The University Record, October 22, 1996

The stuff that holds it all together --- "Artistry and Bookbinding"; at the U-M

James Craven makes paper, creates marbleized designs on it and combines the finished product with fine leather for bookbindings that become art.

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services


You may not be able to tell a book by its cover, but you will be able to tell that the book's cover is art when you see the work of James W. Craven. Examples of Craven's work are on display at the Bentley Historical Library through Dec. 23 in "Artistry and Bookbinding: The Work of James W. Craven."

For 47 years, starting as an apprentice binder and working his way up to head the University's bindery, Craven has used his skill and talent to produce fine bindings that are, indeed, art. After the bindery closed in 1972, Craven moved to the Bentley where he became the conservator not only for the volumes housed there, but also for those at the William L. Clements Library, the Hatcher Library's Special Collections and the Law Library.

Using materials that include leather, gold leaf, silver stamping foil, marbled paper and watered silk, Craven often is charged with attempting to reproduce original bookbindings dating as far back as the 1700s. The challenges of the work are varied and tax both his artistic and woodworking skills. A 12th-century manuscript of parchment included in the exhibition was probably bound at least three times before being sent to Craven for yet another binding in which Craven applied leather over beveled boards.

For another volume in the exhibition this one from 1853, Craven outlined the pattern of a pansy in string beneath the leather used for the binding and then inlaid leather pieces of appropriate colors to form the flower.

Craven builds slipcases for single or pairs of books, often applying gold tooling on the edges of the boards. He built a case to hold a portrait of King James I of England using leather and cloth and fashioning an inner lining of blue velvet, designing the case to put gentle pressure on the parchment inside.

He does his own marbleizing of paper, braids and interlaces strips of leather, and fashions brass fixtures for hinging and closing the protective coverings on the volumes. He creates his own brass stamps to "tool" designs into the leather he works with.

Parchment, Craven says, is the most difficult material to work with. "It never truly stabilizes as leather does," he says. "It always succumbs to atmospheric conditions or the way you hold your tongue in your mouth."

More than an artist and craftsman, Craven also teaches U-M students. One of those, Ann Flowers, who studied with Craven in the University's independent studies program, now works as a conservator with Craven.

Is there enough call for bookbinding to keep Craven and Flowers busy? You bet, Craven says. The University has enough work to keep two bookbinding operations going, and work in Ann Arbor supports another three.