17 May 2023

The Role of Librarians in Preserving Endangered Crafts

Post by Laura Ryan, Assistant Librarian, Special Collections & Archives, DCU Library.

A store room of 17th and 18th century leather bound books, DCU Library
All librarians, and in particular Special Collections librarians, have long played a role in preserving history. Through outreach programmes, genealogy, recording oral history, or simply in our long-term care for books – we play a role in ensuring the history of a place, a community or craft continues long after we have retired. We generally also love books – the smell, the feeling of paper, leather bindings and of course the contents. It puts us in a unique place. We have an appreciation and often an in-depth understanding of the craft of books, as well as access to them and their care. 

Red List of Endangered Crafts 2023 banner.
The UK charity Heritage Crafts has released its 2023 edition of the Red List of Endangered Crafts.
Funded by The Pilgrim Trust with additional sponsorship from The Royal Mint, Heritage Crafts undertake enormous research to rank traditional crafts in the UK by the likelihood they would survive into the next generation. There is no equivalent for the Republic of Ireland but the report includes data from Northern Ireland. Unsurprisingly, included on the list are many of the crafts which together created the physical books that line our Special Collections stores. 

There are four categories of risk within the report: Extinct, Critically Endangered, Endangered, and Currently Viable. Many criteria decide the ranking, from the number of those employed in the craft, to trainees, to serious amateur makers and leisure makers. The viability of making a living while practising a craft, market issues including supply, industrialisation of the process, and cost of machinery or tools, public awareness of the craft, as well as many more factors are represented in the report. 

Pertaining to book craft only, here are the following crafts now Extinct, Critically Endangered, or Endangered in the UK:



The process of beating gold until it is thin gold leaf. For book craft, this is used to gold tool bindings or to illuminate manuscripts. Beaten gold is still available – though done now by machine and imported. 

Critically Endangered

Fore-edge Painting

The application of an image onto the fore-edge of a book. Usually applied while the pages are fanned out at an angle, the process means that if covered in gold, the image will completely disappear when the book is closed. For an example of this in an Irish collection, see “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”  from UCD’s Cultural Heritage blog.

Paper making (commercial handmade)

Thqe process of hand-forming paper, using a mould and deckle to gather and form the sheet of paper. Paper made this way is generally formed of cotton and linen flax. The report also notes that the manufacturing of the mould and deckle no longer takes place in the UK.

Parchment and Vellum Making

Parchment is made of sheep and goatskin, while vellum is made of calfskin. Both have made up our manuscripts and books for several centuries. The report notes that much of the public does not understand what vellum is in particular which is part of the decline. Vellum is more flexible than paper and survives far longer over time than modern conventional paper. Many of our books from the 1400s and 1500s made of these materials are in far greater condition than books from the 1980s. 



Embellishment of a manuscript with gold leaf on a gesso base, as well as decoration with colouring. We may be most familiar with historiated initials: illuminated capitals which begin a book or section. The report notes that there is very little demand for this type of illumination these days.


Printing using hand-setting and a variety of presses. This is the form of printing developed by Johannes Gutenberg and was the primary form of printing of books from the 15th to 20th centuries. This craft is maintained currently by artisan or fine art printers.

An example of Spanish Moiré marbling, DCU Library.
Paper Marbling

A form of aqueous surface design, this is the process of floating inks on mixture of water and surfactant, creating designs within that floating ink and transferring it onto paper. This is traditionally applied to endpapers but became common on outer bindings when leather became more expensive. It can also be applied to fore-edges. To read more on marbled paper in Ireland, see “Marbled Paper: History of an Endangered Bookcraft”.


The process of using vegetable tannins to convert raw hide into leather. This is used for the exterior bindings of books. Due to some processes within the creation of leather, it can degrade over centuries and crumble. It is often subject to an issue referred to as ‘red rot’. Conservation of this is difficult and binding with leather has become much rarer. 

What now for librarians?

Why does it matter to us as librarians? Quite simply, the books that we are charged with preserving and conserving require the sustained existence of the craft  so that conservators can source materials (now and into the future) that match the process and materials of the book being conserved. 

So what can we as Special Collections librarians do about this issue? We can’t fix the issue ourselves and many factors are far beyond our control or remit: economics, supply issues, traineeships, loss of skilled people to pass on the craft, etc. However, the report mentions several factors that librarians do have an impact on. 


Creating accurate 563 fields (binding notes) which use consistent and accessible terminology so that the crafts involved can be found through catalogue searches and tracked through collections. This means that we have to be knowledgeable about the crafts in order to adequately describe them. Research into understanding how things are made must be part of our role so that we can best understand how to preserve them. 


Recently, someone mentioned to me that ‘materiality of the book’ had been overdone, because the research exists. This does not negate the sharing of that knowledge and research. The report mentions a lack of public awareness of the crafts. Librarians are both keepers of and speakers for these books. It is important that when we do outreach sessions, talks, seminars, blogs or tweets that we include descriptions of and information about the processes behind the books. We need to share our knowledge and understanding to generate interest in those processes. Few of those people will ever follow up on becoming a professional in the craft, but they may pursue it as a leisure maker and generate business for a craftsperson to run classes and make a livelihood. In doing so, we also further the memory and preserve the history of the craft. We, too, create historical records in our research output and outreach efforts. 


Very few of us, especially here in Ireland, have significant funding for purchasing. When we do purchase, due to the nature of our existing holdings, we often look to older collections on sale or available from donors. We spend much of our time delving into the past. It is time to look at the present, as a gateway to future collections. There are local craftspeople using all of the above techniques in Ireland. Specialist publishers, binders and fine art printers, from Stoney Road Press to The Salvage Press are current creators of specialist limited edition publications that keep alive these crafts in Ireland, but also publish works to match our interests in Irish literature and culture holdings. 

What librarians can do may affect only a small part of the ongoing legacy of book crafts, however  it is pertinent that we adequately understand the process of these crafts and their history, to contribute to their ongoing maintenance while supporting current local businesses and craftspeople where possible. 

Laura Ryan in an Assistant Librarian in Special Collections & Archives at Dublin City University. With a background in Art History, she has a particular interest in the book as an object, and the continuation of book craft practices.


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