The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 11, Number 7
Oct 1987

LBS Conference, Part I

by Ellen McCrady

The Library Binding Service (LBS) of Des Moines deserves credit for sponsoring this historic conference, entitled "The Lessons of History and Experience in the Design of Conservation Bindings," and notable for its intensive coverage of a rather narrow but important field: not bookbinding as a whole, or even conservation binding as a whole, but structure in conservation binding and in early bindings. Over 210 people from conservation and related fields came August 8-9 to hear the eight speakers, all leaders in book conservation, who presented individual papers and sat on two question-and-answer panels moderated by their colleague Linda Ogden. The eight presentations were:

Chris Clarkson - The Nature of Book Structure before 1500 and its Relevance Today
Don Etherington - An examination of the Concertina Guard as Used in Current Practice
Anthony Cains - The Bookbinding History of the Book of Armagh (An Early Ninth Century Irish Manuscript)
Gary Frost - Structures for Binding Repairs and Reinforcements
Guy Petherbridge - Considerations in Link Stitch Sewing Bill Anthony - Non-Adhesive Binding Structures and Historical Models
Bill Minter - An Examination of the Use of Cloth as a Cover Material
Nicholas Pickwoad - Variations in Book Structure in the 17th & 18th Centuries

Because some topics were covered by several speakers, and were brought up again later in discussion periods, and because other topics were brought up only in discussion periods, this report is organized by topic, rather than chronologically or by speaker. Readers who would like to have a full and accurate record of a particular speaker's thoughts are urged to wait for the appearance of a volume that will include many of these papers. It will be announced in these pages when more is known about it. In the meantime, this report, based on notes taken at the meeting, can give an idea of the current research described and the issues discussed there. As usual with conference reports in this Newsletter, corrections and comments are welcome.

This report is organized under the following topics. All of then relate to book structure and conservation in one way or another.

  1. History and research
  2. Current practice in major labs
  3. The bookshelf problem
  4. The stabsewn endsheet issue
  5. Theory (Gary Frost's presentation)
  6. Cloth and thread (Bill Minter's presentation)
  7. Training
  8. The Book of Armagh (Tony Cams' presentation)
  9. Miscellaneous
    Inhouse vs. outside conservators
    Mass conservation
    The wood problem

1. History And Research

Guy Petherbridge preceded his survey of historical forms of link stitch sewing with a summary of the reasons for studying early books in general:

  1. Work on the structure, materials and history of early books is helpful in getting librarians interested and in gaining credibility with then.
  2. Early hooks make up a "reservoir of technical variability," to borrow an anthropological term--like a gene bank.
  3. Early books provide evidence of natural aging of materials, as for example linen, which has survived very well.
  4. Conservators' interest in early books has resulted in many innovations: endsheet construction, book support systems for exhibitions and reading rooms, phase boxes and the book shoe, Chris Clarkson's guard fascicles, and responsible mass treatment methods including leafcasting and deacidification. It has also influenced suppliers to improve their materials, include parchment and skin manufacture.

In his presentation on link stitch sewing, he described the kinds of sewing found in the Eastern Mediterranean: Islamic, Syriac, Byzantine, Ethiopian, Slavonic and Armenian. Each kind includes many variations. (Coptic sewing was not discussed except to distinguish it from Ethiopian sewing, to which it is not related historically.) The complexity and variety of the examples he described were mind-bending. Byzantine books nay be sewn in two halves, which are united by a thread in the middle; the kettle stitch may not catch up the section below at all. Some Syriac books are sewn using supports that look like convoluted link stitches or elongated knots. The descriptions of early structures by scholars like the well-intentioned Berthe van Regemorter are often not accurate; conservators are better prepared for describing historic bindings. Cockerell visited Ethiopia and described accurately the bindings he observed.

The standards of openability we apply to modern Western books are inappropriate for early link-stitch bindings, which relax and gape between signatures when opened, and which do not open well except between signatures. This is not a defect. They were constructed to be read by the monks while standing up and holding the book in their hands or otherwise restraining it. No one expected books to lie open on a table for reading or taking notes, and the conservator should not aim for a structure that can do that.

The sturdy endband in these bindings is a stabilizing element in the structure, helping the book to open evenly as well as attaching the textblock to the cover.

Chris Clarkson, in his presentation on book structure before 1500, and in the first question-and-answer period, gave dates for the first and last appearances of certain features of book structure, which it is convenient to summarize here chronologically:

600-700 BC - Earliest example of a concertina book.
Anglo-Saxon period to mid-11th C (in England) - books sewn on cords.
Mid-11th C - Books sewn on alum-tawed slit bands or straps. (He does not call them thongs unless they are rolled.) Overcovers (chemises, usually alum-tawed) used. Both straps and overcovers were features of Norman bookbinding.
l2th-13th C - Tabs used in Europe.
1123-47 - First sewing on a frame.
Till 13th C - Tablet and roll common
1230 - First example of lacing on from the outside to the inside of the board, instead of through the edge. From then on, the quality of binding declined.
Till 1450 - Books might be sewn either on or off the frame.
After 15th C - Endbands became decorative.

He showed closeups of the almost invisibly neat sewing used for the inside corners of leather and skin bindings and for overcovers--a lost art, not yet fully analyzed and described.

Don Etherington, in his talk on the concertina guard, named its historical antecedents and related forms (e.g., loose vellum strips; complete inner or outer folio in each signature; compensation guards; and guards between signatures). The Japanese paper guard was developed by Tony Cams at Florence, though it was never used routinely there.

Bill Anthony described how he and his then apprentice Mark Esser made his set of six or so historical models to serve as teaching aids after he came to the University of Iowa. They had no originals to copy, and two of the models were very hard to do: the one with decorative tacketing on the spine through a stiff piece of leather, and the one with flush wooden boards, split alum-tawed straps and a tabbed endband. The Stoneyhurst Gospel was one he just had to do; he is probably not alone in feeling that compulsion. But it was hard too because the description of the endband in the Roxburghe Club publication was not clear. The sewing is done on two needles.

These models are now on exhibit at the Met (see Coming Events).

The "variations in book structure" that Nicholas Pickwoad discussed in his illustrated talk were those introduced as a result of changing fashions or economic pressures. They were often imitative or deceptive. The French style of binding called "à la grec," for instance, was a result of the Renaissance fascination with all things Greek, and the practice of continuing to bind all books by Greek authors in the Byzantine style. It was brought to France in the early 1500s in the wake of the French invasion of Italy. It had the following characteristics, among others: flat back with sewing on sunken cords (to imitate the effect of link stitch sewing), flush boards rounded off next to the spine on the outside, spine linings of coarse cloth with flaps across the hinges, and tabbed headbands worked through the cloth lining. The cover decoration, however, was in the style of the country of production! This French style became associated with quality work, finish and elegance; but when recessed cords and flat spines came to England in the 1660s, they were used at first for cheaper books. A century later, they had come to be valued for the decorative possibilities they opened up.

Most of the other variations discussed by Mr. Pickwoad had to do with sewing shortcuts and false or padded-out sewing supports. The ultimate in sewing shortcuts was exemplified by an elegantly finished cheap English binding from 1658. It had no sewing at all, aside from its conventional endbands--only deep saw cuts with twisted tanned thongs glued in, and false raised bands over them. (Part 2 will appear in the next issue.)

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