Bookbinding in the Digital Age: an interview with Michael Greer

Michael Greer is a Bookbinder. I interviewed him to find out more about his unusual profession and his recent creation, the binary Genesis.

Avi Solomon

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Michael Greer

I’m a guy who loves books. For years that’s meant teaching literature both here and abroad. I like getting into the heavy stuff. I work with teenagers who understand Hobbes, and when we read the Odyssey together, we read the whole thing, not just the fantasy bits. But I also like working with my hands and that’s why being a bookbinder just seems to fit. It seems like such a rarity nowadays-the possibility to work with one’s hands. Especially to create something from start to finish. And then when that something happens to be the text of a really good book, it just works.


What happened on your trip to Morocco?


By the spring of 2007 I was finishing up 4 years teaching at an American school in Casablanca. One of my colleagues had these beautiful leather bound books on his shelves at home and he told me where I could find the binder. So for a few years I would take the train up to Rabat and drop off a few books now and again.

Just before my wife and I started packing to leave, I brought one last project to the binder. I had put together a bunch of essays and travel articles that I’d written and formatted into a proper book. I made seven copies and brought them to the binder. A week or so later I went to pick them up. By this time I was an established client so he really made them nice…all kinds of beautiful marbled papers and nice leathers. It was one thing to have another author’s book rebound, but seeing your own in full leather…well, I was hooked.

School was out so I was there at an unusual time (for me) and as I was talking to the old man who owned the shop I heard a loud pounding from behind the wall. “What’s that?” I asked. “The binder,” he said. I’d always thought he was the binder, so it kind of took me by surprise. Turns out that the actual binder worked in the basement. I’d never seen him. I asked the owner if I could come watch him work one day. The next week my wife and I showed up. The binder hadn’t been told we were coming and seemed a little at a loss at first. I asked a question, my wife translated, and he would give one or two word replies. After a few of these exchanges he got up and reached behind a bunch of old rags and pulled out an old book. For the rest of the day, he showed us the way a book was made. He also told stories about the shop and it came out he would be retiring and the shop would probably close. It was hard news. The end of something special.

That afternoon as my wife and I walked to the train, I told her I wanted to learn bookbinding and that’s what happened. After the summer, I worked at the shop for free and learned by watching and then by doing. It was one of the best experiences of my life.


Could you describe the bookbinding process?


The bookbinding process can be disturbing. It’s violent at first. You literally tear the book apart. Most older books were sewn, so you cut the thread and then pull each signature or booklet off the book. Then you sew them back together again on a sewing frame which is basically a loom for books.

With so much thread in the book, it’s fatter in back than in front, so to correct for this, the spine is glued up and rounded to take up some of the swell. After that, the book is put into a press and the spine is hammered so that the signatures bend over creating little shoulders. Essentially, you’re creating an arch. The boards act as columns. The arch of the spine works to fight gravity and keep the pages from sagging too much on the shelves.

While the glue is drying you prepare the boards. Heavy carton is cut to size and lined with newspaper on the inside which makes them warp and sort of hug the text block. It looks awful. These boards get sanded and then attached to the text block with the cords. Meanwhile, the leather is cut out. In Morocco, we had a great machine that tapered off the leather so that it would fold over the edges better, but now I do all that work by hand. The leather is pasted up and then sort of molded onto the back of the book and then the front and back covers. It’s tricky getting it folded over at the top and bottom of the spine and bookbinders pride themselves on the shape they give to these “endcaps.” The pull of the leather counteracts the pull of the newsprint and the boards end up flat.

The final task is the finishing…putting on the title with gold foil. It’s the hardest part of the job and the most stressful. You’ve got a pallet full of hot letters and one chance to place them squarely onto the back of a curved spine. I usually feel pretty awful about a book until it finally gets covered in leather. They just look so bad. But then my spirits lift and once the gold lettering is on, I’m usually feeling pretty happy again. It’s like alchemy.


