bookbinding Posts

“It Is An Exciting Age”

Over a decade ago I did a regular column for Business World. It was on the business of publishing. Here is the original url.


Professor Werner Rebsamen always wanted to see “the other sides of the mountains”. His luck came, when he was picked from over 50 candidates to work as a master bookbinder in the US. Binding gilded Bibles in leather required the highest skills. In 1973 he set-up the first in-line printing and hardcover book binding system. He became a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) teaching all aspects of print-finishing.  In his 26 years at RIT, together with graduate students, he conducted many research projects, industry seminars and received a patent for a lay-flat binding method. In 1994, he received the Technical Leadership Award from NAPL, the “Oscar” of the Graphic Arts industry. Being “retired” since 2001, Rebsamen is still active as a trade consultant and as technical director of HBI (Hardcover Binders International). But whenever he finds time, in winter, he enjoys downhill skiing, during other times gardening, sailing and travelling around the world. His slogan: “The one who shares knowledge learns the most!” In an interview with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, the veteran bookbinder talks about his journey through the trade, the innovations that have taken place over the years as well as the challenges traditional printers and binders face with the advent of e books.

How and when did you decide to enter the trade of bookbinding?
In 1950, when I was 14 years old. That is the age in Switzerland when most of us had to decide on a career. My father was a plant superintendent of the largest trade bindery in the country. He tried to talk me out of becoming a bookbinder, citing “too many headaches etc.” Out of our class of 48, only two were allowed to go to the university (paid by the government) All others were sent to trade schools. After you earn a journeyman degree, you work for a living and attend the evening schools, go for your master. That takes over five years.

You are credited with a lot of innovations in this field. One of the most important ones has been to introduce mechanisation in book-binding in the 1970s.
Most likely, your question makes a reference to setting-up the world first fully automated book manufacturing facility, printing and hardcover binding 70 books a minute. But throughout my career, I have always looked at various tasks and asked myself, is there a better way to do this? I “invented” many items, especially in the manufacture of leather bound Bibles. But the best known may be the idea of RepKover, a lay-flat method of binding. That patent did pay good dividends. (It’s expired now)

What is the total volume of business internationally and in India? What are the key features?
Virtually, every printed product needs to be converted into a marketable form. This is what we call Print-Finishing. I am a technical person, yet you do ask a marketing question. I am sure there are sources, which could give you marketing data about print-activities. These days, skilled craftsmanship is rare. But luckily, our machinery engineers, in close cooperation with binders, have built machinery and systems that make the task of print-finishing and binding much easier. We all have seen it at Welbound Worldwide in Kerala.

When we met in Kerala for the National Book Printer’s Conference, you said you conducted workshops at your laboratory. Were there any constructive suggestions of these engagements between printers, book binders etc.?
Most mistakes in printing or binding are made in the planning stage. So, next to teaching courses for under — and graduate students, we conducted industry seminars. The BMI Book Manufacturers’ Institute (Palm Coast in the US) financed 50 of these three-day seminars. I conducted another 50 plus on print finishing. These, apart from many articles published, generated many good dialogs between the publishing production managers, printers and binders. In these workshops, participants could bind a hardcover book. People still talk about these educational events.

You have been in this business for over sixty years. Now we are the cusp of another major revolution in publishing – a tangle between electronic and print publishing. So what is the future for print?
Our business is changing fast, yet it offers new opportunities, especially with digital printing. Business is changing. Some segments such as the photo books are not growing, they are exploding. I wish I could again be 40 years old; it is an exciting age, full of great, new opportunities.

Where do the challenges lie for binders, printers and publishers?
Many trade bookbinders added digital print equipment. Publishers are catching on systems such as Amazon. In the past, we used to fill warehouses with books. Now, we first sell a book, get paid for it and only then print and bind it, often one at a time. Lightning Source for example prints and binds 50,000 plus such books every day.

How should traditional printers be prepared for the demand in e-books?
As presented, traditional titles did grow 5 per cent from 2009 to 2010. Non-traditional titles grew 169 per cent and those are only the titles listed as ISBN (International Standard Book Number, the unique number accepted globally to denote a commercial book). E-books will affect larger runs of traditional titles. Clearly, this was a trend recognised at the last BMI meeting just a few weeks ago. Now I got an invitation from them to address this topic at their next meeting in Palm Beach, Florida.

Given the new trends, do you think that the book binders business will decline as is being ominously predicted?
Oh no, those who sell binding equipment all over the world, report good business, especially for on demand printing and binding.

15 Jan 2021

Idris Ali: Daftari ( Bookbinder)

Idris Ali: Daftari ( Bookbinder)

Idris Ali, bookbinding

(Guest post by Prof. Aloke Kumar. Reposted with his permission. 10 Aug 2013. )

IDRIS ALI : Daftari

With Id passing away I missed Idris Ali, my father’s Daftari. For a very selfish reason. He used to bring a ‪‎Biryani‬ of Dumba Sheep on the Id day to celebrate the festival. Dumba sheep is a delicacy. This sheep has an extra fat pack on its tail beginning, adding extra oil and lanolin. Idris’s wife would prepare the Biryani but the preparation for the presentation was an elaborate affair. Idris would come in the morning with his son and prepare a ‘rasoi’ in the corridor, far from the kitchen as my grandmother would not allow entry of food cooked by Muslims to enter home.. Bricks were laid in a triangular formation with gaps and clay applied to seal them together. Then preparation would be made for a wood fire, without lighting it, just to throw in an ember. Then in the afternoon he would arrive in a rickshaw with a huge cauldron of Daccai Biryani with Dumba meat. This itself was a meal. What a feast. There would be enough for the neighbours to join in.

