In Swem Library, students don’t just read books; they create them

by Marisa Spyker

One for the Books:  In The Art of Bookmaking, a new class taught by Professor Eliot Dudik, students learn the basics of the craft, including stitching and folding methods and material selection.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas

On a quiet Monday evening on the ground floor of Swem Library, a group of students with majors that vary from art to government crowd around a counter-height table lined with brown craft paper, united over a shared love of something Swem has plenty of: books. The books captivating them aren’t novels, history books, or encyclopedias, but a different type of tome that’s particularly special because of the fact that each one was handmade by a student in the classroom.

“One of my favorite things about this course is that it’s always been open to anyone on campus, so we get all sorts of students in here with lots of different backgrounds and interests,” said Eliot Dudik, visiting assistant professor of photography at William & Mary.  “I think everyone responds to the idea of creating a tangible book, though maybe in different ways.”

The Art of Bookmaking, which is being taught this semester for the second time by Dudik in Swem Library, is a collaboration between the Department of Art & Art History and Swem Special Collections, which obtains a copy of each student’s final book project. It teaches students the basics of the craft — including stitching and folding methods and material selection — and introduces them to creative examples that push the boundaries of what traditionally defines a book. 

“With our examples of the book arts, including fore-edge painting books, as well as many books on the history of the book, printing, typography, bookbinding, and papermaking, students have the necessary resources to not only learn about and understand the art of the book, but to use it for inspiration,” said Jay Gaidmore, Marian and Alan McLeod Director of Swem Special Collections. “The reason we have and collect these types of books is to promote books as physical objects. In this age of digital information, it is all the more important for today’s students to realize that books are more than the information they contain; that their binding, paper, illustrations, and other physical attributes all tell a story.”

Dudik’s own interest in bookmaking, he said, was born out of necessity. As a photography student, he needed a way to present his work. After looking into professional printers, he decided it would be more cost-efficient to make the book himself. His research on bookmaking soon gave way to a deeper interest and appreciation for handmade books as an art form. Today, he prefers books as the medium for presenting his photography. 

“Having a book to market and carry around and push out to the world has been incredibly important in my career, but I also just have a deep love for art and photo books in general,” said Dudik. “I always think of my photo-based projects as books in terms of things like narrative and progression even before I get started.”

Photography is just one of the many uses for art books, as proven in the diversity of book types in the classroom: a daily planner with a hand-stitched cover, a watercolor-illustrated children’s book, an accordion-style, fold-out map of the James River, a collection of poems tucked into tiny envelopes on each page à la long-lost love letters. 

Throughout the course, students learn four basic types of stitching, from a simple saddle-stitch to the more complex and ancient art of Coptic stitching. They also learn about different types of paper and non-traditional materials, as well as creative packaging and structure. While the earliest assignments are designed for technical practice and don’t require content, Dudik said many of the students take it upon themselves to incorporate illustrations, photographs or text into their projects. 

“For a book to come together and mean something as a whole, all of these things — the design, materials, structure, size, text and images — need to be in communication with one another,” said Dudik.  

Moving forward, Dudik is working with the library to develop a bookmaking studio — or makerspace — that would give students access to more advanced tools, such as foil stamping and letterpress machines, a guillotine chopper, board shear and a perfect binding machine which would make swift and large-scale production of paperback books a cinch. He also hopes to continue spreading his love of book arts to students on campus.

“[Bookmaking] is a really dynamic form of communication,” said Dudik. “I’ve found that students are incredibly surprised by and pleased with what they’re capable of in terms of making something that looks professional, artistic and that ultimately conveys an idea well.”