Saturday, April 3, 2010

Trying to Preserve an Ancient Art

As the Trappist monks of Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Oregon celebrate Easter this year, they are facing a serious decline in one of the businesses that sustains them: bookbinding. For hundreds of years, many of the finest bookbinderies have been associated with monasteries; but now, a combination of digital publishing and economic hard times has led to a sharp drop off in business for the abbey. Instead of binding up collections of periodicals, college libraries are putting the documents online. And budget cuts have caused government agencies, another major customer, to put off upgrading their archives.

Appropriately enough, the monks are responding to this loss of business by going to the very sphere responsible for the drop off: cyberspace. They've set up a website,, to promote their bindery not only to institutions but also to individuals, who form the customer base for one of their most cherished -- and renowned -- services: rebinding family bibles.

As Ed Langlois points out in an article about the monks' business, this is about more than the welfare of one Trappist abbey. Digital archiving may seem a cheap, efficient way to preserve documents, but a simple virus or software glitch could conceivably cause such a collection to disappear. And, as one of the brothers of Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey points out, "a few catastrophes may bring people back to hard copies." Especially when created with care by those who know and love the art of bookbinding.

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