Book-Crafting Monks Adjust to New Technology


By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Brother John Forbis, left, of Holy Cross Monastery chats with a library retreatant | Holy Cross photo

By design, monasteries reach for the heavens by keeping cloistered and living by their own, set-apart rhythms. But in today’s highly connected world, even monks are experiencing technological disruption as the digital revolution takes a toll on their cherished relationships with old-fashioned print books.

The state of book-related crafts inside two monasteries – one Episcopal and one Roman Catholic, perched on opposite U.S. coasts – bears witness to the pressures monks face as they vie to preserve a revered place for trades that have shaped their respective communities for generations.

In West Park, New York, Holy Cross Monastery has needed to revamp a unique experience – a library retreat – that twice a year puts volunteers to work maintaining this Episcopal community’s 20,000-volume collection. Retreatants increasingly spend chunks of their four-day monastic getaways planted at computer screens, crafting digital records to conform precisely to the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules II.

“Making the catalogue entry easy to read and making the books easy to access – that is very much a craft,” said Brother John Forbis, librarian at Holy Cross. “The digital record needs to look right.”

In Carlton, Oregon, electronic publishing is disrupting a traditional craft and livelihood for Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey. The bookbindery is where six of the abbey’s 19 monks work on custom projects such as binding doctoral theses or repairing books off the shelves of academic libraries in the Portland area. The bindery has long been the Abbey’s financial backbone, bringing in more revenue throughout the year than its baking and wine-making enterprises.

As libraries have switched to electronic books and periodicals, however, bindery orders have plunged. They’re down from more than 1,000 books a week a decade ago to about 340 now, raising questions about the bindery’s long-term future. But the monks’ commitment to the craft, and to physical books as objects worthy of great care, has not wavered.

“You see technology undermining the whole industry, a complex of industries, and that’s kind of what’s happened with bookbinding,” said Brother Chris Balent, a 46-year-old monk and manager of the Trappist Abbey Book Bindery. “It’s the challenge of the monastery interfacing with the world.”

Now Holy Cross and Our Lady of Guadalupe are evolving, each in its own way, to accommodate a world with new technology. Meanwhile, book-related crafts live on within their walls, though for how long and in what forms they’ll endure remain open questions.

Monks and book arts haven’t always been so closely linked as they are today. In the early centuries after Christ, books were thought to be worldly possessions that monks should renounce, according to Greg Peters, associate professor of medieval theology at Biola University in California and adjunct assistant professor at Nashotah House in Wisconsin. Standards began to change with the fourth-century monk Jerome, who was forced to defend his scholarly habits – and his book collection – which he attempted to bring with him to the monastery.

Father Martinus at work in the Trappist Abbey Bookbindery in Carlton, Oregon | Trappist Abbey photo

As years passed and monks became less preoccupied with an imminent end of days, they valued preserving wisdom of their monastic forebears. In their self-sufficient communities, that priority led to internal know-how for making and maintaining books.

“A monastery used to be an enclosed entity like a city in the walls,” Balent said, adding that some monks at Our Lady of Guadalupe still darn their own socks. “So if you had books, you’d want to bind them yourselves because you did everything yourselves.”

In the Middle Ages, literate monks had a unique combination of knowledge, time, skill and materials for producing and maintaining books.

“So much of what we think of as book arts today, including the actual pages – the illuminated pages from manuscripts – did come out of monasteries,” Peters said. “It does make sense that monasteries would still care about preserving those books.”

Monks have been bookbinding at Our Lady of Guadalupe since 1955, Balent said, but as with so many traditions, it didn’t begin with them. They learned it from other monks in Pecos, New Mexico, at a time when the Oregonian community needed a new revenue source to replace farming.

Driven to be competitive, they’ve kept pace with industry standards by sending monks to institutes for training and by acquiring up-to-date machinery. That equipment is used less today as academic libraries switch to digital collections that require no physical maintenance and never wear out.

The art of making and repairing books by hand also lives on in part because custom projects call for it. Example: a customer might pay the bindery $80 to restore a 20-year-old Bible that’s falling apart. Another might want several copies of his/her doctoral thesis bound to a high-quality standard such that the book not only lasts but also stays open when the reader opens it entirely and lays it down.

