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Cover to Cover: Exposing the Bookbinder's Ancient Craft

17 July - 29 September 2017

Curator: Lee Hayes

Bookbinding is a humble pursuit. Rarely does it receive the attention and glamour afforded to other ancient crafts. Unlike the silversmith or the glassblower, whose talents are immediately obvious, the binder’s craft of construction is largely concealed. Durability and function are foremost in the bookbinder’s mind; theirs is a role of guardianship – they serve to protect the book’s contents, guaranteeing its access for generations of readers.

But what if a book’s binding was a story in itself? Could we appreciate and value the intricacy and complexity of its sewing system, its control centre in many ways, if we knew why it was sewn in a particular style? Hidden from view, we hardly spare a thought for its purpose, and yet, the bookbinder does. In fact, there are always reasons why these skilled craftsmen and women choose to bind a book in a certain way.

A binding tells us as much, if not more, about a book’s provenance than an owner’s signature or bookplate. It assists librarians and historians to date and place a work. It provides insight into an owner’s economic and social standing. It imparts information about the spread of ideas, customs, technologies and artistic tastes of the time. It reflects the perceived significance of the book’s content and, importantly, it tells us exactly how a book was intended to be used and how it was actually used.

From forwarding to finishing, and all of the steps in between, this exhibition celebrates the bookbinder, and the unique combination of utility, dexterity and artistry required to excel at this ancient craft. On display will be a variety of exposed bindings; old, rare and fine bindings; bookbinding supplies, and tools and equipment from Rare Books & Special Collections and the curator’s personal collection.

In May 2018, this exhibition was converted into the following online display.

The Three P's: Papyrus, Parchment and Paper So omnipresent in our daily lives is paper that it's easy to take it for granted. It allows us to communicate, to teach, to illustrate and to create.  It forms the newspapers, magazines and books that we read, it adorns our walls and our wallets, and as a tissue it is our best friend when we have a cold. It has survived for centuries... Learn more

Folding the Leaves As the knowledge of papermaking spread it was discovered that sheets of paper could be folded. In fact paper was pliable enough to be folded several times. This process of folding became the first step in the craft of bookbinding.  the binder had no choice as to the size or layout of the book, and, perhaps frustratingly, the quality of paper upon which the text was printed... Learn more

Beating, Rolling, Pressing and Collating

Until the late 1820s most books were beaten before they were sewn. The purpose of this was to make the books as solid as possible; softer, hand-made papers were capable of compressing up to half their thickness. A beating-stone was required for this purpose. The stone, or sometimes an iron slab, provided a hard surface upon which the paper could be placed... Learn more

Sewing and Other Methods of Leaf Attachment  Once the sections had been collated, the next step in the binding process was to sew them together. The purpose of sewing was to connect the leaves in such a way that they would be firm and yet easily opened when bound; it also provided the best means of attaching the book to its cover. There were many different types of sewing methods... Learn more

Endpapers  When opening an old, well-read book, readers will inevitably find its first and last sheets have suffered more than those in between. It is the purpose of endpapers, or endsheets as they are also known, to protect the valuable text at the beginning and end of a book, essentially taking up any strain of opening the covers which would otherwise be on its first and last sections... Learn more

The Marbled Endpaper Marbling, or marbleising as it is also known, was a method of decorating paper with floating colours. Some of these were arranged in such a way as to resemble marble: hence the name. The desired colours were added to a bath of gum or marbleising size and the pattern that formed on the top of the size was removed by laying a sheet of paper upon it... Learn more

Gluing the Spine, Rounding and Backing The purpose of gluing the spine, or 'gluing up' as it was known in the trade, was to hold the sections together, such that they did not shift when it was time to 'round' and 'back' the book. Rounding and backing did not form part of the bookbinding process until the 1500s, so glue was not required before then. Since that time a variety of glues have been used, the earliest made from animal hide... Learn more

Boards and Their Attachment Whether wood, paste-board or other, the boards provided the ultimate protection for any book, bound or cased.  Attachment of the right boards in the correct manner was crucial if the book was to retain its strength over time.  Board thickness having been determined during the backing process, the next step was to cut the board to size... Learn more

