The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 24, Number 3

New Impetus for the Study of Binding History: The Association for the Recording and Reconstruction of Historical Bookbindings

by Angelika Pabel

Translated by Ursula Mitra and Olivia Primanis from "Neue Impulse für die Einbandforschung: Der Arbeitskreis für die Erfassung und Erschliessung Historischer Bucheinbände (AEB)," which appeared in Arbeitsblätter des Arbeitskreises Nordrhein-Westfälischer Papierrestauratoren 7, 2000, on p. 78-80.

"If we want to thoroughly document bindings produced by one particular bindery, we must carefully check and note all the technical details of the work, such as the method of sewing, the type and number of sewing supports, the method of board attachment, the construction of end papers, the materials used, the materials used for the boards and how they were shaped, the spine construction, the characteristics of the endbands, the shape and type of attachment of clasps and bosses, and similar additional items. Finally, the tools that a master bookbinder owned and used in his shop for decorating book covers must each be listed with life-size illustrations, and grouped chronologically."

This quote by Hans Loubier, dating to 1913, is found in "Methodische Erforschung des Bucheinbandes" (Methodical Study of Bookbindings) in the periodical Beiträge zum Bibliotheks- und Buchwesen, Berlin 1913, p. 178 ff. It describes an auxiliary science or area of study which today is called bookbinding studies or bookbinding research (Einbandforschung).

By examining various features it should be possible to determine when and where a binding was made. The criteria would include materials and decorative tools used for the binding, artistic influences, "Supra-libros," and also any handwritten notes, marginal notes or manuscript waste (reused parchment or paper) incorporated in the binding—thus it should be possible to date and determine a location for the production of a bookbinding. In addition, with this evidence one might be able to reconstruct long-lost libraries, determine where binderies were located, and document trade routes.

In Volume I, p. 468, of the first edition of the Lexikon des gesamten Buchwesens (Comprehensive Dictionary of the Book), published in Leipzig in 1935, the term Einbandforschung is not found as an entry: the list goes straight from "Einbandfälschung" to "Einbandkatalog." Not until the new edition in Stuttgart, 1989, is the term used. It occurs in an article by the binding historian Friedrich-Adolph Schmidt-Künsemüller, thereby establishing the study of bookbindings as a science.

Until the second half of the nineteenth century, only librarians and collecting bibliophiles engaged in the study of bookbindings. Bibliophiles and librarians not only collected and documented fine bindings, they also researched the commercial aspects of binding production. While researching this topic, they also examined trade bindings, which are the main part of our library collections.

In the '20s, the study of binding reached a certain high point. In many different publications, scientists presented new discoveries in this realm. Paul Schwenke offered his Repertorium von gotischen Einzelstempeln (Repertory of Individual Gothic Stamps) , and Konrad Haebler assembled in two volumes his Rollen- und Plattenstempel des 16. Jahrhunderts (Decorative Rolls and Panel Stamps of the Sixteenth Century). These works remain indispensable as resources for every researcher of binding history. The director of the Leipzig town library, Johannes Hofmann, initiated a project to catalog German bindings. Financial and personal difficulties, especially during World War II, brought the project to an end. Since that time, the study of bindings has not been undertaken on a large scale.

Those who have studied bindings, either in connection with professional tasks or as a collector, must have felt like a "lone ranger." Because of the dispersal of collection materials through historical events such as wars, sales, and secularization, originally coherent collections were broken apart. One often finds books from the same bookbinder's workshop in libraries quite distant from each other. Whether existing information about these bindings can be assembled depends, to a great extent, on chance or the efforts of individual dedicated and motivated colleagues.

In 1996, this unsatisfactory state of affairs led to the formation of a working group for the study of historical bookbindings in Leipzig called the Arbeitskreis fur die Erfassung und Erschliesung Historischer Bucheinbände (Association for the Recording and Reconstruction of Historical Bookbinding) or AEB. This group is connected to the Staatsbibliothek (State Library) in Berlin - Preussischer Kulturbesitz. The collection at the State Library contains 70,000 rubbings as well as the binding archive and voluminous binding collection of Konrad von Rabenau, which was bought in 1987. It therefore holds the best resources for the study of binding history.

The AEB would like to take on the role of an intermediary, which is not being filled at present, and to be a contact point for anyone with an interest in bookbinding. They are calling upon librarians, archivists and restorers, bookbinders, art historians, collectors, and bibliophiles to participate.

