Literacy in the Making: Bookbinding Workshops in Local Schools

For the last few years, I’ve been offering bookbinding workshops in local elementary schools. These workshops, with the support of the University of Victoria, and the UVic Library, have become quite popular: I do about 15 per year.

I feel like ‘bookbinding’ is a little too strong a term for the activity I offer. Were it not for the associations with casinos and dog races, I’d use the term ‘bookmaking.’ Perhaps ‘bookcrafting’ would work well.

I offer two basic variations. Up to about grade 3, kids like the mini-books. These are about three cm. tall, and contain either blank pages, or a story I cooked up with a friend. Higher grades tend to prefer a more functional notebook, which I sometimes rebrand as a field journal or a diary, depending on what plans the teacher has.

The process typically takes 45-90 minutes when delivered as a group activity in which students follow along as I lead them through the steps. In this format, a few extra adult hands in the room are necessary to help through a couple of the more challenging moments.

Mini-books are made in four steps: creating the pages (also called “the block” in the trade), creating the cover, joining the two, and finishing, which can include decorating the book, adding contents, and other activities. I like to add a clasp to the books, so they can be attached to a backpack or pencil case.

Notebooks also take four steps: folding the materials (both block and cover), making holes, sewing, and finishing (again, with room for much variation at this step.) New vocabulary can include spine, head, foot, fore-edge, endpaper, and tipping in.

The workshop can also be extended to allow for deeper involvement. For this, I set up stations with instructions, equipment, and supplies at each. Each station needs someone available to facilitate and explain as necessary, though one person can usually attend two stations. This arrangement allows people to proceed at their own pace, and spend more time on processes that interest them, and is best suited to an adult or mixed group. Often friends or parent-child pairs will observe and encourage one another, resulting in unexpected elaborations, which can be quite interesting.

Decorative papers, stamps, and pencil crayons are what I usually supply to the students for the finishing step, and what they come up with is continually surprising. Cover design, flyleaves, and fold-out pages are just the start. Some make closers, some add striking tactile elements, and some build pockets.

Kids learn a lot from putting together their own book. Depending on their age and background, the messages can be in the range of foundational literacy, such as: ‘books are made by people,’ and ‘books are valuable.’ At higher levels, the lessons can be more conceptual, such as ‘books have authors and other contributors, ‘books are a technology,’ and ‘books have a history.’

In fact, with a little tweaking, a bookbinding workshop can address all six of the ACRL’s information literacy frames at a variety of levels.

Preparation, Materials, and Costs

I use Mohawk superfine paper for the block and Mi-Teints construction paper for the covers. This combination works perfectly for sizing, with no waste. I reduce the dimensions of these materials to the following:

  • Smaller book: approx. 16×24 cm (great as a diary)
  • Larger book: approx. 33x47cm (more suitable as a field journal)

These dimensions follow from dividing the materials in half successively. If done carefully, the results are excellent. I use linen thread in a heavier gauge, and tapestry needles, which are not sharp.

There are also a handful of tools and skills necessary to have ready. I recommend taking a basic bookbinding class from the Canadian Book Artists and Bookbinders Guild, but if that is not possible, there are many online tutorials that can suffice. Key skills are dividing paper and making a book cradle.

The use of better quality materials improves the experience greatly, and even so the costs are less than $1.50 per book (or $3.00 for the larger size). With the generous support of UVic libraries, I am able to offer these workshops for free.

Michael Lines is a Learning and Research Librarian at the University of Victoria, and an amateur bookbinder.