On the love of craftmanship and the enjoyment of teaching

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Bookbinding was added to the UNESCO Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2021. TIB also contributes to the continued existence of this craft – the library has been training people to become bookbinders since 1977. In an interview, Ines Thiele, master bookbinder and head of TIB’s bookbindery, talks about her work, her love of the craft, and how her occupation has changed over the decades.

You started training to become a bookbinder 44 years ago, and for the last twelve years you have been head of TIB’s bookbindery, where you now train others to become bookbinders. How much has changed in your occupation and the tasks involved over time?

Our task of protecting and preserving the library’s collections by rebinding and repairing books has not changed to this day. The working methods have also remained the same. But over the years, of course, the machines have been modernised and made safer. At TIB, we are at the cutting edge of technology, and have always been able to adapt our machines and equipment to meet requirements. The cutting machine has a touch display; cutting programmes can be accessed directly. We no longer write shelf marks on a typewriter, as was the case in the past: the barcode is scanned, processed on the computer, and then printed out by a thermal transfer printer.

Ines Thiele, head of the bookbinding department at TIB. Photo: C. Bierwagen/TIB

What has definitely changed are the materials. Some pasting papers are no longer produced nowadays, and what was once an extensive choice of colours has now shrunk to just three: black, grey and beige. These days, the text paper is coated so that the pages of a book do not absorb liquids so quickly – essentially, a good attribute. But it makes our work more difficult: the glue does not stick to the pages as well. For most books, we now have to roughen the spine to increase the surface area so that the glue adheres better and can hold the pages in place. Despite these changes, the everyday life of a contemporary craft bookbinder is still comparable to that of 100 years ago.

What does a typical working day consist of at TIB’s bookbindery?

The bindery preparation division prepares the books for us and gives us all the information we need: What kind of binding is needed? Repair or rebinding? Thread stitching or adhesive binding? Every day, we arrange the volumes on our shelves according to the date of receipt and the binding method. All seven bookbinders are free to take their work from the shelf, but always paying attention to the oldest date.

Tools from the everyday work of a bookbinder: chiseling hammer, awl, sharpening knife and folder leg. Photo: C. Bierwagen/TIB

The volumes are pulled, trimmed, adhesive-bound – a method of adhesive binding in book production – and put aside to dry overnight. The text blocks are trimmed at the head and tail, measured out, and then covers are made. After drying, the covers are embossed, rounded, joined to the text blocks and pasted down. The finished books are then placed in the standing press overnight. The next morning, we check them and return them to the bindery preparation division. We can do all these activities in our large, bright workshop in the Grunwald Haus; we only need to go into the basement to use the cutting machine to trim the books.

What particularly fascinates you about bookbinding? What tasks do you particularly enjoy, and what are the challenges involved?

Binding a book and designing it beautifully so that it is a pleasure to hold is what I really enjoy. After all, it involves more than simply holding together loose sheets of paper. Given that I train our apprentices, I have the pleasure of doing special work with them – such as making boxes and coloured paper, processing leather and gilding. These tasks are otherwise quite rare in our day-to-day work.

You pass on your knowledge and successfully train people to become bookbinders, helping to ensure that the cultural heritage craft does not “die out”.

I am deeply passionate about training apprentices, and enjoy working with young people and inspiring them to engage in the craft of bookbinding. It is an exciting task to guide our apprentices through their three-year training, giving them the confidence they need to pass their final exams. This makes us proud. Our apprentices are an integral part of the team. They can always turn to us, and we take time to train them, with every colleague doing her part.

Binding a book and designing it beautifully so that it is a pleasure to hold is what I really enjoy.

Our long-standing experience and outstanding technical expertise are key to ensuring high-quality training, which is essential for the preservation of our craft. We can only achieve this if sufficient people complete training in the craft of bookbinding. After all, this is the only way that traditional techniques and specialist knowledge can be passed on by experienced craftspeople.

Training at TIB: Clara Katja Seifert (left) and Carla Burkard (right) learn the bookbinding craft from scratch. Photo: C. Bierwagen/TIB

It is becoming increasingly difficult for normal craft enterprises to provide training, due to a shortage of trainers and deadline constraints. Institutions such as TIB should therefore continue to contribute to the preservation of bookbinding craftsmanship by providing excellent training. This is the only way to preserve this craft and intangible cultural heritage.

Thank you for the interesting conversation!

UNESCO Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage: Bookbinding

Bookbinding, a profession with a long tradition, was added to the UNESCO Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2021. Nowadays, bookbinding combines craftsmanship, traditional techniques and modern equipment, but the history of bookbinding is as old as the book itself. All books – which are strictly speaking pages protected within a cover – need designing, e.g. in the form of a leather cover with embossing and gilt edges. These tasks are undertaken by bookbinders: they make books and they rescue books. With their craftsmanship, they help to preserve old books, conserving knowledge from centuries past. At TIB, bookbinders are responsible for rebinding well-thumbed textbooks, producing slip cases for valuable old books, and binding journal issues into volumes – these are among the tasks of a bookbinder.

Video tip: A working day at the bookbindery