Bookbinding alumnus keeps craft alive in modern times

Adela Talbot // Western News

Western alumnus Dan Mezza is one of a handful of individuals across Canada who teaches bookbinding. His primary work is in restoring old books, by repairing individual papers, re-sewing spines and refurbishing covers, including their leatherwork.

Dan Mezza knows it is a lost art. He has worked to keep it alive for nearly two decades in his home studio in London.

The former social worker – and Western History and Visual Arts graduate – stumbled into bookbinding by chance in the late 1980s. It’s a time he remembers fondly, one that changed the course of his career.

“I was working as a social worker and decided to learn how to draw and paint as a diversion. I took Art at Western part time and, in my second year, took a print-making course. I developed an interest in paper-making, and through that, bookbinding,” Mezza explained.

The trade resonated with him immediately. At the time, he connected with a bookbinder and paper conservator on campus who was working in the Library and Information Science program. Mezza sought out formal training, only to realize it wasn’t readily available.

“Its very difficult to come by the training because there’s no place in Canada that teaches bookbinding. There’s no college or institution. The only formal training you get is from the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild,” he noted.

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Mezza took the six courses offered through the guild, got additional training in the United States and, since then, he has been one of a handful individuals across Canada who practices the trade and teaches it to others.

“It’s been my full-time job for at least 16-17 years. I wish I had done this earlier. The bookbinding I do is mostly conservation, restoration work. I always had an interest in history and historical things, particularly medieval and earlier history, and with my interest in the visual arts, in print-making – it seemed just a natural fit,” he explained.

“The craft is really just hanging by the skin of its teeth. There are so few of us across the country teaching, and it is such a long period of learning the craft.”

Travelling across Canada, Mezza continues to teach the trade through the Bookbinders Guild, but most of his time is spent in his home bindery, bringing old, rare or cherished books back to life. He has worked the Cardinal Carter Library at King’s University College and with Western’s Archives and Research Collections Centre for years, restoring its collection, item by item.

Just last week, he met with University Archivist Robin Keirstead and took home a handful of items from Western’s G. William Stuart Jr. Collection of Milton and Miltoniana – one of the biggest collections of its kind, housing rare first editions from the 17th century. Some books needed a new spine, others needed to be sewn back together – their leather-bound covers needing major repairs.

“A repair may be nothing more than a quick patch-up job so the boards open and the pages turn, with no concern to the historical period or the style. It can be actually going back and trying to use 18th century methods and materials to try to repair it,” Mezza said.

The tools he uses haven’t changed since the Middle Ages. In fact, someone from the 1600s would know how to use them, he noted. It’s Mezza’s skill with these ancient tools, and his ability to match the style and period of a book, that makes him an asset to Western’s archives collections, Keirstead said.

In addition to restoring items from special collections, Mezza gets requests from locals who wish to repair and save items, such as their grandmother’s cookbooks or family Bibles.

“I always have Bibles in. They’re important to a lot of people. The late Victorian Bibles had genealogies in them, so they would have family records going back generations. The book itself may not be worth much, but it’s of sentimental value,” he added.

Mezza has taught a number of members from the Western community, including Jan Van Fleet, a former University Secretariat, and Mirela Parau, Undergraduate Program Assistant in the Department of French Studies.

“He’s really been my mentor. I’ve always been interested in old books, preservation and restoration, archives preservation,” said Pareau, who completed her Masters of Library and information Science at Western in 2008.

“There’s a certain fascination with the object itself. I’m quite aware we are in a Digital Age, but this physical thing – the materiality of our memories – is also important, in my opinion. The trade requires at least 10,000 hours of practice before you somehow get OK at it; Dan is a treasure of knowledge.”

Individuals, like Van Fleet who enjoy making books, likewise value Mezza’s work and teaching. After taking the courses, she was drawn in – so much so, she is the secretary and treasurer of the southwestern Ontario chapter of the Bookbinders Guild, chair of its national education committee and a member of its Board of Directors. She’s been doing this since her retirement.

“People who like books and paper find this very rewarding. It is an art. People who love books take his course and they are just amazed,” she added.