CHARLESTON, S.C. —
The oldest library in the South has started its own book bindery to bind, by hand, new editions of historic books and repair books in its collection of tens of thousands of volumes dating to the 15th Century.
“There are several lifetimes of work in this library,” said Brien Biedler, who has been the bookbinder at The Charleston Library Society since August.
Biedler, 22, has been binding books for almost four years now. He learned his trade both working with collections at The College of Charleston, where he graduated, and with noted bookbinder Don Rash of Plains, Pa.
The library was established in 1748 by 19 Charlestonians who said they didn’t want their children to grow up, as they put it, like savages. It’s thought to have as many as 100,000 volumes. No one is really sure because most of the volumes are on old card catalogues and the library has embarked on a multi-year effort to completely tally its collection.
The oldest volume is a 1492 Bible.
To support the library’s new bindery and archival lab, the library published a new, limited edition of the “Carolinian Florist,” a 1798 work by John Drayton, a noted naturalist and South Carolina governor who was also one of the founders of the University of South Carolina.
The limited edition of only 16 volumes includes a number of watercolors by Drayton, the grandson and namesake of the builder of Drayton Hall, the noted plantation house on the Ashley River outside of Charleston.
Next the bindery will produce a limited edition of John Locke’s “Fundamental Constitution for Carolina” with a foreword written by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner.
Besides working on the new editions, Biedler will be spending a lot of time repairing and rebinding editions already in the library’s massive collection. The library is the third-oldest circulating library in the nation.
“We have books patrons bring by that need to be rebound. We have the infinite number of books that need to be fixed here and we have more projects coming up like the Drayton book,” said Biedler, who also manages to find time to teach book binding to interested students at Wando High School, his alma mater in nearby Mount Pleasant.
Biedler says he became interested in book binding after taking art classes in high school.
“My grandparents had old books and I was reading things like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and I’ve always been fascinated with medieval stuff and rare books,” he said.
A hand-bound book can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on what a customer wants, he said.
And even in an age of increasing technology and tablets that can hold dozens of books, Biedler thinks there will always be a place for leather bindings and paper.
“The Kindle isn’t hurting us really,” he said. “If anything, it threatens the book as an object and people are willing to invest a little more.”
Books, he said, is a way of storing information and ideas “allowing them to be picked up or set down, rediscovered or continued anytime. It is my job to make this housing as permanent as possible.”
Books are permanent, not subject to the whim of electronics where materials stored on tablets and computers can be lost to glitches, he said while holding a small book in Latin dating to 1649 from the library collection.
“I can look though this book and even though I don’t understand a word, it gives me such a joy to flip through it and look though it and to think someone took the time to put this together by hand,” he said.