Blind and Armless Bookbinders: Where is the Locus of Hand Work?

Peter Verheyen is doing some fascinating research, beginning to delve into the history of bookbinding as rehabilitation.  His post contains some shocking, truly bizarre, graphic images of German WWI era bookbinders equipped with prosthetic bookbinding tools. Imagine bone folders, polishing irons, hammers all screwed—”plug and play” as Peter puts it—into holsters strapped over their stumps. Yet, judging from the images of the bindings, their skill level would put many modern fine binders to shame.

His investigation provides a counter narrative to the all too common notion that bookbinders are just “good with their hands”. I still encounter this, most often in academic contexts, from someone who is “good with their head”. Sometimes it is said out of ignorance, but sometimes it is an attempt to belittle the multiple intelligences, hard work, experience and knowledge it takes to work with your hands. Peters research illustrates you can be good with your hands, even if you have no hands. But you do need a head.

The ability to dexterously manipulate one’s hands creates doubt in the minds of others about brain power, for some reason. Even in 2015, this is still a problem in the field of book conservation, where many of us work all day with our hands. The ranking of the hand below the head is linked closely to ideas of class, and is possibly more prevalent in England than here in America. I’d be curious to hear about other countries. This may also be part of the reason for the relatively low salaries in the field of conservation, when compared to other professions with similar training and professional development expectations.

I was also reminded me of an article concerning a blind bookbinder from the 1950’s, which I reproduced below. In some senses this blind bookbinder is working with his hands twice as hard as the rest of us: simultaneously binding the book while judging the tactile feedback on what he is doing, rather than having the additional advantage of visual feedback. Obviously, his head is still involved.

I tried this once, and recased a book while blindfolded. WARNING: it isn’t pretty. Images here.

Click on the image to enlarge to a legible size. From: Bookbinding and Book Production, June 1954, p. 45. Private Collection

3 thoughts on “Blind and Armless Bookbinders: Where is the Locus of Hand Work?

  1. Peter Verheyen

    Posted to Book_Arts-L by Hélène Francoeur
    Sent: Wednesday, June 3, 2015 5:24 PM
    Subject: Re: [BKARTS] Bookbinding for Rehabilitation | Buchbinderei als Rehabilitation

    Thank you so much! My very first bookbinding teacher, Léon Gamache, was half-blind since childhood. He established himself as a bookbinder, got married, earned enough money to raise his family. Learning from him was quite an experience! He would “quality check” our bindings with his hands and fingers, like when reading braille, with quick and delicate gestures. He could “see” a square out of square, feel any imperfection in turn-ins and else. Then he would put the binding very close to his heavy glasses to check gold tooling. I learned a lot from him. And think of him often. He was a passionate human being, believing that there is always a solution when you take time to address a problem.

    He had bad eyes, quite a head, and a huge heart.

    Hélène Francoeur

  2. bookisland

    Training vets to make books has not been lost to history. A fantastic person I know here in San Francisco is Drew Cameron of Combat Paper! He has fashioned a totally portable paper beater to travel to community centers all over the country, helping vets turn their old uniforms into paper and sometimes books as well. Many of the people he works with in their workshops suffer from life-changing injuries, though the psychological effects of warfare can be a life-changing injury in itself, I would imagine. Head, heart, and hands are all affected…
    Check out what he does here:
    http://www.combatpaper.org/index.html

  3. Jeff Peachey Post author

    Yes, I have one of the journals they sell. A great swords to plowshares experience, it seems.

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