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Bonded with paper

Newton couple amasses thousands in private collection

On her first date with Sid Berger, Michele Cloonan noticed a copy of Henry Morris's "Roller Printed Paste Papers" in his apartment. "I knew then," she recalls, "that my fate was sealed."

Her conviction was further strengthened upon learning that, as an undergraduate at Berkeley in the 1960s, Sid collected fliers announcing campus protests, labeled them and eventually sold the lot to the Free Speech Movement Archives at the California State Library.

This pair, quite simply, swoon over paper almost as much as each other. Long since married, Berger and Cloonan have assembled an astonishing paper collection in their house in Newton. "We might have the largest private collection of decorated paper in the country," says Sid. No one will accuse him of hubris once they've seen what's there.

"It can't be seen in a week," he says.

But some try. In 1996, 45 people from Santa Barbara came to their house in Riverside, near Los Angeles, to inspect their treasure. A straggler called a few days later to ask if she could see it. The woman then asked to spend the night. They agreed. That was a Saturday. Sunday came and went and she was still there. The woman finally left on Thursday.

We're talking thousands upon thousands of sheets of all kinds of decorated paper, the oldest of which dates to 740 AD from Japan. Their marbled paper collection is endless, including mesmerizing work from a Dutch woman named Karli Frigge that bears no resemblance to anything you've ever seen.

"We have 300 sheets of hers, and it's not enough," says Sid.

We're talking a dizzying array of paste paper, block-printed paper, Dutch Gilt, and Suminagashi.

Japanese marbling that predates Western marbling. Lots of Katazome, too - the Japanese stencils made from Kozo paper and waterproofed with pomegranate juice. (Irish moss, by the way, is used to thicken the water used in marbling.) It goes on and on.

They've got Turkish marbling that frames exquisite caligraphy. Proto-papers such as papyrus, parchment, and tapa. Fabulous watermarked sheets. Blizzards of paper currency from around the world. My favorites are the watermarked securities notes from czarist Russia.

"You can't forge a document unless you can forge the paper it's written on," says Sid, 63, who clearly has a promising career ahead of him making fake passports.

They have watermarks of George Washington and Mona Lisa from Fabriano, the Italian paper mill started in 1276 that is the oldest such company in the Western Hemisphere with an unbroken line of production.

Sid has traveled to Leipzig and Weimar over the past five years for annual meetings to help European libraries catalog their collections. The group concluded that the lingua franca for paper terminology among the different countries must be English. He has developed a thesaurus for cataloging decorated paper, heavily cross-referenced, that should come out by the end of this year.

There are a couple of dozen named marbling patterns and hundreds more that aren't. Overlap is numbing. French Snail, for example, is the same as Dutch Curl. Ditto for Peacock and Bouquet. (In his thesaurus, Sid pronounces the snail to be the preferred usage over the curl.)

Berger also publishes books through The Doe Press that he started in 1978 using the printing press in his basement. He and Michele have released half-a-dozen books of poetry. (Their basement is maintained at 68 degrees and 50 percent humidity.)

There's more. By day, they morph into prominent librarians. The duo must emit more library science per square inch in their house than any other couple in the galaxy.

Michele, 52, is dean and professor of book conservation at Simmons's Graduate School of Library and Information Science, the oldest such program in the country. She chaired the information studies department at UCLA before coming here. She apprenticed in bookbinding in Ireland and got her PhD at the University of Chicago.

Sid was director of special collections for 10 years at the University of California at Riverside and taught the history of the book at UCLA, as he does today at Simmons. He also directed the California Center for the Book, a state-financed project based at UCLA. He was curator of manuscripts at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester before becoming, in June, director of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Library science is an endangered academic field. Programs have tanked over the past couple of decades at big schools like the University of Southern California, Chicago, and Columbia. Graduates of library programs, in turn, increasingly end up off the academic reservation.

They are now trained digital data collectors and catalogers, so you find them in hospitals handling medical records, law firms collating case work, and on Wall Street assembling the financial and accounting data required under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

But I'm still a paper guy. The Observer awards four stars to the X-rated Japanese watermarked paper collection called "The Garden of Dreams," which compares favorably to the dirty frescoes at Pompeii. Again, it goes on and on.

Sam Allis can be reached at

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