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Standard materials for a custom piece. Right photo: Exhibit of a top-up Corvette convertible at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Highsmith Carol. Left photo: Ruby red buckram bindings at the Library.

Commercial Binding Industry: Standard Materials for Custom Binding

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This blog is written by Jeanne Drewes, the former Chief of Binding and Collections Care Division in the Preservation Directorate. Jeanne retired a few years ago but still lends her expertise to the field of Preservation.

Oral history group. From left to right: Lang Wightman, Janice Comer, Rob Mauritz, Jeanne Drewes, and Fritz James. Photo courtesy of LBS.

I recently toured the Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and during the tour I was struck by how like the commercial bookbinding industry plant design was to the design at the Corvette plant. The “just enough just in time” slogan that became popular in the 1990s is how both operations, whether to assemble a street racing car or a bound volume for library use, work now. The unique production process using standard materials but creating a made-to-order product for the customer is what both industries have done and are doing, Corvette and library binding. Each plant takes the order for color, interior, exterior, and special additions and comes out with the unique order of the customer amongst thousands of orders. Amazingly there are few mistakes, less than 1 % in the case of the Corvette factory according to the tour, and nearly the same rate, based on my experience, in the case of the commercial binderies. The materials are different of course but the outcome has similarities, whether a custom car or a custom-bound volume created by an assembly line of experienced staff, working at their station while the product in production moves along the line for the next step to completion.

Standard materials for a custom piece. Left photo: Exhibit of a top-up Corvette convertible at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Highsmith Carol. Right photo: Red buckram bindings amidst the ruby colored standard at the Library. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023.

The Library of Congress Occupational Folklife Project, part of the vast American Folklife Center, has recently added a memorable history of the commercial bookbinding industry through the spoken word of the people who supplied equipment and product for that industry to the family-owned binderies that completed the work. There is much to be gleaned from their stories about American-owned small businesses.  There are twenty-six interviews you can listen to as part of the Commercial Bookbinders: Occupational Folklife Project, 2017-2018. Most of the interviews were conducted in conjunction with the 90th Birthday party for Jack Bendror, inventor of equipment for the binding industry. His interview is included as one of a number of industry suppliers, including Fritz James who started the LBS company, founded in 1921, and still in existence today and supplying materials for library conservation as well as binderies. Some of the binderies have closed or been combined with other binderies. The history of these mostly family-owned companies were important for the preservation of library collections across the entire United States for many years. For more history see the BMI (Book Manufacturing Institute) Archives held at the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections.

Factory floor of the endsheet department at LBS. Image shows the endsheet machine with rolls of paper and buckram
LBS’ in-house endsheet production department. Photo: Paul Gates.

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