What's the importance of bookbinding in a digital age?


My friend who owns several bookstores often laughs at me. “We’re in a dying trade,” he says. Too often, I have to agree with him. But when I get sick of all the information beaming at me through the computer and over the radio and tv, a book made of paper can be just the thing. It’s nice to handle something that is still unplugged.

The other thing is that so much of the digital world is actually more ephemeral than the physical world. I have ten year old computer files that I can’t read. How long will a Nook last? Last night I was reading a book by Ernie Pyle about the Second World War when my wife walked into the room. It dawned on me that she was in our bedroom, but I was watching our navy transports unload soldiers on the beaches of Sicily. I was plugged in but the book wasn’t. Then it will go back onto the shelf until someone else picks it up…ten, twenty, twelve hundred years from now.


What's the most satisfying thing about being a bookbinder? What are the challenges?


Bookbinding is one of mankind’s oldest technologies and one that still can’t be beat. I like the continuity, the fact that I learned from someone who had learned from someone…and so on. In the US, hand bookbinding as a trade has been nearly dead for many years. A few of us quixotic dreamers hang on. Still, the revolution in the last decade in on-demand publishing could create a space for us. Twenty years ago, self-publishers paid a hefty sum to print maybe 250 copies of their family history. They gave away ten and the rest went into the attic. For about the same amount of money, I can print and bind ten full leather volumes and create others on demand. The difficulty is letting people know that this kind of thing exists. When I do fairs, people often approach my table full of books with a mystified smile and say, “I didn’t know anybody did this stuff anymore.” If bookbinders can get the word out, we might be able to carve out a place for our services in the growing world of digital publishing.


How did you come up with the idea of a binary Genesis?


Initially, I just wanted to see what that river of ones and zeros would look like on the page. But then it just seemed like an idea I could wrap myself around. The bible had been translated into so many languages, why not put it in binary and bind it medieval style? I liked the irony, but I also liked what it said about the longevity of a book as a repository of information. I’ve owned three or four computers and they never made it past five years. How long will my book last?


How have people responded to the binary Genesis project? What fascinates them about it?


At the Maker Faire this year, people loved it. I always encourage people to pick up and handle my books. Like me a few years ago, many of them had never seen or handled a leather bound book, so at first they’re drawn to that. The title is in binary on the cover so they really don’t know what it is. When they open it up and see all those ones and zeros they kind of laugh. But then when I tell them it is the Book of Genesis in binary, they really seem to get it.


  1. Interesting. I’ve actually wanted to learn bookbinding myself, but i never know where to start so i end up forgetting about it. Every now and then i see a nice book and i wish i could learn it again. I do personally think that the craft itself is very important and still has a firm place, even within a digital age.

  2. I’m an aspiring bookbinder as well. I’ll be doing a week-long workshop in Paris next week and if that goes well I’m planning on signing up for a two year course. As much as I’d love to go the pure apprentice route (which actually does still exist in France), it’s difficult for adults to become an apprentice and I will at least end up with a diploma at the end of the course (it’s difficult for anyone to take you seriously in France if you don’t have a diploma, and a French one at that!). Like Mr Greer, I’ve been obsessed with books all of my life but it was only recently that I realized that bookbinding is what I’m “supposed” to be doing. As I tell my friends and family now, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do, only I didn’t know it. Thanks for the great interview!

  3. I worked in a bindery for while when I was younger. The work was very satisfying. I’d love to get back into it, but I’d need space, and tools, though I do have my bone folder and steel rule. The things that are crucial for me is the tools. I learned using a big steel backing press (I’ve rounded and backed books over 4 inches thick). 

    Most of the binding we did was legal documents. You know those cases full of books you see in lawyers’ offices? Those. Each person involved in a case gets a copy of all the documents in a bound volume.

    Rounding and backing, and casing-in were my favorites. Hotstamping and making cases were, I think, the hardest operations.

