For some people, the advent of digital methods of reading – e-readers, kindles and tablets – has almost entirely superseded physical books. These electronic devices definitely have benefits: They’re portable, they can store thousands of books in a comparatively small space and they’re highly resistant to wear.
However, for others, there is no substitute for a bound and printed book. Books as physical objects have virtues that digital ones do not: they can be treasured possessions, decorative objects, or even works of art.
Some collectors prize editions with famous errata, such as the famous Wicked Bible. Others like being able to dog-ear pages, underline passages and share books with their friends and family. Other people simply enjoy the feel of a physical book in their hands.
Whatever your preference is, however, the fact remains that physical books are generally a lot more susceptible to damage than their digital counterparts. This is particularly the case with older books, many of which are also the most valuable.
That’s why for some book enthusiasts (or if you prefer, bibliophiles), one of the most important and exciting aspects of a book is how it’s physically put together. The world of book binding is full of care, respect for traditions and painstaking attention to detail – which book lovers can agree is exactly what books deserve.
For DIY book binding enthusiasts, in particular, there is a wealth of traditional practices that can inform and inspire their work. There are different solutions for woodworking, early forms of book binding glue and even the cultural and historic significance of the job of a book binder. There is always something to learn from history that is still relevant today.
Book binding began in Egypt, with the earliest bound books dating back to the fourth century. They consisted of a papyrus binding with wood boards, covered in animal skin. Today books are made from paper textblocks and bound into pulpboard and covered with book cloth.
Here are a few of the most inventive, impressive and inspiring book binders through the history of publishing who are guaranteed to get binding and restoration enthusiasts excited. (Have your book binding kits at the ready!)
Inspirational Book Binders from History
The beginning is generally a good place to start, and as the first person to print books in English, William Caxton stands at the start of a major lineage of literary history. Caxton is credited with, among other things, being one of the most influential figures in both the popularization and the standardization of the English language through his own translations of major works, along with his printing of translations by others.
However, Caxton was, in addition to being a pioneering translator and printer, also a book binder and retailer, and he took care to make sure his books were treasured by the people who bought them. A large part of his career depended on political patronage, so churning out cheap paperbacks wasn’t going to make the cut – his books were known for being beautifully made. Maybe surprisingly, the advent of printing in Europe didn’t initially change binding a great deal – the techniques used previously, such as covers made with wooden boards strapped in leather and parchment-based pages stitched into the covers using cord – remained current for a long time, although printing did reduce the usage of vellum for the covers of cheaper books.
He wasn’t working solely for an elite audience, though. A large part of his business was based on printing books of liturgy, which were written in Latin but advertised for in English, which suggests the intended audience was likely members of the public. Caxton combined artisanal work for a specialist audience with everyday essential printing of texts that people needed – not the easiest combination to pull off, but maybe that’s why some consider Caxton to be one of the fathers of modern English printing.
Islamic Book Binding
When it comes to books as beautiful objects in their own right, the tradition of book binding in the Islamic world, incorporating calligraphy, illumination, and the binding of a single codex, is difficult to surpass.
Partly due to the need for portability, in around the 8th century in the Islamic world, book binders began to innovate with some of the established techniques used in Chinese and European binding. Among these innovations was a change from heavy wooden boards to lighter paste boards. The boards were generally wrapped in leather, sewn using silk or cotton thread, with a distinctive leather flap attached to the back board, which would wrap around the book when closed.
Islamic bookbinders also pioneered techniques for pressing gold leaf onto the covers beneath the tooling, which were imported into Europe in the 15th century and have set a standard for collectors’ quality books, which is still followed today.
The practice of book binding was so established as an art form and craft in the Islamic world that it became fundamentally embedded in the economy and makeup of major cities and trade routes. For example, in the 12th century, a street in Marrakech named Kutubiyyin – booksellers – was home to more than 100 bookshops. Demand was so high that workshops for manuscripts and book bindings were set up on caravan trade routes into Spain.
In Persia, Timurid ruler Raysunqur Mirza established his court at Herat as a center of book binding, developing Persian book arts and creating masterpieces of calligraphy and binding. Book binding in the Islamic Golden Age was more than a trade. It was an ethos, a calling and a devotional act.
Samuel Mearne, along with his sons Charles and Samuel Jr, is for many historians one of the favorite candidates for the Queens’ Binder – a group of English book binders operating during the restoration, whose work has been found in the collections of Catherine of Braganza and Mary of Modena.
He is also famous for having popularized the cottage style, one of the longest-lasting forms of English book binding, which was used from the 1600s well into the 19th century. The cottage style gets its name from the rectangular border on the covers, with small triangular designs in the corners that look reminiscent of the gables of a cottage.
It’s not clear if Mearne himself was directly involved in the hands-on binding of the books that were produced and sold from his workshop. Equally, experts are not certain exactly which of the books identified as having been made by the Queens’ Binder. The books included in the grouping are divided into three possible lineages: Queens’ Binder A, Queens’ Binder B and Queens’ Binder C. Most of the books identified are believed to have been made by A, but C is generally considered to have been the highest-quality binder.
