This little history is a response to a recent inquiry on the Cons DistList, Instance 9:57, reprinted here with the permission of the author.
The main reasons for the development of binding outside libraries were economic. All but the very largest institutions could not, even a century ago, generate enough materials to keep a fully rounded staff of bindery experts fully occupied. As mechanization came into play the economics of buying and utilizing machines made the economics even more pertinent. In addition, binding is specialized work and many communities did not have sufficiently large labor pools to provide the specialized skills. The result was commercial library binders in larger metropolitan centers serving library customers over a wide geographic area. In a real sense library binding was the original outsourced service for most libraries in this country. In the past two or three decades the development of specialized equipment, new technologies, shortages of space in libraries, labor supply, and other factors have caused the demise of both in-house binderies and many smaller commercial binderies, and larger concentrations of binding services in relatively fewer firms. The result is that today in this country we find a rather small group of firms specializing in library binding.
Library binding is different from edition binding because the library binder works on materials as they are submitted by libraries, one book or one volume of a serial at a time. The edition binder works on larger numbers of identical volumes all requiring the same treatment. One library binder once characterized his rather extensive business as being analogous to mass-producing tailor-made clothing, inasmuch as two copies of the same publication from two libraries were not apt to arrive in the bindery at the same time nor were they really identical in many instances because of differences in wear and tear, policies regarding indexes and supplements and other variables. Library binding also differs from conservation though some library binders do offer conservation services. A visit to a bindery offering both is a study in mass operations in one area and quite the opposite in the other.