Written by Gordon
It’s like learning an instrument.
That’s how Abby Smith Rumsey, a historian of ideas, described the arts of book binding and letterpress printing.
The musician learns to play, and others benefit from the sound’s beauty. In this same way, book binding and letterpress printing teach the learner a craft while those who use the products can appreciate their aesthetic.
Rumsey is the author of “When We are No More: How Digital Memory Will Shape Our Future,” in which she explores how technological developments have changed humans’ ways of recording memories, from cave paintings to the cloud-based systems society has today. Printing and binding, she said, have their purpose in this continuum.
When it comes to books, Rumsey said, technology forced people to reconsider what books are good for.
“Book sales have risen again,” Rumsey said. “They’re going up, and profits of publishing companies are going up. E-books, however, are plateauing. So it isn’t that we don’t need books anymore; it’s that this new technology has challenged us to think more deeply about what books are good for and what books are not good for.”
An example of what books aren’t good for is as encyclopedias and dictionaries, Rumsey said. Because the information in these databases changes quickly, books must be updated constantly. The development of online databases has made this easier, and printing these things has become a burden.
However, Rumsey said, books are wonderful for non-fiction because people still prefer to read it in hardback. And, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, Americans still prefer printed books to e-books and audiobooks.
“The technology has a way of helping us understand in retrospect what books are good for and what books are not good for,” Rumsey said. “And now that we know what e-books are good for and what they’re not good for, what digital formats are good for and what they’re not good for, we now see in bold relief the special assets and values that books have that no other technology can begin to get close to.”
Some of those values, Rumsey said, are the professional appearance and unique beauty higher quality paper and binding give users.
“There are these brand new lines selling notebooks with very expensive laid paper. Nobody in the ‘80s did this,” Rumsey said. “It’s very old-fashioned. And now, suddenly, people are rediscovering the sheer beauty and aesthetic qualities of a book, of a bound book.”
On Oct. 4, before she gave a speech at Ball State University, Rumsey visited the Book Arts Collaborative, an immersive-learning project at Ball State which teaches students the arts of traditional book binding and letterpress printing. While at the shop, located at MadJax in downtown Muncie, Rumsey watched students work on casebooks and print cards. She spoke with the students about the importance of what they were doing.
“Digital design and fabrication are the invention of our lifetime,” Rai Peterson, founder of the Book Arts Collaborative, said. “But you really know quality when you can hold your own work in your hands.”
“It’s all about that craft and the beauty,” Rumsey said. “People need beautiful things in their everyday life. You put time into the things you create. When people use the things you create, there’s something that carries over in the physical object of what you put into it. Nobody quite understands that. Scientists don’t quite understand why we make these things, these technologies, and see them as extensions of ourselves, kind of almost like physical extensions of ourselves, and why we actually project so much emotional value onto the things that we create by hand, but we do.”
That evening, she spoke to Ball State University students about how memory has shaped the history of humans and will continue to shape its future. One student in the audience, junior telecommunications major Mary Cox, said the presentation made her think about how memory affects her everyday life.
“I think one thing I really hadn’t thought of before is framing imagination as ‘memory in the future tense,’” Cox said. “It’s kind of a feel-good way of saying that there’s really no new ideas, just building off old ones. I think everyone has had a moment in their academic career where they felt like they were just copying actual experts, a sort of imposter syndrome thing, but that one statement from Dr. Rumsey sort of eased that anxiety in a way.”
Cox also appreciated Rumsey’s ideas about the importance of technology in preserving memory. She said Rumsey’s connection between the old technology and new really drove home the relevance of both for her.
“Technology–digital memory specifically–allows us to stay connected to the older arts in a way we wouldn’t otherwise be able to,” Cox said. “Tutorials, accounts from great artists, and many other resources that allow arts like book binding and printing to continue can now be stored indefinitely and accessed by anyone in the digital space. I think as long as there is an interest in an art, it will be preserved, regardless of technology. Painting hasn’t disappeared in the age of graphic design because people still see the value in that art form. As long as people still value book binding, it will still be around.”
This piece was written by a Ball State University student and member of the Book Arts Collaborative in Muncie, Indiana. The Book Arts Collaborative is dedicated to preserving and promoting the apprentice-taught skills of letterpress printing and book binding through community interaction. It’s not just what we make that matters, but how we learn from one another to make it happen.