Book Restoration

From Magna Charta to Singapore’s Constitution

Recently, I had the privilege to work on the restoration of two antiquarian books owned by a local law professor.

The two completed books. On left, the Spirit of Magna Charta and the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya

These books, The Spirit of Magna Charta (1841, bound by Wildy & Sons, Lincoln’s Inn, London) and Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya (1957, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London) represented two important points in the history of UK Law.

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Original condition of The Spirit of Magna Charta (1841)

The 1841 book was a treatise on the importance of the Magna Charta, which was sealed by King John under pressure from rebelling barons on 15 June 1215. The document effectively placed a limitation on arbitrary royal authority and sought to establish that the king was subject to the law and not above it. Over the many centuries, it was seen as a symbol of struggle for liberty and the strive for greater democracy. The American revolutionists, the 19th century England working class and even the new pioneers of Australia all saw it as a “People’s Charter” and the basis of their own country’s law to recognise the rights and will of the people.

This awareness and respect for the Magna Charta underlined UK’s efforts to progressive grant independence to colonies worldwide, including Malaya. In 1946, 11 states in Peninsular Malaya came together to form a single British Crown Colony known as the Malayan Union. UK continued to enjoy strong, amicable ties with Malaya throughout the entire period of the Malayan Emergency until it was confident enough that communism was no longer a threat in Malaya and hence independence was granted.

Original Condition for Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya (1957)

The newly-formed Federation of Malaya achieved independence within the Commonwealth of Nations on 31 August 1957 with the passing of Federation of Malaya Independence Act 1957. The new constitution for the Federation was drafted jointly by law practitioners in UK and Malaya with inputs from international experts, culminating in the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya.

When Singapore joined Malaya in 1963, the Federation Constitution was adopted and when the island gained independence in 1965, part of the constitution remained and was refined to become our own State Constitution. Hence, the proposal could be seen as the genesis of Singapore’s Constitution as well.

The two books came to me as pamphlet sections bounded together using metal staples. The 1841 book was definitely in a worse condition than the 1957 one but notwithstanding, the ferrous metal staples had corroded over the years and had become weak and friable, leaving a bright orange stain on sections of both books. The staples were removed and parts of each folio affected by corrosion were cleaned and patched up using lightweight repair papers.

Damage caused by metal staples (left) and the repaired sections

Once strengthened, the sections were hand-sewn using French-link stitch on tapes. The completed text blocks were then glued, rounded and backed to create a rounded book spine. The client had requested for a traditional look for the two books, hence quarter leather binding was chosen. The calf skins, in black and red, were pared down and pasted onto the spine. This was then followed by the pasting down of marbled papers for the covers and the endpapers.

Restoration Process — clockwise from top left, rebinding, backing, leather paring and casing in

You would probably notice that the endpapers were attached onto new flypapers instead of the original book. This allowed for maximum reversibility in the future if the books are damaged or if the owner wants to recommission a new binding for the books. The flypaper can simply be cut away and the original textblock can be removed.

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The completed restored books

In total, the entire job took about 2 months to complete. Considering that I have to juggle full-time work, weekend bookbinding workshops and other activities, the process proceeded very smoothly. While I cannot say I have acquired a fondness for law history, I did gain quite a bit of law knowledge flipping through the two books, especially on the rights each citizen is entitled to.

A Visit to the Herbarium at Singapore Botanic Gardens

I really do love my day job. I have the occassional opportunity to venture into interesting places that I am eager to share.

The herbarium at Singapore Botanic Gardens is one of such places. It is tucked at a corner of the sprawling compound and may not be easily noticeable to common visitors. Part of the herbarium, particularly the preparation area is open for public viewing via a glass window in the library.

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Peek behind the glass for a closer look at herbarium preparation

Through the window, you can observe how the experienced technician mounts the herabium plant specimen by applying glue and adhering it to a rag-cotton archival-quality card. The specimen is then sewed onto the sheet for additional support before the information label is pasted on. This step of preparation is only one of the several steps involved in the herabium specimen making process.

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A completed herbarium specimen

Prior to mounting, other steps include collecting the plant specimen, preparing the sample using chemical treatment, preparing the information on the label and cataloguing the specimen in a database.

The widespread, scientific circulation of the herbarium specimen is precisely why it is so important to maintain a high level of accuracy and precision in each step of the preparation process.