Regardless of which of Mearne and his sons’ books made their way onto the two Queens’ bookshelves, though, it’s indisputable they had a profound and lasting impact on book binding in England and around the world.
In the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, a small group of book makers felt the rise of automation and mass production, eroding individual creativity and self-expression. Among them was William Morris, and he was to become instrumental in the resurgence of the private press and the art and craft of book binding.
In 1891, Morris founded the Kelmscott Press, a private press based out of a cottage near Kelmscott House. The press was dedicated to the highest quality and craftsmanship at every level, based specifically on book binding practices from the 15th century – including the use of Roman vellum – when Morris believed the art had reached its peak.
Morris printed by hand and designed his own typefaces, and even made his own paper. His books were hand-sewn and the covers were commonly bound in cloth, which remained a popular choice until the mid-20th century, when the majority of the industry chose clothette (cloth-like paper) instead for most books. Some books today are still partially cloth-bound, generally on the spine.
Many of the books produced by the Kelmscott Press were editions of classics of English literature, especially the Romantic poets: Swinburne, Rosetti and Keats, for example. Morris’ books quickly found an audience on both sides of the Atlantic. His customers and early boosters in the United States included names like Frank Lloyd Wright and L Frank Baum.
Morris can be considered one of the forefathers of today’s bibliophile movement. In an era of mass production, he helped pioneer a set of styles and practices to appeal to collectors, historians and people who truly treasured physical books.
Inspirational Book Binders Today
Guild of Book Workers
The Guild of Book Workers is a non-profit association for a broad range of professions relating to books as physical objects, but focusing mainly on artisanal book crafts. Founded in 1906, the Guild operates out of its headquarters in NYC to promote and preserve the arts of book crafting and care.
Today, the Guild has chapters all over the United States who provide support for individual professionals and small businesses. They run events such as workshops and seminars. They also offer training materials, awards and guidelines for professional standards. Journals and newsletters keep members updated, and the Guild’s library of more than 400 volumes focused on the crafts of the book – in particular, hand arts – can be found at the University of Iowa.
In addition, Guild members periodically collaborate on joint book projects. In these projects, the different professionals and enthusiasts associated with the organization can take the opportunity to demonstrate their varying approaches and skill sets on a single unified theme.
American Academy of Bookbinding
The American Academy of Bookbinding is a school where individuals can go to learn the techniques and practices of book crafts. Focused on providing its students with a degree in the area, the Academy provides courses in all aspects of book binding and restoration, including leather binding, techniques for repair and preservation.
A program of the Ah Haa School for the Arts, the American Academy of Bookbinding has campuses in Telluride, Colorado and Summerfield, North Carolina. The instructors at the Academy are all professionals in the field, operating in different areas related to book binding and restoration.
The Academy also runs competitions for book binding, both for a set title chosen by the Academy and open for the entrant’s choice of book. The competitions are open to anyone interested in book binding, in the United States and internationally, and the successful entries are exhibited in public libraries and universities across the country.
iBookBinding.com is an online platform dedicated to book binding of every kind. They host blogs and articles about contemporary and historical book binding, including new finds and developments. The website also provides free online tutorials and videos for beginner book binders to start to come to grips with the craft, as well as material more suited to experts seeking to try something new or hone a particular skill.
iBookBinding also acts as an information resource for other organizations and events internationally. The site provides links and news updates about conferences, seminars, workshops and competitions in various locations, and provides information on different associations in your area. It’s a great hub for all your book binding needs.
Based in the UK, Designer Bookbinders is an internationally-known organization for professionals and enthusiasts in the bookbinding field. The organization is dedicated to promoting and preserving book binding as an art and runs workshops, lectures and courses across the UK throughout the year.
The association also runs an annual journal which delves into every layer of bookbinding, including techniques, news, profiles, reviews and information about present-day and historical styles. In addition, Designer Bookbinders curate two annual competitions – one for UK-based binders and one international competition.
Exhibitions are held year-round to showcase the work of fellows and licentiates (different membership levels of the association). The organization also has strong links with many other book and literature related associations, including the Man Booker Prize for fiction. Every year, the authors shortlisted for the prize are provided with a copy of their work bound by one fellow of the society on the night of the awards ceremony.
Right from the creation of the first books, book binding has been a labor-intensive, artistic and painstakingly detailed pursuit. Today, we rightfully recognize book binding as an art form, whose practitioners have provided the world with a wealth of precious and unique books, from all corners of the globe and every stage of human history.
For modern book binding enthusiasts, there is no shortage of resources and tools available to explore the world of craft books. Whether that means repairing and restoring extant copies that have been damaged or neglected or creating your own bindings from scratch to put your personal stamp on a book you love, both the expertise and the physical means are readily available to fulfill all your book binding needs.
While techniques may have changed over the centuries, fewer deerskin leather flaps, for example, and more glue guns and viscosity charts, what has remained the same since the beginning of book binding as a practice is the idea behind it. Book binding lets you make a lasting and unique impact on the bookshelves of the world.