Tag Archives: Bindings

Ligatus Summer School 2017

I have been fascinated by books as physical objects ever since I was a student in the MLIS programme at UCLA, where I somehow got a job making archival boxes and doing simple book repairs in the Library Conservation Center. It was in the conservation lab that I encountered my first 400-year-old book, and it is largely because of that experience that I decided to specialise in rare books librarianship. For several years, I have wanted to enrol in Professor Nicholas Pickwoad‘s course on European Bookbindings, 1450-1830, which he offers every year through various different programmes including Rare Book School at the University of Virginia and London Rare Books School. Earlier this month, I finally had the opportunity to enrol in his course through Ligatus Summer School, and it was every bit as exciting (and exhausting) as I’d hoped.

Norwich_Cathedral_Library

The library at Norwich Cathedral.

This year’s summer school was hosted by the Norwich Cathedral Library, and consisted of lectures in the mornings, followed by hands-on sessions looking at examples of different binding structures in the afternoons. Two of the afternoons were spent in the cathedral library itself, and during the rest of the week we visited the libraries of Blickling Estate, Holkham Estate, and Felbrigg Hall. It was a real treat to be able to go behind the scenes of these historic properties and examine portions of their book collections in detail.

Blickling_long_gallery

Sir Richard Ellys (1682-1742) moved his library from London to Blickling Hall in Norwich in the 1740s.

The first day of the course included the usual round of introductions: who we are, where we come from, and why we’re on the course. Out of twelve students on the course, I was surprised to learn that I was one of just two librarians; all of the other students were book and paper conservators. While I enjoyed the chance to meet people from different backgrounds, I was somewhat disappointed that my own profession was not better represented. Because rare book stacks are not generally open for browsing, the library catalogue (or sometimes a particularly knowledgeable librarian) is the only avenue for researchers to find items that are relevant to their research. Unless cataloguers are able to describe bindings and other types of material evidence with the same level of accuracy and detail that we devote to bibliography, we are failing to provide researchers with an important means of accessing our collections. As it becomes possible for anyone with an internet connection to view a digitised version of the British Library or Bayerische Staatsbibliothek‘s copy of a particular text or edition, it is the unique characteristics (like bindings) of individual copies of books that will attract researchers into special collections reading rooms.

battered_books

Damaged books can reveal structural details that would not otherwise be visible.

Until quite recently, most of the literature on the history of bookbinding has focussed almost exclusively on decorative features such as tooling, exotic leathers, and colourful onlays rather than on the underlying structures. In other words, bindings are analysed as works of art rather than archaeological artifacts. Professor Pickwoad, on the other hand, emphasises the importance of identifying and cataloguing binding structures as evidence of when and where a book was bound, by whom, and for what purpose.

We looked at quite a lot of very beautiful books, but in many ways it was the ugly, battered ones that were the most interesting. It was the books whose endpapers were peeling and whose leather covers were torn that allowed us to see what materials the binder had chosen for the sewing supports and spine linings, and where he (or she) had cut corners to save time and money.

The purpose of a binding is to hold a book’s pages together and protect them against wear. During the Middle Ages, books were tremendously expensive luxury items, and binders took great pains to ensure that such a significant investment was well protected. With the advent of the printing press, books were produced in much larger numbers and at a fraction of the cost, and binders found numerous inventive ways to keep up with the demand for large numbers of reasonably-priced books, usually at the expense of structural integrity.

cartonnage_covers

These books look similar from the outside, but each one’s structure is slightly different.

Over the course of the week, we looked at each of the steps in binding a book, from assembling the endleaves, to sewing the bookblock, rounding and backing, sewing the endbands, attaching the boards, trimming the edges, covering the book, and finally finishing. With each step, we looked at how the techniques and materials used varied across regions, time periods, and price points. It was fascinating to see how books that looked almost identical on the surface revealed a multitude of different structures underneath, which could be traced to different times and places.

Prior to the industrial age, it was not uncommon for books to be sold without bindings or in cheap, temporary bindings, and for customers to have them rebound according to their taste and budget. Because bindings were often selected by the purchaser rather than the bookseller, they can tell us whether the reader was wealthy or poor, ostentatious or subdued, local or foreign. Over a book’s lifetime, it may be rebound because the old binding was worn or damaged, or because the owner wanted to dress it up a little. Some wealthy book collectors had their entire libraries rebound and decorated in a uniform style. By looking at a book’s underlying structure as well as its decorations, it is sometimes possible to find elements of earlier bindings which can tell us when and where the book was being read, and by whom.

unbound_sheets

Nicholas Pickwoad shows the class an Early Modern book that remains an unbound pile of hastily folded sheets.