Everyone interested in book history should be able to contribute their knowledge on this topic and, together with other researchers and specialists, should be able to exchange information regarding historical bindings. Issues that will be discussed include provenance, attributing decorative stamps, and personal information about binders, as well as materials and techniques that were used. The historic framework for this project also embraces the industrial production of books up to the beginning of the 20th century.

Beyond the task of serving as intermediary, the AEB has set concrete goals for itself:

  1. Document libraries that own historic binding materials, document the collections in those libraries, and also locate and document the legacy of binding historians.
  2. Develop an electronic database for recording the binding descriptions.
  3. Develop a standardized terminology for the description of bookbindings.

An additional long-term goal will be to plan a binding census, such as the one initiated by Johannes Hofmann in 1926.

Five working groups have been formed including one for binding techniques, which have been very active. We would be happy to arrange participation in any of these groups for those who are interested. The results of the working groups are presented at the yearly meeting. Furthermore, experts are asked either to give lectures about their research projects or report on their daily work.

The annual scientific meetings of the AEB take place in cooperation with a library that has historic book collections and if possible, a conservation lab as well. The organizers will try to hold the yearly meetings in different locations throughout Germany to establish a regional balance.

The meetings have been held at the following institutions:

In 1996 the annual meeting took place at the State Library in Berlin, in the Haus Unter den Linden and in Schöneiche near Berlin.

In 1997 it took place in Michelstadt in the Odenwald in the historic Nikolaus-Matz Library.

In October 1998 it took place in the Dombibliothek (Cathedral Library) in Hildesheim, with presentations that included those on long-stitch bindings by Annelen Ottermann; art nouveau publishers' bindings by Dr. Gerhard Mülinghaus; bindings of manuscripts and incunabula of the Dombibliothek, by Dr. Helmar Härtel; the history and technique of edge decoration (Schnittverzierungen) by Jochen Goerke; and panel stamped bindings of the 16th and 17th century by Dr. Konrad von Rabenau and Andreas Wittenberg.

The meeting in 1999 took place in Tübingen University Library with an excursion to the Wilhelmstift (theological library in the former Collegium Illustre).

This year the meeting took place in Münster, Westphalia, September 28-30, in the Stadtweinhaus (Historic City Wine House). Papers were given by Dr. Marianne Roszondai, Dag-Ernst Petersen, Dr. Wolfhard Raub and others.

The AEB publishes a newsletter, Einband-Forschung (Binding Research). It is published once or twice yearly and can be ordered through the AEB business office. All experts are invited to participate in the production of the newsletter by contributing papers from their specialty.

New board members for the AEB were elected during the meeting at Münster. The president is Dr. Konrad von Rabenau, Schöneiche bei Berlin. Other members elected were Gerhard Karpp, Leipzig; Dr. Gerd Brinkhus, Tübingen; Dr. Holger Nickel, Berlin; Angelika Pabel, Würtzburg; Dag-Ernst Petersen, Wolfenbüttel; Helma Schaefer, Leipzig; and Andreas Wittenberg, Berlin.

The business office is in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin - Preusischer Kulturbesitz, Unter den Linden 8 (tel. 030/266-1239).

Interest in the study of bookbindings and the work of AEB continues to grow. This is shown by the number of participants at the annual meetings and by the size of the Newsletter, which has more than doubled since its first issue in 1997.

June 1999 - Revised October 2000
Angelika Pabel
c/o Universitätsbibliothek
Am Hubland
97076 Würzburg
(Tel: 0931/888-5963, Fax: 0931/278-5618;
e-mail: angelika

Translators' note: A web page for this group was found at

Editor's note: In view of Szirmai's recently published book, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding, and the Istituto Centrale per la Patologia del Libro's ongoing international Census of Medieval Bookbindings (Scheda di Censimento delle Legature Medievali), it might make sense for the AEB to join forces with these or other projects, building on their work and coordinating their own work with it. Both the Szirmai book and the ICPL project have comprehensive, systematic descriptions of all features of early bookbindings, with illustrations for each. There may be other groups or scholars laboring on comprehensive descriptions of historical or recent bookbinding (such as the Book Catalog Committee of the AIC's Book and Paper Group) that could benefit by coordinating their work with groups like the AEB.

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