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Applying adhesive to the specimen

In a nutshell, a herabium specimen is a physical sample of a known plant classified according to the modern Angiosperm Phylogeny Group Plant Classification System. The specimen is usually collected during a fieldtrip or a floristic survey. About 30cm of the plant, representative of its growth, including leave, stem, flowers and fruit is collected intact. Each collected sample is accompanied by comprehensive field notes and desk research. Information include the collector’s name, date of collection, collection number, locality, habitat and description of the plant habit, especially notes on field characters that cannot be observed on the dried specimen.

Famous herbarium collectors who had graced the shores of Singapore include the great naturalist, Alfred Wallace, best known for his work on the theory of evolution through natural selection in 1858, paralleling the work of Charles Darwin. He conducted extensive fieldwork in Borneo and Malaysia, using Singapore as his research base. Wallace’s herbarium specimens now reside in UK collections, such as his fern collection in Cambridge University spanning 33 species, 22 genera and 17 families. More information can be found at http://cambridgeherbarium.org/collections/alfred-russel-wallace-ferns/.

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Old herbarium collections

Another famous plant collector well known in Singapore is Henry Ridley, the first Scientific Director of Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888 to 1911. He was known for the many years spent promoting rubber as a commercial product and his discovery in 1895 of a means of tapping which did not seriously damage the rubber trees. Due to his discovery and work, he was largely credited for establishing the rubber industry in Malaya and Singapore. Less well known, Ridley lived to a ripe old age of 100 and retired in Kew, where he continued to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens on a regular basis. He also bought back many herbarium and timber samples now stored in Kew. The picture below shows one of such sample which I had the privilege to hold when I studied in Kew.
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So how do herbarium samples relate to bookbinding? According to Duke University Herbarium (http://herbarium.duke.edu/about/what-is-a-herbarium), Luca Ghini, professor of medicine and botany at the University of Pisa during the 16th century, is credited with the invention of the herbarium. Traditionally, several plant specimens were glued in a decorative arrangement on a single sheet of paper. These sheets were then bound into volumes, stored in a library, and cited like books. Specimens were thus placed into a fixed order from which they could not be removed without destroying the specimens.

It was the famous Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus who advised readers of his Philosophia Botanica in 1751 to mount just one specimen per sheet and refrain from binding the sheets together. For storage of the mounted specimens, Linnaeus suggested a specially-built cabinet where individual sheets could easily be inserted at any place, removed at any time, and reinserted again anywhere in the collection. In contrast to the bound volumes of older herbaria, the order that Linnaeus’ herbarium cabinet brought to his collection was not fixed into perpetuity. This “internal mobility” of the herbarium could accommodate the arrival of new material and enabled the user to repeatedly rearrange that material to reflect new knowledge.

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Example of a bound herbarium volume

Hence, while not common, herabarium found as handbound volume do exist and are treasured. So, next time you stumble upon a volume of herbarium specimen, who knows, it might turn out to be quite valuable!

A Manifesto for a Community Bindery

Pooja of Notabilia and I recently had the privilege to present a short 10 minutes presentation on Community Book Arts during the Maker Meetup event organised by SG Makers. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to rethink and set down what The Thistle Bindery meant for me, beyond just a hobbyist art practice that I started one year ago. This post is accompanied by slides presented in my segment.

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After conducting more than 20 workshops, the bindery had taken on a life of its own.  Similar to a real bindery business, I find myself dealing with everyday logistics problems and administrative issues such as looking for spaces to teach bookbinding workshops and sorting out sign-ups, payments and donations to the charity beneficiaries, etc.

There were also moments of contemplation and reflection. Tricks and tips simply learnt and absorbed during my training had to be rationalised and distilled to participants in my workshops. Tools that were not available in Singapore were substituted with those found easily in hardware stores and haberdashery shops, often after a long period of trials. This period of gestation before I started teaching in 2013 was an important time for me to become aware of the bare essentials in my craft and how the potential of simple tools can be maximised to perform as well as bookbinding specific tools such as laying presses, guillotine and rollers.

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What excited me the most was seeing how the book arts community had grown through the regular [ A Bookbinding Cause ] series of workshops. Familiar faces appear at consecutive workshops; contacts and connections were forged among participants and regular comments and messages were left on my Facebook page. What left the most indelible impression was perhaps realising how small and connected the creative circle in Singapore was. There are crafters who know makers, designers who talk to 3D printing tinkers, as well as a whole group of weekend artists with interesting day jobs and the passion to pursue their chosen craft in their free time. Initiatives such as Urban Sketchers and Sg Makers inspire and help define what it means to build a community. Particularly, the “many hands” approach in organising activities is important in vesting ownership in everyone and to allow events and encounters to happen spontaneously.