Idris came with his family during the ‎partition‬ from East ‪#‎Bengal‬ to settle in Baithakkhana Road. The home of the traditional book binders. My father discovered him in one of his sojourns in the area in search of a Muslim bookbinder. He had these quaint beliefs. Books and Man should be clothed by ‪#‎Muslim‬ ‘‪#‎Karighar‬’. So all his kurtas and books were taken care by them.

Idris Ali was a Daftari by tradition, a book-binder. He was a slim bodied man with a conic beard under his clean shaved upper lip. I always saw him in Pyjama and Kurta with a round Iraqi cap on his head. He reminded me of Tagore’s Abdul Maji who brought in turtle eggs for his brother Jyotirindranath. He wore a watch inside out presented by my father, not because he had no sense of time but on the contrary that he had a sense and continuously asked people the time in order to be punctual. In spite of his simplicity, his overall appearance reflected dignity and self-respect.

He addressed My father as Chachaa ji . My father liked and loved him. He said he was god gifted and could give life to ‘dead’ books. Whenever he came to my place, my father welcomed him warmly. My father was an antiquarian and a great book- lover. He collected rare books, manuscripts on palm leaf or on hand made paper old paper. He took care of these like his own children. Idris Ali helped him in preserving such books with his expertise in binding.

Idris made use of various methods to secure sheets of paper into a secure binding. As part of the process, a bookbinder will also attach front and back covers to the secured pages. With some methods of binding books, the final product includes the creation of a spine for the book. And this is most crucial as it held the book together,just like a human.

Bookbinder may employ several different approaches to creating a finished product. Sewing is the preferred method with hardcover books. With this approach, the bookbinder will sometimes use a process that is known as over sewing. Small holes are punched into the sheets and are then sewn together to create a secure bind. The cover can then be sewn to the pages. While very secure, over sewing does not make it possible to open the book and leave it laying flat on a desktop. It has to be accurate. Bookbinding is an art.

The art and craft of bookbinding originated in India, where religious sutras were copied on to palm leaves ,cut into two, lengthwise, with a metal stylus. The leaf was then dried and rubbed with ink, which would form a stain in the wound. The finished leaves were given numbers, and two long twines were threaded through each end through wooden boards, making a palm-leaf book. When the book was closed, the excess twine would be wrapped around the boards to protect the manuscript leaves. Buddhist monks took the idea through Persia, Afghanistan, and Iran, to China in the first century BC.

Idris developed a relation with our family. He came and collected the old books and wrapped them up in a shawl to carry it to his humble workshop cum home in Baithukhana. Sometimes my father would collect it from him or he would bring it back. He paid him handsomely and became my bone of contention. Why pay more? My father had this philosophy of philanthropy and always took care of the people who touched his life. He would not give alms of small coins to a beggar but parted with fortunes to take care of the education and marriages of many girls, irrespective of their religion. Idris had three daughters and all were married off by my father.

My grandmother was a orthodox Hindu and even did not allow the entry of chicken in our household as she believed they were reared by Muslims. So when her Ramcharitmanas was in tatters nobody could suggest that it be bound . But all the ‪#‎Ganges‬ water did take its toll and it was falling apart. So one day she relented. My father without much ado and wasting time for my grandmother to change her decision called me to take the manuscript to Idris. I went to his shop. It was morning time and he was reading a ‪#‎Urdu‬ newspaper. He looked at me and asked about the work silently by nodding his face upward. I showed him the book. He immediately asked: ‘Ramayan ji?’ Without caring to see the condition of the book or examining it he told me to bring it next week. I did not like, the way he refused to take up the job. I went back home and told my father that he has refused to take up the job. My father could not believe. He asked me to repeat, what exactly happened and I told him that he has asked me to bring it next week, though he was sitting idle, reading a newspaper. My father’s reaction was: ‘Don’t worry, he will do it,’. I could not appreciate his reaction.

After a week’s time Idris came home and took the Ramcharitmanas. After some days my father sent me to collect back the book. When I reached to his shop, he welcomed me smilingly and asked to wait a while. He went inside the attached room and brought the book wrapped in ‘red salu’ cloth. He gave it to me. I opened it and could not believe that it was the same book. It’s all torn and tattered pages were re adjusted with transparent paper, so accurately that they were looking better than the pages that were intact. The beautiful hard-bound coloured cloth cover was not only aesthetically satisfying, but it had whipped new breath of life into the dying book. It was a job well done.

I still had his last reaction in my mind. It was a proper time to ask him the reason for not accepting it the first time. He felt a little shy and told me that his son-in law had come. Variety of food was being prepared for him along with meat of animal, prohibited by Hindus. He also ate along with his family and his conscience did not allow him to touch my grandmother’s sacred book. After his son-in law left, he stopped eating beef and then one day he specially prepared himself by bathing in the morning and came to our house to collect the book. The book was in very bad condition. Generally, when its pages are corrected, it needs to be tightened for good and durable binding. A wooden piece is placed on the book and pressure is applied on it by foot. But, in this case he had to ask his wife to hold on with her hand while he did the work. It was a difficult job. But a job well done.

This was Idris Ali. In his old age Idris handed over the shop to his son and returned to ‪#‎Bangladesh‬ with his only ‘bibi’. My father had dissuaded him from taking many wives and he was faithful to Fatima . His son’s shifted premise to Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road where they took a dwelling attached to the shop. Ram Ray,the advertising genius, wanted a good binder and I had recommended Idris’s son. But I was told that the standard did not meet his expectation.

As for my own self I have hunted out another binder. But to be honest I do my own repairing of books which I learnt from my days in scouting from Errol Colaco which did earn me my merit badge in Bookbinding.

(C) Aloke Kumar, Professor of Communication.Faculty Member at University of Calcutta, Faculty Member at IIM Calcutta and Visiting Lecturer at National University of Singapore.

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