The Hobbit. I'd love to create a leather bound, hand-set edition. If I could eventually do that, that would be fantastic.
The Charleston Library Society is the South's oldest cultural institution. Founded in 1748, the subscription library paved the way for the founding of the College of Charleston in 1770. The organization also provided the natural artifacts to start the Charleston Museum, the first of its kind in America, in 1773. The Charleston Library Society has a truly fascinating history and has played a central role in the culture of Charleston.