Building The Thistle Bindery allowed me to come in contact with many supportive people which I am indebted to. Some had came forward to provide a space for the charity bookbinding workshops, such as Jing, Colin and The Arts House; others who had given me a platform to test out ideas and showcase my skills, such as William and the wonderful girls from Trade School Singapore. Such avenues were and are still great training grounds for my practice and they helped build up my experiences incrementally towards loftier ideas like advocating the use of bookbinding and other artistic mediums in cultural mapping and urban studies activities.

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The Thistle Bindery’s bookbinding pursuit can be represented in a wider community context akin to a drop in a pool. A pool of like-minded crafters, educators and thinkers, not just in Singapore, but regionally and internationally.

At the apex of the practice is a constant yearning to learn more advanced bookbinding techniques and at the same time, to regularly rekindle the love for the craft and to connect with my beginning. Owl and Lion, where I first learnt bookbinding will always be a magical place of endless possibilities.

The core of the practice will still focus on bookbinding workshops where I hope more people will be interested to learn. [ A Bookbinding Cause ] remains as the practice’s flagship programme and vehicle to raise funds for charity while imparting traditional bookbinding skills at affordable rates.

As the current season of bookbinding workshops come to a close in end May, it is yet again time to plan the calendar for the second half of the year. There will be interesting activities for the community, not just in Singapore but also regionally. There will also be interactions with other bookbinders from around the region. And at the end of the day, the most important is still to ensure that coming for one of The Thistle Bindery’s activity remains enjoyable, fun-filled and relaxing. 🙂

A Set of Rebound Newsletters

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I recently had the opportunity to rebind a set of newsletter from a defunct political party in Singapore. The Barisan Socialis was formed in 1961, and was led by Dr Lee Siew Chor until 1988 when it merged with Workers’ Party. More information can be obtained from Wikipedia if you are interested.

I will not delve much into the party’s history as I would like to focus on the rebinding of the set of newsletters. It contained 100 issues of the party’s newsletter spanning from 1961 to 1964. The newsletters were bound in four sets of soft Kraft paper covers and secured with three metal staples along margins of its long edge. As expected, the staples rusted over the years and the metal oxide deposits had caused the surrounding paper to be stained with a ring of orange rust. The punctured areas had also became friable and in some newsletters, the holes were enlarged and no longer held by the metal staples.

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Other defects included frayed edges along the fore edge of the bound volumes and damaged book spines. Cellophane tape was also used to hold the volumes together and these had become stiff and stained over the years.

The first step in rebinding the volumes involved removing all the metal staples and cutting away the damaged spines, leaving loose sheets consisting of individual newsletters and original volume covers. Cellophone tapes were then removed carefully, particularly in areas where tape was used to patch long tears, in order to prevent further damage to the pages. These were then backed with a thin almost translucent Kozo paper. Thankfully there were few tears and the tears appeared on volumes which were printed single sided using silkscreen.

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Volumes were then bounded with new cards with colours complementary to the original covers. The two new cards, one on either ends, serve as end papers to the new book block. The entire stack was then bored through using a fine 0.5mm drill bit. The new holes were made about 1cm adjacent to the original staple holes. Reusing the previously stapled holes was not an option as the surrounding paper had became friable due to the rusting.

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The newsletters were then stitched up in Japanese Stab Binding style. The perforations followed the original positions of the staples in the new exposed binding along the long edge. Two styles were adopted. First, the binding was left exposed on the end papers. Second, the stab binding was covered by end papers.

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Four original cover designs

A new buckram hard cover was then attached to the completed book block. Similar to the end papers, colours of the buckram was chosen to complement the end papers and the original soft covers. To differentiate between the four volumes, an embossed pattern was made on each of the covers. The pattern consist of the defunct party emblem and the sequence number of each volume from 1 to 4. All these embossed patterns were drawn and cut by hand.

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After each of the four book blocks were cased in, they were left in the nipping press overnight to ensure that the end papers have been firmly attached to the covers.

It had been a hectic March for me with the two bookbinding workshops and other work activities. It did affect the progress of rebinding this set of rare newsletters. Nonetheless I am glad it is completed and the four volumes will hopefully be kept in good reading condition for a long while more.