And bookbinding persists in Carlton for another reason: monks continue to pass it down. The bindery patriarch is a 90-year-old monk named Fr. Martinus Cawley, who joined the community at age 16. When he got pneumonia last year and needed to step away from the trade for a while, Balent made sure Cawley first taught him his binding-by-hand techniques.

The bindery at Our Lady of Guadalupe deploys an economic model that’s built to last as long as the niche can hold out. A key feature: monks are unpaid, laboring solely to support their common life together.

Having no labor costs gives them lower overhead and a big cost advantage over their competitors. For instance, when a secular bindery went out of business in Washington last year, Our Lady of Guadalupe snatched up its customer base. Such industry dynamics could keep buoying the Trappist bindery for a while, Balent says, though he worries that fewer players will mean materials become more expensive and harder to find.

As long as the bindery remains a consistent, nonseasonal revenue source for the monastery, it is expected to stay open – and continue to feed the souls of monks who work there. The manual labor and repetitive motions facilitate a meditativeness that keeps a monk steady, not too talkative, unagitated and undistracted from the ways of Christ.

What’s more, monks bring heart into their work. To honor what a damaged book means to its owner, Balent patiently takes up the time-consuming task of repairing gold leaf lettering by hand on a broken binding. Or he applies small touches like placing a brick on a book’s cover while glue dries on the binding. That gives its pages a tight compact feel forever.

“The person is what’s really important,” Balent said. “I’m always thinking of these people. They give us their theses, and I see their names. That’s a real person, not some anonymous person.”

At Holy Cross, retreats provide an important revenue source while also enabling ministries of hospitality. From September through December this year, Holy Cross will host 21 retreats on themes ranging from yoga and hiking to drawing for iconography. Twice-a-year library retreats tend to attract introverts who revel in the monastic environment, the fellowship and the joy of bringing order to the library materials and to the filing system, according to Forbis, the librarian.

“A major attraction of the retreat for a lay person is to actually practice the daily life of a monk, working in sequence of a balanced day of work and prayer in community,” says Bob Kearney, a regular at Holy Cross library retreats since the first one in 2009. “The call of the bell to pray the office supersedes whatever you’re doing.”

Library retreats involve projects that bring a certain orderly beauty to the library, which stocks works of fiction, science and biographies as well as church-related subjects. Projects for volunteers have evolved over time to suit what’s needed, such as “reading the shelves” to establish an inventory record.

“I was surprised at how popular it was,” said Adam McCoy, prior at Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara, Calif. and former librarian at Holy Cross, via email. “It was a success from the beginning.”

Now, thanks to in part to library retreats that fill up soon after they’re announced, about half of the library’s holdings are catalogued in a digital database. Now monks who have tablets or laptops can search library holdings without leaving their living quarters. And as digital recordkeeping becomes part of life at Holy Cross, retreatants are learning how it too can be an expression of orderly, consistent beauty.

Forbis assigns detail-oriented volunteers to digital recordkeeping. He teaches them exactly what’s needed so that every record follows the same format, right down to putting a space before the colon that precedes a subtitle. In meting out such painstaking consistency, volunteers make sure monks are never thrown off by inconsistency. They instead find a type of calming, simple uniformity that suits their orderly, consistent life together. In that, the digital is being adapted to the monastic, rather than the other way around. And the record becomes more monk-friendly than the old paper filing system.

“Different librarians have been cataloguing in that card catalogue for decades,” Forbis said. “It doesn’t follow the rules that I was trained to do. So the records are inconsistent. Things are often missing on the card.”

As digital technology impacts how monks experience books, some can’t help but feel that something precious is in its twilight, even though it’s not gone yet.

“It gets frustrating when you just see year after year the numbers go down,” Balent said. “It just feels like a matter of time , rather than something that would go on indefinitely.”

But at least for now, opportunities to build, repair, clean, organize and catalogue print books continue to present themselves in monastic settings. And enabling physical books to be read and enjoyed remains a mission of these communities, no matter how far away the horizon might be.

“The spirituality of making something last is very monastic,” Balent said, noting that books made in his bindery can hold up for generations. “That’s one of our vows. We take a vow of stability. We’re here all our lives, and we’re a cloistered community. So it’s like our industry [in making durable books] in a sense reflects how we’re supposed to be. We’re meant to last.”


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