    I’m thinking seriously of getting myself a Bindery In A Box But those presses look so wimpy compared to what I’m used to: &

    1. The Bindery in a Box actually does pretty well for a hobbyist or just starting out.  If you’re not doing edition work and just taking one book all the way through from start to finish, it’s awesome.  The wooden press won’t get the same pressure as a big metal standing press, but realistically you’re not going to need that much pressure anyway unless you’re doing a leather reback or something like that.

      As far as the job backer, the jaws on the bindery in a box work fine.  A lot of binders will just use a lying press and replaceable jaws instead of the piece of furniture that is an iron job backer.
      I’ve seen Dea Sasso use the plough on that thing, and she should be a traveling show, because she can go at warp speed on it.  Sharp and fast. 

    1. Yes! An open-ended question designed to elicit the interviewee’s most important self-perceptions:)

  4. My brother is a bookbinder and always restores any old books we have. We’ve got a healthy collection of restored books on the shelf now :D

  5. I have at least one book I want rebound and a pile of paper I would love to have bound into a book.  How can I best find a book binder that does this kind of work?  I know I can find binders in the yellow-pages, but they seem to be all big operations that target libraries wanting to rebind a box of books with utilitarian covers.

    1. If you’re looking for a local binder, try and go to “book arts links” in the upper left.  You’ll see “bookbinders and book artists” there, which will take you to a page of links to binder’s websites.  There’s a lot there and if you start asking around and describe the type of job you’re looking to have done s/he will most likely refer you to a binder who does that kind of work. 

  6. Many, many thanks for creating and publishing this interview! Had I lived in an earlier non-digital age, bookbinding or book design would be two of the professions I’d most like to devote my life to.

    I too love working with my hands to create. So many creative vocations allowed us to use our hands and to work directly with our tools and mediums. Working in that manner, we enjoyed a tactile and frequently all-consuming practice. That daily practice by its nature often made working a moving mediation. As such, it was extremely pleasurable and incredibly rewarding. It’s wonderful to devote ones’ energy to an art that can entirely consume you, engaging you so deeply that the world becomes silent or disappears.Today, I spent what I thought was two or three hours working on an illustration that’s dense, challenging and extremely satisfying. When I finally looked at the clock, ah!… 8 hours had passed. Eight hours of losing myself in intense, satisfying work*. I loved this interview and one of my favorite quotes was: “I’m a guy who loves books. […] I like getting into the heavy stuff. […] But I also like working with my hands and that’s why being a bookbinder just seems to fit. It seems like such a rarity nowadays-the possibility to work with one’s hands. Especially to create something from start to finish. And then when that something happens to be the text of a really good book, it just works.”

    I share those passions. I’m also of the opinion that our current world offers few opportunities to create in an immediately tactile manner. It’s a shame. But this interview was fascinating and a joy to read. Thank you , Michael Greer for practicing your craft and sharing your ideas with us. And kudos to Avi Solomon for the interview, which was inspiring and educational.

  7. Interesting interview. I’ve been a bookbinder and book conservator for some 20 years, after five years of training at the Iowa Center for the Book. I would encourage Mr. Greer to consider more archival options for his materials (based on the interview – he may have been using imprecise terms for a lay audience.) My work has previously been featured on BB, and images can be seen on my site:

    Those looking for a binder/conservator should also consult

  8. Awesome interview. I’m a hobbyist bookbinder, but I wish I could do it more full time. I took a short course on bookbinding at a local arts center last summer and I’ve been making one-offs ever since then. The course taught non-adhesive bindings only, so it was a little different than typical binding methods. The exposed bindings look really nice though. I work mostly with leather now.

  9. For the curious: ASCII encoding (as opposed to, say, EBCDIC). The giveaway is the high quantity of “01000000” pattern in byte-alignment: the SPACE character. The page pictured is Genesis 2 in English.

    An interesting response would be Genesis in binary print of the Hebrew Genesis encoded in Unicode.

