Binding the Book of Negroes

Book artisans Katherine Victoria Taylor and Joe Landry demonstrate how the press operates. Photo credit: Joseph Muise
Book artisans Katherine Victoria Taylor and Joe Landry demonstrate how the press operates. Photo credit: Joseph Muise

How do you recreate a historical document of which there are no pictures? That was the dilemma facing Joe Landry, a Halifax-based book binder and conservator, when he was asked to create the essential prop used in the miniseries.

Gazette-press
Before: Type is set in a chase to print a reproduction of Canada’s first newspaper, the Halifax Gazette published by John Bushell.  Photo credit: Joseph Muise

An elegant reproduction of the first newspaper printed in Canada, the Halifax Gazette published by John Bushell.

“The biggest problem is that the book was used over a rather wide period, from the 1700s through to the early-1900s,” says Landry. His apprentice Katherine Victoria Taylor adds, “The actual document has been rebound so many times that we had to work with what we thought it would have looked like.”

Using a mix of new materials, such as calf skin, and reproductions including fine linen cloth that Landry purchased in England, the pair bound a beautiful volume that book binders of the era would recognize. 

Caption goes here Photo credit: Joseph Muise
After: While it’s not historic to the time in which the miniseries is set, this newspaper page does highlight the press’s abilities. Photo credit: Joseph Muise

John Bushell

Landry has immense respect for those book binders of yore, so he was disappointed when the director vetoed his first choice reproduction cellulose paper for a modern wood pulp blend. But when it came time to line the spine of the book, he selected a loose page from a book made during the period in which the Book of Negroes novel was set. “That would be very typical of a book binder of that period, using some loose sheets or printer’s waste, nothing was thrown away. It would either end up re-pulped into new paper or used to line boards or spines,” says Taylor.

For Landry, the choice was in part a structural one, but also a bit romantic. “It helps with the integrity of the book, but also I like the idea of the book that was supposed to be from the mid-1700s actually containing paper from the period.”

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Kim Hart Macneill is an award-winning journalist and the editor of Atlantic Books Today. Follow her on Twitter via @kimhartmacneill

Written By

Kim Hart Macneill is a journalist and magazine editor whose work has appeared in This Magazine, Canadian Business, and East Coast Living. She divides her time between Halifax and Moncton.

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