Meet the maker: Ksenia Kopynstynska of Ars Libri

By Emily Coppella

The stories behind Kingston’s only book restoration studio

Ars Libri Book Restoration Studio and Designer Leather Work | 60 Brock Street | Website

Intellect and imagination – Ksenia Kopystynska combines both every time she’s in her book restoration and designer leather work studio. Ars Libri, which means “the art of books” in Latin, was established in 1996. The studio offers hand bookbinding and book restoration services as well as designer leatherwork, and Ksenia does it all by hand, and by herself. Her specialty studio originally operated in Edmonton before Ksenia moved to Kingston in 2016. Within the first month of opening her studio in Kingston, Ksenia received an overwhelming number of orders.

The studio specializes in rare services of designer hand bookbinding, book and document restoration, designer leatherwork, and paper deacidification. Ksenia’s skills serve a variety of customers, from book collectors, special collection libraries and museums to individual customers looking to restore a family Bible, cookbook or document or to leather-bind their favourite book.

Ksenia’s interest in books began as a child growing up in Poland, spending time in her grandparents’ extensive library. She explains how her family collected books for generations:

“They collected books, not because of the covers, but for the intellectual content. When I think about my childhood, I see this huge library with my grandmother sitting there. My grandfather, who was a Latin and Greek professor, was killed in World War II. The only way I could know him was through the books that he collected, and the stories that were connected with them. The interest in restoration happened later, because for a long time I couldn’t decide on my profession. Intellectually, I was interested in so many things. In Poland for six years, I studied Library and Information Science but there were so many different subjects that aroused my interest. I couldn’t decide what to choose. Each time I went to the library to write my thesis, I’d pick up another book.”

In Poland, there was no shortage of work for book restorers, with books requiring attention due to their age or due to damage from war. Ksenia’s university studies in Poland gave her theoretical knowledge in all aspects of book history; training with a master bookbinder gave her the technical skills involved with bookbinding. She also received more training in North America and worked for several years at the University of Alberta preserving books.

Growing up in Europe surrounded by so much medieval architecture inspired Ksenia’s love of medieval aesthetics. She uses inspiration from the Middle Ages as her focus in her work, and then modernizes with metal industrial elements and semi-precious stones. She’s particularly fascinated by how medieval art emphasized the beauty of harmony, as well as cultivated a sense of mysticism. Medieval art was also created without complicated equipment. Ksenia uses the same techniques that were used by medieval bookbinders because bookbinding is a trade that has not changed much since it was invented.

Working with physical books – either designing or restoring them – also gives Ksenia the opportunity to read them, satisfying her desire not to feel limited to one subject. Additionally, designer hand bookbinding ideally combines intellectual and artistic talent. By mixing creativity and technicality, Ars Libri has garnered a reputation for excellence. Ksenia has restored items such as a sixteenth-century medical book and parchment documents damaged in a fire – and has worked with customers from across North America.

“Restoration is a combination of science and art. There is the structure – one has to be very good technically and artistically to make all the repairs and bring the book back to its original condition. There are skills to learn from every bookbinder, from every lab, from every conservator. You just pick up little tricks and things and use them later in the work.”

Despite all her training, Ksenia confesses she is still learning, as every book brought for restoration is different. Rare books require specific and unique skills to match the original technique used to create them, or else one risks destroying the works in the process.

The studio’s designer leatherwork allows Ksenia to tap into her creative side a little more. All her items are handmade with high-quality Italian leather used for book restoration and hand bookbinding. Customers can work with Ksenia to create unique items. As well as designing book covers, Ksenia creates leather journals, leather bags and purses, hats, bracelets, belts, and wallets. She simply loves to work with leather, and she has the technical skills and understanding of its properties required to work well with it. Whereas restoration work requires a specific structure to recreate the original binding, designer leatherwork allows Ksenia the pleasure of flexibility and expression.

Every day spent in her studio is a thrill for Ksenia. Each book has its own story, telling how it began, where it has been, how it was read, and how it was damaged. Ksenia says:

“The book is alive. Every book has a history that starts living in my imagination as soon as I lay my hands on it and turn the pages.”

When Ksenia walks down a street in Kingston, she often hears, “Hi, bookbinder!” The recognition brings her nothing but joy.

“They call me, ‘our bookbinder!’ It’s very rarely I’m referred to by my name. Yes – I am our bookbinder and that’s a very nice thing. The community makes me feel like I’m at home.”

By healing damaged books and creating one-of-a-kind pieces, Ksenia has created a unique chapter in Kingston’s own story.