Fit To Print: When Paper Speaks: The Reopening of the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum

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From Hand to Machine: The Evolution of Papermaking, George W. Mead Paper Education Center of the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum. Photograph courtesy of the museum.
From Hand to Machine: The Evolution of Papermaking, George W. Mead
Paper Education Center of the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum. Photograph courtesy of the museum.

I spend my Saturday afternoons in the Preservation Department of Emory Library learning skills in book conservation. After only a few workshops, I conclude that one needs to be quite the polymath to make and repair books. If I mend a book, I must know about makeup and chemistry of adhesives and the history of bookbinding or papermaking practices in different parts of the world. I must be aware of how reading practices vary across cultures so that I don’t bind a book like a Tibetan pecha incorrectly. And, along with acquiring this academic knowledge, I have to cultivate the fastidiousness and patience required of an artist. Sloppily sewing a five-hole binding into a single signature pamphlet is not an option. Even when I fold a piece of paper, I need to be precise and show respect for that paper’s grain and quality.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

History, chemistry, literary analysis, anthropology, and artistic expression all combine in the practice of bookmaking; this is what drew me to the Institute of Paper Science and Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The Institute grants graduate degrees to people interested in the science of paper, placing emphasis on technologies of renewable and sustainable papermaking and creating high-quality paper products. This program is celebrating its twentieth year at Georgia Tech with an exhibit at the Robert C. William Paper Museum, which is a part of the Institute. The Paper Museum closed in the late summer of 2012 for renovations and has recently reopened with an exhibit on the history of the Institute, which will be on view through the summer. Not only does the Museum offer information on the science and process of papermaking, but it is also home to a permanent exhibition of paper artifacts from around the world, all drawn from the personal library and collection of master bookmaker Dard Hunter (1883-1966).

Breaking New Ground: A Retrospective of the Institute of Paper Science and Technology, Photograph courtesy of the Paper Museum.
Breaking New Ground: A Retrospective of the Institute of Paper Science and Technology, Photograph courtesy of the Paper Museum.

The Paper Museum’s director, Teri Williams, was kind enough to show me Hunter’s personal library and archive, all housed at the museum. Hunter’s influence on fine bookmaking, papermaking, and book arts in the United States cannot be overstated. Hunter started his career by working for the Roycroft Press, which was a part of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early twentieth century. After working at the press for a few years, Hunter noticed that no one in the United States was making handmade paper. Hunter began traveling all over Europe and Asia in order to document hand papermaking techniques: He recorded these methods, housed paper specimens, and described papermaking history in several books he published, with most of them produced under his imprint Mountain House Press. One can look at high-quality, full-text digital reproductions of the books on University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library website.

While I leafed through some of Hunter’s books, Williams explained that Hunter held a personal and professional conviction that if one was going to make a book, everything that went into that book had to be done by one person. Every book that Hunter produced was designed, written, and handmade entirely by him: He constructed the covers, hand made the paper, took and developed the photographs, wrote the content, and even designed and hand cut the typefaces. And Hunter takes plenty of opportunities to let his readers know how much effort went into these books. I was often amused by Hunter’s colophons for this exact reason. In Old Papermaking in China and Japan (1932), he wryly explains, “Owing to the methods used in making the books the edition consists of only two hundred copies. More than this number would have been impossible;” or in Papermaking in Southern Siam (1936), Hunter rather scornfully states, “Due to my strong aversion to the monotony of presswork only 115 copies of this book have been made.” It is as if Hunter knew that his work would be in high demand and felt compelled to explain why he couldn’t make more copies of a book. And, to his credit, Hunter’s books were extremely popular, with most editions selling out rather quickly to libraries and private collectors.

From Papermaking by Hand in America, 1950, handmade book with mounted facsimiles and paper samples, 17 inches in height. Photograph courtesy of the Paper Museum.
From Papermaking by Hand in America, 1950, handmade book with mounted facsimiles and paper samples, 17 inches in height. Photograph courtesy of the Paper Museum.

However, as I turned the pages of these books, it became clear that Hunter didn’t need to explain how much time and work he put into his editions. Every inch of these books expresses his labor and love for bookmaking and paper. Williams explained that Hunter was not concerned with filling up a page with text and images. There’s a respect for the negative space within a page—for example, the blank space surrounding a photograph of an elderly Vietnamese man beating the paper pulp with his feet—that conveys serious reverence for the craft and labor. Leaving most of a page of handmade paper blank is not a waste for Hunter; instead, it allows room for the paper itself to show the care that went into its making.

Georgia Museum of Art

Paper has these expressive qualities hidden underneath its utilitarian function. Williams talked about these qualities a lot, especially when I asked her about how the Institute and the Paper Museum act to bridge the gap between science and art. Williams told me that working at Georgia Tech and the Paper Museum has made her rethink common definitions of creativity as a sole quality of artistic expression. Science and art are both creative disciplines, with paper being “a handmaiden to some of the most creative things we have done,” whether those things be a score by Mozart, a novel, or physics equations. “Paper doesn’t see the barriers between fields or disciplines,” Williams eloquently stated. Neither does this museum and Institute.

The Robert C. Williams Paper Museum is located at 500 10th Street, NW Atlanta, GA 30332 and is open from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday. In addition to housing Dard Hunter’s archive and curating paper artifacts, the museum also holds regular workshops on papermaking and book arts. An intensive course on Japanese Papermaking will take place during one week in June. More information on registering for the workshop here.