The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 7, Number 4
Sep 1983

Rare Book School, 1983: Historical Bookbindings

by Pamela Spitzmueller
Rare Book Conservator, Restoration Office, Library of Congress

[In July and August, the Columbia University School of Library Service offered eight five-day non-credit courses on topics concerning rare books and special collections. One of these courses was "Comparative Historical Bookbindings and Their Preservation," given July 18-22. --Ed.]

The week was spent absorbing the specialties, objectives and methodologies of the speakers. Willman Spawn focuses on 18th century American leather bindings with an interest in individual binders and particular shops in certain American cities. Sue Allen concentrates on American Victorian publishers' bindings with great interest in the design features and the reflection of the mechanical technology in the evolution of styles. Chris Clarkson's special interest is early western books, especially 12th century books, as this is the earliest period from which groups of books survive. Materials, workmanship, structure and artifact protection are in the forefront of his concerns. Gary Frost's interest is the period of transition, around 1830, from the laced board to the cased construction. This made a nice bridge to Sue Allen's studies, which begin with the use of cloth as a covering material.

All speakers emphasized information building. One can not draw conclusions from only a few examples. (Willman Spawn has 15,000 rubbings:) Masses of examples are needed to get a feel for the usual so that one can recognize the unusual. Contemporary data about the books one studies--business account books, books as they appear in works of art, patents, trade journals, diaries, literary criticism, etc.--make up the other primary source.

The instructors described systems used to record the appearance and structure of bookbindings. These included rubbings, specialized feature cards, drawings, photographs, photocopies, and films. Data organization and its visual representation--bar graphs, battleship curves, time lines, modelmaking--were also presented.

The difficulties of terminology arose. There was a discussion of the possibility of shared recordings to build larger information systems one might tap to find out the importance of a binding to one's collections. Protection and preservation of these sometimes ordinary-looking artifacts are vital to book structure research.

Schedule of Events

Speakers are identified by their initials.


CC: Discussion of "historical presence," developing awareness and problems in interpretation of evidence.

GF: Interface, focus on comparative features and functions of binding structures.

SA: Test on students' knowledge of Victorian bookbindings, chronological survey of 19th century cover designs and cloth types.


SA: Technology of brass dies and hot stamping, development of printed endpapers.

CC: The 12th century binding construction and features, how to safely support and exhibit bindings.

Evening films: CC's "Limp Vellum Binding" and "The Making of a Renaissance Book."


WS: Research into the discovery of the first American Philosophical Society binder, techniques of approach, recording, organization of data.

SA: The two-pronged approach stressed both the object itself and the contemporary accounts from the society which produced the object (for example, one could see a tarnished, silver-stamped cover or one could see the patent for silver stamping from the 1850s. To see both is an understandable satisfaction that one is on the right track.)

CC: The archeological and fellow-craftsman approach, how to look at and record a three-dimensional object.

(WS, SA and CC all talked about where to publish one's research.*)

Evening lecture: WS on 18th century American bindings.


Field trip to Princeton University, Firestone Library.

CC: Informal talk on book features with books from the collection. Half the class examined Victorian books with SA; the other half, Ethiopian and European books with CC and GF.


Some students discussed their research and aids they found useful.

CC: Book protection, limp vellum features

SA: Victorian bindings at the Bodleian, retest on 20 Victorian books--dating by cloth grain, brass dies, lettering, subject matter, design, materials.

The field of book structure study is wide open for future scholarship, as evidenced by the many gaps we felt. To quote Willman Spawn, "This is history." But the instructors also lamented the frightening disappearance of evidence before it can even be studied. The books must be preserved.

* The Library, Bibliographical Society of America, Studies in Bibliography, The Book Collector, American Antiquarian Society Proceedings, Scriptorium, Technology and Culture, Printing History, Printing, Publishing History, Quarendo (a Dutch publication), and Winterthur Portfolio.

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