Bound by Tradition

GPO Bookbinder Lends Craft to First Volume of ‘Public Papers of Presidents’

Posted June 3, 2003 at 2:22pm

Peter James slices back razor-thin peelings of book-binding leather with his German paring knife. “We’ve been doing this hundreds of years,” he said from his Government Printing Office workbench on Monday.

The “we” refers to bookbinders, whose trade James joined at age 15. It’s a calling James recently explained to the president, when in May the National Archives and Record Administration presented the chief executive with the first volume of the “Public Papers of Presidents, George W. Bush.”

“I told him I was the head forwarder, which I think amused him,” James said while describing his job as head government leather bookbinder and his May 20 visit to the Oval Office. James forwards his leather-bound books to clients all around Capitol Hill. On his bench is a copy of federal code with Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s name in gold lettering.

“You’re dealing with history,” he said.

The “Public Papers of the Presidents” series is a National Archives collection of documents emanating from the White House — schedules, speeches, proclamations, presidential news conference transcripts, everything — bound into books for libraries across the nation. Each volume contains six months worth of documents, meaning volume one extends from Inauguration Day to July 31, 2001.

In all, about 3,000 copies of the first Bush volume were sent in May to government depositories and other agencies, but only two copies of the book were hand-bound in green leather by James. One was kept for future reference inside the GPO, and one was presented to the president by John Carlin, the Archivist of the United States, with James in tow.

“It’s wonderful,” James said of the White House, adding that President Bush put his visitors immediately at ease. “You’re ready to invite him over to watch the game.”

Public Printer Bruce James (no relation to Peter James) also attended the May presentation. The series, he said, has historic value. “Hundreds of years from now researchers will be looking back at it, trying to understand what the United States was like during that period.”

The series has collected the public papers of every president since Herbert Hoover except Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose papers were printed privately.

The first volume will be different from its Bush administration successors, Bruce James said. Before Sept. 11, 2001, “The president’s schedule was much more orderly, with a lot of public events, a lot of public meetings. After 9/11 you would have seen a great change in that.”

Peter James is more concerned with binding books than reading them, however. There’s no time to read at work, he said, but he still has a sense of working with history. He can explain the difference between 17th and 18th century binding styles, why books were once gilt with gold (to prevent bookworms), or how long it took 19th century binders to sew a decorative cap into the binding (several hours).

These days James works mostly with leather. The three hand-bound “Public Papers” volumes were made with green, slightly veined “oasis grain” leather originally from a goat. “You’ll get two books out of one goat skin,” James said.

Each presidency is assigned a different color. President Bill Clinton’s public papers were bound in black, the first President Bush’s in blue, and President Ronald Reagan’s in red.

Binding a book with leather is a careful, step-by-step process. “If the leather is cut too thin it’s like working with toilet paper. If it’s too thick, it’s like cardboard,” James explained. When covered with glue and ready to wrap a book, leather needs special treatment, he added. A careless squeeze of the hand can leave indentation marks. The wrong cornering tool can accidentally polish the leather, leaving an unwanted sheen.

About 10 days of labor goes into hand-binding a leather volume, he said, but that includes waiting for glue to dry. “Everything’s hurry up and wait for things to dry around here. If you hurry it, you’re going to mess it up big time.”