• Alex Appella

Bookbinding as a Tool in the Classroom: Identity and Empowerment

The Traveling Library, the "Entonces el libro" Suitcase
What happens when a book with a non-traditional format becomes an educational tool in the classroom?

I am a writer, bookbinder and traveler with a life that orbits around the power and possibilities of books. Since 2013, I coordinate The Traveling Library, the "Entonces el libro " Suitcases. The suitcases travel throughout Argentina, non-stop and free of charge, visiting schools, museums and libraries. They contain several sponsored copies of Entonces el libro, a study guide, and a registry where each school shares its experience. The traveling libraries offer a unique way to work with subjects such as identity, immigration, the Second World War, expression, research methodology, discrimination, ethics, and quite regularly, the consequences of the last military dictatorship here in Argentina. And as if this was not inspiring enough, as an author and bookbinder, I am fascinated to see how most of the participants decide to make a book of their own that tells their story, after working with the traveling library. "Our time with the traveling library was experienced as a collective construction...that meant that "Entonces el libro" became a collective storyline of profound humanity in which we saw ourselves constructing, transforming and building together the social memories that represent our struggle for freedom." -Teaching collective of the Cultural Participation Area belonging to the Cabred Institute of the Faculty of Education and Health of the Provincial University of Córdoba, Argentina. I created Entonces el libro for personal reasons. If my Great Uncle János could not go to the grave with our family’s history, nor could I. I wrote the book in my unedited voice: collage. Not only that, the book is constructed in a circle. When you reach the end, you start again to discover the new layers of clues that are hidden on each page. It is a format that invites the reader to discover, investigate and question personal structures as we had to do as a family when we learned our true history. Witnessing Entonces el libro become an educational tool, one that is used to work with identity, discrimination, visual arts, history, and ethics, puts in perspective everything that happened to us as a family, and what happened to me and my Great Uncle János along the way.

"We have students who are part of the Mapuche people ... many students talked about their stories with very painful words. The possibility [arose] of naming what many times, for several generations, they had to hide because it was dangerous. This was really very valuable for us ... We know that it is important that these truths be said inside a school. That someone can say where they are from, what their history is and not have to silence their own voice, nor their own language." -Adriana García Montero, Teacher Training Institute. Bariloche, Province of Rio Negro, Argentina. Over and over I am tremendously moved to see that the creation of artist’s books - individual and collective works - is a natural consequence of working with the traveling libraries in the classroom, despite the very limited exposure (if any) that most students have to the world of artist's books. Through their creations they demonstrate that when we explore our identity through a book made personally, we learn: · that the creation of content and design that represents us, in any format, releases an unequaled emotion that generates personal transformations. · that we do not have to have a university degree, a certain age, or even be literate in order to write our own story in a powerful, unique voice. · that the materials and resources that surround us are more than enough to make the very book we need.

For five years now, schools and teachers have been sending me photos as they work with the Traveling Libraries. For five years I have been overwhelmed by the challenge of transmitting or quantifying what they express about their experiences. These photos are an attempt to summarize the wondrous things they share. Here you can see: books that speak, that heal, that invite us to believe that in the classroom, we can achieve the transformation that will lead to a healthier and more equitable society. When we encounter ourselves, we encounter those around us. We generate empathy.

The photos show books made by students of all ages, by future teachers, by people with and without economic resources, people from big cities, and from remote small towns. Each photo represents at least 100 more that have been sent to me. Each photo is a hopeful story, a beautiful anecdote. Take the one that is a skirt, for example. The teacher Andrea Bottero tells us, "Everyone chose the format of their book, and there was a lot of commitment to what they did. Each production represented them in all aspects, as did the materials they chose to work with. It was not easy to talk about themselves, you had to put the good and the not so good. In one of the folds of the skirt, she hang her report card from her first year back at school (as an adult finishing high school). It shows how important returning to the classroom meant to her and that moved me a lot."

The Traveling Libraries, the "Entonces el libro" Suitcases
"Dying of love would be the ideal."

I cannot say enough how the traveling library, the "Entonces el libro" suitcase would not flourish so if it were not for the educators who take it into their classrooms with such commitment, creativity and faith.

"The message [from the traveling library] for the students and for the whole community has many facets: creativity, innovation, the search for new opportunities, not to lower one's arms in the face of adversity...because all of that can be found inside the traveling library: the inspiration to dream big..."

-Alba Cerutti, Teacher Training Institute, General Roca, Rio Negro Province, Argentina.

I value that by their very nature, so many educators see that binding books in the classroom not only allows students to explore their identity, it provides them with versatile tools to demonstrate what they have learned. They avoid the stress and hierarchy of an exam in order to celebrate the material presented in the classroom, empowering the student to transform their new knowledge into a book.

My favorite resource for bookbinding activities in the classroom is Susan Kapuszinski Gaylord. I cannot recommend her projects and her approach enough. Enjoy her knowledge here.


"So I believe that thinking with the traveling library ... is to visit once again the value of memory, as a space where we can build a future, to think about the past—today—in order to generate a different tomorrow."

-Patricia Dominguez, Teacher, Comodoro Rivadavia, Province of Chubut, Argentina.


Leer esta nota en español aquí.