Book Materiality Exploration Kits

This classroom activity was a collaboration between a special collections librarian and a library and archives conservator, testing a new approach to engaging students with books as material objects. The conservator developed book materiality exploration kits that were individually paired to books from the library’s rare books collection. The special collections librarian used these kits with a graphic design class, which came to the special collections to explore historical (rare) books and contemporary artists’ books as inspiration for their own book design project later in the semester.

The activity and kits are adaptable to a variety of book or document formats and could be used for a range of academic disciplines to encourage students to deeply engage with the physical nature of collections materials.

A student working with a kit and a book, looking for chain lines in paper samples

The faculty member teaching the class wanted to challenge their students to step outside their comfort zone of graphic design software, and this hands-on activity encouraged students to consider physical materials as significant elements of design. The students in this class came to the special collections classroom in the library for a 90-minute session, in which they were introduced to both artists’ books and rare books as material objects. At the end of the session, the students synthesized their learning by imagining an artists’ book that they could create inspired by a historical book.

The session included a show-and-tell of artists’ books from the rare books collection featuring a range of formats and structures, followed by individual in-depth exploration of an artist’s book and a rare book with the aid of the book materiality exploration kits and a worksheet as a guide. This in-person class was designed with social distancing in mind; in a situation where that is not a concern, the lesson plan might be adjusted to allow students to interact with multiple artists’ books.

For assessment purposes, students are asked to complete a single-page evaluation form at the end of all library instruction sessions, stating two things they learned, one unanswered question, and rating the effectiveness of both the session and the instructor in advancing their learning, with an option for making any comments. Student comments indicated that they learned about the diversity of materials used in books and the variety of formats that artists’ books can take. Some specifically mentioned learning about chain lines and laid lines in handmade paper. Several comments indicated that students really enjoyed conducing close examinations of books and appreciated having samples of materials to handle in the kits.

Student engaging with an artist’s book that uses 3-D glasses

Assembling the kits

Rare books and their corresponding materials kits being organized

Each kit included samples of materials that corresponded to a specific rare book binding. No two kits were the same, since none of the rare books selected for this exercise were made with the same combination of bookbinding materials. Each kit and each set of samples were labeled with the call number of the rare book they related to.

A rare book with its corresponding kit of samples

All samples of historic materials were taken from discarded components of rare book bindings. The conservator had collected these book covers and endsheets in the course of her work over the years of creating new bindings for rare books.

Discarded book boards and endsheets

The covers came from books dating from the late 1700s to early and middle 1800s. In the absence of this type of discarded material, historic samples can be sourced from damaged rare book bindings purchased through antique dealers.

Prepping and sorting the samples

Materials included in our kits

  • writing in iron gall ink (corresponding to historic notations on several title pages)
  • printed text in black printing ink
  • historic handmade laid paper
  • contemporary handmade laid paper, made in the historic tradition
  • historic marbled paper
  • contemporary marbled paper, with a historic pattern and/or color palette
  • historic parchment from book covers
  • contemporary parchment, processed in the historic tradition
  • gold and blind tooling/stamping from historic book covers or spines
  • contemporary gold and blind tooling/stamping made on contemporary leather of the same variety
An inscription on a title page and a contemporary sample of iron gall ink
Samples of contemporary and historic parchment, gold foil tooling, and a strip of alum tawed leather
A closed envelope of marbled paper samples
Historic and modern samples of leather and tooling
The open envelope showing samples and questions
A student examining paper samples
Using transmitted light to see chain and laid lines

Learning prompts

A limp vellum (parchment) case and the associated kit with material samples

Each envelope with samples of materials came with a set of learning prompts or questions to answer. Below is an example of a set of questions for the rare book pictured above:

Set 1: Laid handmade paper

  • Look at the samples against the light. Note different weights of the paper. Note the lines. These are called ‘chain lines’ (horizontal, very close together) and ‘laid lines’ (vertical, far apart). The lines are made by the papermaking mold. Note how they differ from sample to sample.
  • Carefully and briefly shine the light of your cell phone through one of the pages in your book.
  • Q 1: Can you see the ‘chain lines’ and ‘laid lines’?
  • Q 2: One paper sample is from the 18th century; can you guess which one?

Set 2: Inks

  • Look at the handwritten sample. This is iron gall ink. It ranges in color from light brown to black, depending on age and the recipe. The handwritten sample comes from the first half of the 19th century.
  • Q 1: Can you find anything written in iron gall ink in your book? (tip: check the beginning)
  • Q 2: There are two samples of printed ink. One sample is on machine-made paper. It comes from the end of the 19th century. The other sample is on handmade laid paper, from the middle of the 19th century. Which samples have ‘chain’ and ‘laid’ lines?

Set 3: Parchment

  • There are three parchment samples in this set. Parchment is stiff with sharp corners. Parchment is made from an animal skin, like leather, but processed differently. There are two examples of gold tooling in the set. These marks are made with a heated tool. Gold leaf or gold foil can be used. The brown fragment is calf leather. One of the parchment samples is from the 18th century.
  • Q 1: Can you tell which one is the historic sample? Where in the book might it have come from?
  • Q 2: There is one sample of a leather tie. It is made from undyed, untanned goat leather, which is called alum tawed leather. Can you find where the leather string is used to keep parts of your book together?

In the classroom

You can view the lesson plan and participant worksheets that we used in this class below (or download them here and here). As instructor, the special collections librarian felt that students struggled the most with the final exercise to design their own artist’s book inspired by the rare book they examined. This may have resulted due to a variety of factors: students weren’t being graded on the exercise and didn’t have to make an effort; the exercise was not directly tied to their own book project; and the exercise itself may have been too vague. You may need to adjust that final exercises as needed for your class.

Amy Bishop and Sofia Barron, Iowa State University