Deep within the warehouse-like building that is home to the Government Printing Office lies an artist.
His medium is paper, his task both poetic and prosaic.
Bookbinder Peter James practices the ancient task of marbling paper, which beautifies book edges while helping to preserve the pages.
James, a native of London, knew from a young age that he wanted to become a bookbinder and printer.
In proper Dickensian or Hardyesque fashion, James began his bookbinding apprenticeship at 15, when he went to work in a loose-leaf and library bindery. While completing his apprenticeship, he also studied at the London College of Printing, where he learned how to make a book from start to finish.
“Just producing my first small book, I was like, ‘Wow, very cool,’” he said.
“When you go to the college, they teach you every aspect, from folding machines, to folding paper, to actually ruling paper,” James explained. “The college teaches you what the shop [where you are an apprentice] doesn’t teach you.”
It was at the college where he learned to marble paper, a process that was typically outsourced at the bindery where he was an apprentice.
After finishing his education but before moving to the United States, James traveled around Europe, as a bookbinding vagabond who took up his trade when the spirit or his finances moved him.
“I started to travel the world,” he said, “and whenever I needed money, I would stop in a town, go to the binder and work there for a short period to get enough money to move on.”
In the decades between his immigration to the United States in 1968 and his arrival at the GPO in 2000, James worked on and off as a bookbinder, running his own binding and restoration company at one point.
“There are not many people who have the restoration skills,” James said in a still obvious London accent little diminished by his decades in America, comparing book restoration to car repair. “You can take your car apart, because it’s just removing the nuts and bolts, and now you’ve got to put it back together. I know where all the nuts and bolts go.”
When he first came to the GPO, James worked as a bookbinder, assisting the staff paper marbler. In 2002, the position of head forwarder — a title that encompasses the ability to complete all of the beginning stages of bookbinding, including steps such as cutting the leather and marbling the edges — opened, and James stepped right in.
When he’s not marbling, he’ll often help out with the other stages of bookbinding.
“I’ll fill in for anybody,” he said, “because I have the ability to do anyone else’s job here.”
James credits his college education for his versatility.
“What I was taught there has set me up for everything that is fundamental for bookbinding,” he said. “By going through the London College of Printing, you have pretty much the best rounded knowledge of the trade.”
James applied his skills to the production of the latest edition of “The Public Papers of the President,” which he worked on from start to finish and then hand-delivered to President Barack Obama.
James explained that the bound edition of the presidential papers are unique not just in their recipient but in the materials used to make them.
“The leather that we get, we do not bind any other book in that leather,” he said. “It’s strictly Obama … we’re not allowed to use it for anything else.”
As lawmakers and others press forward with calls to make the GPO paperless, GPO Public Printer William Boarman said that centuries-old skills such as those practiced by James are even more appreciated.
“There’s a real art and craft in bookbinding,” Boarman explained. “The GPO is unique in what we do.”