  10. 0100100101101110011101000110010101110010011001010111001101110100011010010110111001100111

    (can be translated here: )

  11. Mr. Downey, I assure you I do use archival materials and am a bit perplexed at your assumption that I do not. Regards. 

    1. I based my comment on this passage from the article: “Heavy carton is cut to size and lined with newspaper on the inside…” 

      Standard newspaper and common pressboard are not archival.  Placing a barrier between them and the text block will help, but acid (from manufacturing and secondary contamination due to lignen breakdown) will migrate.  Davey and pH-balanced bookboard are more common for archival work, as well as acid-free liners and other materials.

      Lots of artists make intelligent/informed decisions about materials which aren’t archival. And likewise, if you just didn’t want to get into that level of detail in discussing the matter with the interviewer, I don’t blame you. I have found over the years that these sorts of things get lost in reportage.

      But since conservation of rare books and documents is my business, I try to encourage others to take these factors into consideration. Work as beautiful as yours deserves to last. No offense was intended, just education. If you’re using archival materials, good for you – I wish more people took this into consideration.


  12. Wow, this is great! As someone who has finally realized that I need to work with my hands for a living, I am thrilled to read this interview; it’s inspirational to read about others’ paths to doing work by hand.

    Oh, and: who did the calligraphy/printing on the Binary Bible?

    1. Cassandra2, the Binary Bible is printed. I toyed with the idea of calligraphy, but the thought of doing all those ones and zeros by hand was too much for me. I like working by hand, but not that much!

  13. I walk past a bookbinder’s shop on my way home from work. I take the long way home because I enjoy a bunch of things I see on the way, especially the bookbinder’s shop. I never see anyone inside, and I was imagining that a retired guy keeps it because he can’t bear to close it. But one day I saw a 50-ish woman in the shop, and I wanted to much to go in and talk to her, but I was in  ahurry to get home. I’ve never seen anyone in the shop again. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for me…

    If anyone is looking for a book binder in Lausanne, it’s sous-gare, near Closelet bus stop.

  14. I’d like to mention a bookbinder in Mentone, CA for those in Southern California. I asked the owner, not long ago, if he took on apprentices but he did not.

    The shop is full of beautiful, old equipment and he showed me some of the papers he used. I got the impression the shop wouldn’t be there forever since he was close to retirement age and seemed surprised when I asked about apprenticing.

    Anyway, while I can’t vouch for the work, I wanted to pass this along in case anyone in the area needed a book rebound (or wanted to see an actual bookbinder’s shop!).

  15. Ah, thanks for clearing that up. You were right about not wanting to get into too much detail. In this interview I just wanted to help people imagine the process with things they know and could relate too. And indeed historically, newspaper was often used to line boards.  But, as you point out, standard newsprint is quite acidic. Like you I use acid-free boards and a buffered “newsprint”.

     That being said, for those interested in experimenting with bookmaking, use what you have at hand and know the joy of making something. 

  16. Nice interview. I’m always thrilled to see posts about printing and binding. The book of Genesis in binary is such a clever idea that I’m jealous I didn’t think of it first.

  17. My parents own a bookbindery in Pennsylvania and it’s been in our family for sixty years. The last five years have really changed for my them. I wish the on-demand publishing world involved more binderies but unfortunately it’s primarily printers using machines to do terrible bindings that fall apart. I used to work for a start-up in the on-demand world (based in San Francisco). It was heartening to know that so many people wanted to make physical books but it was disturbing to see how readily the books failed because of poor binding. Books are still an important technology that can’t always be beat. I just hope that the quality of books remains and we don’t move towards books that last, ‘temporarily’.

  18. It’s so wonderful to read your interview! I did a formal apprenticeship in bookbinding and restoration in Montreal years ago and fell in love with the entire culture. There is something very magical about creating these vessels that embark on journeys to parts unknown… carrying stories and collecting the marks of their passage, which in turn become stories in themselves.

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