Bookbinding and Conservation: A Sixty-Year Odyssey of Art and Craft

By Don Etherington. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2010. 180pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 9781584562771.

As his memoir shows, Don Etherington’s skills in binding, design, and technique have been well known, admired and generously shared for some time. This slim, attractive volume packs a lot of information. Don has laid out the arc of his life to date, filling in the early formative years during and immediately following World War II and his apprenticeship in 1950s London.

Don started down the road of bookbinding at age eleven when he passed as he says “by the skin of my teeth” the “eleven-plus exam” that at the time determined how far and what type of schooling for which you were eligible (5). The next step, at age thirteen, was a decision on whether to take an academic or a technical route. Etherington states, “I wanted to pursue a career in which I could use my hands in a creative way”(6). His dedication to his craft is revealed through his experiences at school, in a seven-year apprenticeship, and the numerous extra classes and training opportunities he took to broaden his experience in book restoration and conservation as well as book design. By 1960 Don pulled together all the various threads and to work for Roger Powell and Peter Waters. With these two extraordinary binders and restorers, Don learned that a successful conservation binding has three interconnecting parts: high-level craftsmanship in combination with quality materials and an appropriate binding structure.

Etherington refers to the Florence Flood of 1966 as “a catalyst that gave birth to the forum on the subject of book restoration” (30). He is, today, one of the few surviving library- focused participants of that landmark event and all that followed. Reading his descriptions of the damaged books, the problems and the solutions reached, and the newly designed work areas, one begins to see the seed of what would become the “collection approach” for library conservation.

In the 1970s Don moved to the Library of Congress as a training officer for the new Restoration Department under Peter Waters and Frazer Poole, where the three started developing a collection approach. Both the phase box and the idea of polyester encapsulation grew out of the need to protect large quanties of collection material quickly, simply, and economically. This period was extremely productive for Etherington. It also included a great deal of travel in the United States and abroad. For a man who had not flown in a plane or been abroad until he was thirty-one years old, Don was making up for lost time. During this time he also became part of teams called in to help libraries recover from disasters. These included in 1972 the Kline Law Library fire at Temple University; the flood at the Corning Museum, New York; the 1973 fire at the Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis; and in 1988 the USSR Academy of Sciences’ fire.

In the fall of 1980 Etherington moved to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRHRC) at the University of Texas at Austin to start a conservation department, and took part in the design of the space and the mission and philosophy of the department. The Guild of Book Workers’ annual Standards of Excellence meeting in 1987 provided an opportunity to show off the now completed and staffed HRHRC facility as well as continue to support the Standards meetings that Don had been instrumental in starting.

Throughout this memoir Don weaves his personal life into the story of his professional development. In the late 1980s the personal and professional converged. With sensitivity he discusses his divorce from his first wife, Daisy, and subsequent marriage to Monique Lallier. The marriage coincided with Don’s move to the commercial world, where he established a conservation arm for one of the large commercial binders. For the last twenty-two years Don has continued to teach, bind, lecture, and consult.

And during all of this, Don continued to create exquisite design bindings—for clients and for the sheer joy of it. There are over fifty photographs of Etherington’s bindings throughout the volume, including a large section at the end of the book. These include a photograph of his first full leather binding, the tooled cover of which is used for the book jacket design. The bindings represent work from Don’s apprenticeship period up to 2010.

A review on a book about bookbinding should include comments on the book’s binding and design. Bookbinding and Conservation: A Sixty-Year Odyssey of Art and Craft has a plain but solid binding. The layout and font are pleasant and the photographs well done. The binding is sewn so that the book opens easily. One hopes that for those so inclined there are copies available in sheets for binding.

More than an enjoyable read, this volume illuminates the training and development of not just one binder, but of a generation of British binders and conservators who heavily influenced the development of the library conservation field in the United States.

Roberta Pilette, Yale University Library