Father and Son Bookbinders

Jim Craven works on a rare book in the Michigan Historical Collections in the Bentley Library

George Craven

When George Craven retired as superintendent of binding for the university in 1962, after 38 years with the U-M and sixteen years as binding supervisor, his fellow employees honored him at a party. But the greatest honor bestowed on Mr. Craven may have been when his son, Jim, followed in his bookbinding footsteps.

George Craven, a native of England, served as captain in the British Army during World War I, and was decorated for his service. He and his wife, Elsie, came to the United States in 1919, after marrying in Bradford, Yorkshire, and two years later, their first son, Jack, was born, followed by James.

In 1924, George began working for the University of Michigan as a bookbinder.

James began working for the U-M and his father while still in high school, in 1947. Both father and son worked in the basement of the Hatcher Graduate Library. After graduating from high school, James began working full-time for his father, but a few years later took a temporary leave from U-M to serve his country, again like his father, but in the United States Army. He served for two years, in Korea and Japan, before returning to the U-M in 1953.

James, like his father, had a unique view of the goings-on at the university-not through a window, but through the printed press, and the bindery. He remembers printing the notices about the 1955 polio vaccine trial-a trial, announced at Rackham Auditorium. He recalls lovingly the work he did on books dating back to the 1300s, as well as rare (odd) books, including one in a Bentley Historical Library collection that has a series of bellows in the guts of the book with strings leading out of it, making a harmonica-sounding noise when the strings are pulled.

Similar to what mothers say about lovingly parenting their children, Craven says, "You can't approach [bookbinding and book repair] thinking that one thing is more valuable than another."

George Craven retired in 1962, and James carried on. When the Rackham basement bindery closed in 1974, James took the position of document restoration specialist, headquartered at the Bentley Historical Library. For six months out of the year, he worked on Michigan Historical Collections materials housed at the Bentley, and in the remaining six months, he worked two months each for the William L. Clements Library (which specializes in Americana), the Special Collections Library (formerly Rare Books Room) in the Hatcher Graduate Library (an eclectic collection of rare books), and the Law Library's Rare Books Room.

Some men retire and set their sights on the rolling hills, soft greens, and wide-open spaces of golf courses, to drink in the beauty of the land. The Cravens, father and son, chose the cramped dark spaces of library basements, relishing and restoring beautiful and rare books, their leathers and endpapers.

James Craven retired for good in 2012, after 63 years (65 years if one counts the two years of part-time work for the university while in high school), to spend more time with his family golden retriever.

As for the swing toward digitization, and reading books off of electronic reading devices, Jim says, "We still want to see the original. People want to see (and feel) the real thing."