Edge Trimming Since the sewn textblock was composed of folded sheets, the edges need to be cut so that every page could be turned. The time-honoured method for binding books is 'in-boards'. When it came to trimming a book's page edges, it was important to understand the distinction between this and the method for cutting 'out-of-boards' work... Learn more

Edge Decoration The practice of standing a book on its edge is relatively new. Until the 16th century books were shelved in a variety of ways, the most common of which involved piling them horizontally with their fore-edge facing outwards. Issues with identification were resolved by marking them with a design on this edge or by writing the book's title on it... Learn more

Headbands The headband was a decorative band comprised of silk or cotton thread wrapped around a supportive strip. It was positioned between the back of the folded sections and the book covering at head and tail of the spine, its purpose originally one of function not beauty. It provided the spine with additional support and filled the space on the back of the book that was lower than the board edges... Learn more

Spine Lining Surprisingly little has been documented about the purpose or indeed the need to line the back of the book before it was covered. It was not a practice adopted in the early days of the English codex; in fact no attempt was even made to stick the backs of the sections together at all in very early bindings, let alone to a cover... Learn more

Cloth One of the single most important events in the history of bookbinding is the development of bookcloth. Its invention is generally attributed to London bookbinder Archibald Leighton who, in 1823, collaborated with a dyer to transform plain cotton fabric into a material suitable for covering books. The first bookcloth was a dyed calico, prepared with a type of filler so as to make it impenetrable to glue... Learn more

Covering the Cased Book Rarely were the boards of a book cased in cloth attached before covering. Instead they were cut to a size proportionate to that of its pages. The square, or projection beyond the book edge, varied depending on the item to be covered but it was usually about one sixteenth to a quarter of an inch.  The binder selected the thickness of the board based on the weight and size of the book...  Learn more

Leather For centuries leather had been an important covering material for books. In The history of English craft bookbinding technique, Middleton suggested that leather had been in use in England since the Saxon times. The type of leather to grace the covers of these books was not well documented, however, later volumes of the 12th and 13th centuries appeared to be bound in goatskin... Learn more

Covering with Leather Before the binder could commence covering they needed to nip off a small piece of each board, at head and tail, near the joint and the headbands. This process, called back cornering, provided the headbands with a place to lodge, without protruding from the sides of the book once it was covered. It also allowed the boards to open easily... Learn more

Cover Decoration - Hand Tooling One of the oldest forms of cover decoration, ‘tooling’ involved the use of metal devices known as finishing tools. Usually heated, these implements were impressed into the leather surface to create a pattern or design. Unlike blocking, which required the use of a press, tooling was performed by hand. The tools were given different names (pallets, fillets, gouges and rolls), according to their purpose... Learn more

Cover Decoration - Blocking Until the 19th century every letter, ornament or unit of decoration had to be applied to a book’s cover or spine using a separate heated tool. This took considerable time and skill, and although inventions such as the type holder, which allowed for concurrent impression of words, sped up the titling process, it wasn’t enough to meet the ever-increasing demand for books... Learn more

When Bindings Go Bad... There are many reasons why bindings begin to fail. A small percentage of these can be attributed to poor workmanship and inappropriate choice or quality of materials used during the initial binding binding process; the vast majority, however, can simply be chalked up to the ravages of time. Though robust if constructed well, books are not interminable... Learn more

Good, Better, Best...Not to be confused with 'poor', 'fair', or 'fine' (for these are booksellers' terms), the 'Good, Better, Best' cabinet was created to showcase some of the curator's personal favourites from the collection. Hand-picked for their beauty, uniqueness and impeccable detail, these books highlight the training, practice, artistry and patience necessary for a binder to reach the pinnacle of their career... Learn more

Acknowledgements and Recommended Reading The curator would like to thank all of those who have provided inspiration for Cover to Cover: Exposing the Bookbinder's Ancient Craft. Without your knowledge, support and enthusiasm, this exhibition would not have been possible. I am particularly indebted to Cheryl Hoskin and Marie Larsen of Rare Books & Special Collections, Barr Smith Library, who have been invaluable as a sounding board for ideas...  Learn more

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