Professor Pickwoad gives his students an enormous amount of information to absorb (for example, the leather preferred by Oxford bookbinders was often especially dark in colour, and they often tooled patterns of cross-hatching on their board edges near the spine; French binders often attached their boards by lacing the sewing slips through three holes instead of two; German binders often put especially sharp creases on the fore-edge extensions of their parchment bindings), but after a week of looking at dozens of examples, it was all beginning to sink in. As a rare materials cataloguer, I have always tried to include at least a brief description of each book’s binding–if nothing else, knowing what a book looks like makes it easier for library staff to find it on the shelf. Now, this course has given me the knowledge and vocabulary to describe not only what a book looks like, but how it was made. More importantly though, it has given me a new appreciation for the importance of bindings as artifacts that can help us to understand the movement of goods, people, and ideas throughout history. My hope is that by including better descriptions of bindings in the library’s catalogue, I can help to open up new avenues of research rooted in the archaeology of the book.

table_of_books

One of my classmates takes advantage of a tea break to record details of some of the books at Holkham Estate.

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Cataloguing about Corn

This guest post comes from Keeley Durnell, a postgraduate student in the school of English, Communication and Philosophy, and who has been cataloguing Early Modern books from the Cardiff Rare Books collection as part of a Project Management module. 


Well, not just about corn. Corn and religion. These are the sorts of topics that I have come across since I began cataloguing some of the vast array of rare books in Special Collections. The Rare Books section at Cardiff University boasts a fantastically diverse range of material with which to satisfy anyone’s scholarly interests.

One which I had the privilege to work on this week was The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher, bound with A Poem on the Redeemers Work; or Christ all in all, and our complete redemption (1647) and No Salvation without Regeneration (1647). This was a fascinating volume for many reasons.

Marrow Jaunty Title Page

The Title Page of The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher (London: Giles Calvert, 1647)

Firstly, the texts that were bound together were all religious in nature, but they were from at least two separate authors. Completing the records for these texts was therefore difficult, because only the first text had a title page to glean information from, and the other two texts did not even have so much as a named author, let alone imprinting or publication information.

Merged Title Pages

Titles Pages of ‘A Poem on the Redeemers Work’ and ‘A Poem on the New Birth’, both bound with Fisher (London: Giles Clvert, 1647).

There were also several ownership inscriptions from different years accompanied by some interesting upside down pen trials (the technical term for doodles) which could be found on the inside of the back end paper in this particular book.

Marrow Pen Trials

The pen trials found in The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

Getting glimpses into previous centuries and lives so far from my own is one of the things I find the most intriguing about being able to catalogue the rare books.

I have had the opportunity to see leather bound books and hand sewn text blocks with sprinkled or dyed edges and they are sometimes so different to the type of books that are commercially available today. As part of my studies are concerned with print culture, getting to examine texts that went through the original printing presses and seeing engraved plates and woodcut borders is just fascinating. To know that in just a few centuries that books have changed so much in terms of their production and distribution is incredible.

Marrow Binding

The Binding of The Marrow of Modern Divinity

Comparing modern imitations of old styles, such as this version of The Complete Works of Shakespeare that was published in 2004, with original copies from across the centuries is indescribably useful when thinking about modern print culture and how it has changed and is still changing.

Shakespeare_book

The 2004 Edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (New York, Barnes and Noble Inc, 2004)

There is so much that the Rare Books Collection can offer to students of literature, history, religion and numerous other subjects. But, even if there is nothing there which is relevant to your research interests, I would definitely recommend popping down and taking a look at all the beautiful items that make up the Special Collections. It is any book lovers dream.

 

Innovative Historical Conservation in SCOLAR

A seminar in the University Library organized by SCOLAR showcased two new innovative methods of conservation for rare books – one to extend the lifespan of the books, the other to extend our knowledge of the history of those books and their bindings.

A guest speaker from Northampton’s Leather Conservation Centre, Lara Meredith, a professional conservator, outlined a new technique for combating acidification in leather, which causes red dusty rot of the material. The new technique will give at least another generation of life to rare books suffering from ‘red rot’.

A second speaker, Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, of the University of the Arts London, has devised a new methodology for analysing, identifying, and describing the historical physical structure of rare books – in a way which opens up a whole new field for extending our knowledge of the early origins, production, trade, and use of rare books. Such new data will trace the historical and geographical journey of volumes, and chronicle the narrative of their use over the centuries, the ‘archaeology of the book’ as Prof. Pickwoad noted. Such studies based on whole collections could open up whole new layers of historical evidence to enhance our understanding of the material conditions which prevailed in the book trade and libraries, and of individual ownership and use of books since the dawn of printing in the 15th century.

Dr Thanasis Velios, a colleague of Prof. Pickwoad, demonstrated the database he has created to capture the layers of data discovered using the new methodology of analysis of binding structures and materials, and showed the potential to utilize the data for a range of potential research fields across the Humanities.

An external conservation grant from the Colwinston Trust, negotiated via Development and Alumni Relations (DEVAR), has enabled conservation already to begin on the Cardiff Rare Books Collection, and enabled this seminar, which was attended by University academics, librarians, archivists, and staff from the National Museum of Wales Library and Glamorgan Archives, to take place.