preservation and persistence of the changing book

Historical Bindings Teaching Set

Structure & Action in Books

A Teaching Set of Historical Bookbinding Models

Here you will find models of different bookbindings. These bookbindings illustrate the appearance and structure of common books in different cultures and across time. As you read the descriptions for the individual types feel free to manipulate and investigate their physical features. Handling of these model bookbindings will provide a lasting impression of the innovations and changes in the mechanism of the codex book. Each bookbinding model exemplifies specific attributes of the codex structure, and the array of books together tells a story of a persistent mechanism for reading.

Strange as it seems, the book is a machine, or as we say, a technology, just like a car or a computer. But the book machine is much older. People began producing books almost as soon as writing was invented. Many kinds of books were invented to suit many needs for conveying information and knowledge. The type of book called the codex is the one we use today. All the pages and covers are attached along one edge. This kind of book was first made popular by sectarians who lived in the deserts, river valleys and cities of north and eastern Africa at a time almost two thousands years ago. These books were so popular and practical that they helped to spread beliefs that are still with us today.

Another important purpose of this teaching set, beyond telling the story of the history of bookbinding, is to provide an experience. This is the experience of the feel and actions of bookbindings. Such an experience is the counterpart to the study of the history of book.

But it is even more important than that. The experience of reading indicates that the physical book is ultimately designed to provide prompts to comprehension. A deep, through relatively invisible, learning path in which the hands prompt the mind is at work. This learning path has been with us through our own long evolution and may be ultimately instilled in the book. Again the teaching set provides an opportunity to discover haptics, or qualities of physical navigation, of the print reading mode and compare these with other on-line reading experiences.

The Study Session

Letís begin our study session by opening the box and observing the array of the closed bookbindings. You will immediately notice the different sizes, shapes, colors and stances of the various bookbindings. This first impression of diversity is accurate. We will examine each model in turn and observe that each differs from the others in structure and action and culture context. Perhaps their only fully shared trait is that they are all codex format bookbindings. Another shared aspect is that their differences are accentuated by their side by side comparison. In its given time or in its given culture each of these books would be unremarkable or ordinary.

As we investigate these various books notice that many have cut-away features that enable viewing of underlying structures. These reveals are provided in the lower board openings. Now letís begin to learn about book mechanisms across time and cultures.


The papyrus bookbinding model represents the very earliest type of codex book. These books have only a singe gathering of folded pages. Such codex bindings are known from the fourth century. These early books were constructed and written on papyrus and many were found in Egypt. In Antiquity Egypt was the only source of manufactured papyrus writing material.

Papyrus bookbindings are distinctly different. Their design traits include a square sheet shape resulting in a folded page shape of a half square. Papyrus books also have a unified construction since both rigid cartonnage (sheets of papyrus pasted together) and pliant leaves are made from the same material

Handling and Action

Note the lightness and organic feel of the papyrus book. The structures were made for reading outdoors. Wrapping and rewrapping the various ties of the cover was part of the ritual of beginning and concluding recitation from the book. Note the occasional lap joins on the pages. Papyrus was purchased in rolls produced by pasting sheets together and some of these pasted joins survive when the rolls are cut into squares for book making. This is an interesting association of the early codex with the scroll format. In Antiquity books in scroll format were the convention while the codex format was the new technology.


The Ethiopian book introduces the structure of the multiple gathering codex. The model of an Ethiopian binding illustrates the persistence of early book structure and introduces us to a contemporary culture exemplified by its traditional book.
To this day, books of the Ethiopian Church are bound in a way that reflects the structure and action of the papyrus book era of late Antiquity.

The Ethiopian binding is a member of the larger family of ìsewn boardî bookbindings. This early structure of the codex bookbinding is known from late Antiquity, particularly from northern and eastern African sectarian book cultures. It subsequently spread to Islamic and Eastern Orthodox cultures.

Three characteristics of this sewn boards type are (1) stitch chain sewing, (2) boards sewn to the text almost as if they were outermost pages, (3) covers and text equal in size. These same characteristics are echoed in the modern paperback with its equitable, adhesive leaf attachment, page like cover and flush edge trimming.

Handling and Action

Note the docile, flat opening of the book. This flat spread eases reading while also providing a dramatic display when the book is reversed to display it to viewers. The mirror inset in the board places the individual reader into the company of illustrious persons in scripture or to the company of royal lineage in sagas of the kings.


The 14th century account book represents the stationerís trade of bookmaking. Stationers prepared and sold blank writing stock. The trade included production of empty ledger, voucher and accounting books. Such mechanisms of business recording were produced until the advent of electronic business recording. One of the tradeoffs of the transition to electronic recording has been the loss of an authenticated, archival format for business records.

The long stitch structure was common for early account and ledger books beginning with the introduction of paper into Europe which occurred before the 15th century. It features a mechanical tight back attachment of the cover since the page sewing which passes through the fold of the gatherings also passes through the cover. In use, the exterior long stitches are protected by gliders of buttons or other bosses.

As the long stitch books accumulated on accounting house shelves, the specific contents were retrieved by learning the distinctive appearances of the tacket patches and stitch arrays. Diagonal and circle stitch chains and endless variations of rug woven stitches were used.

Handling and Action

A fascinating feature of the long stitch account book is its ability open flat without flexing of the binding spine. This paradox is enabled by the sliding motions at the folds of the unadhered gatherings. Watch for the escalator like splay in the alignment of the folds.

Much later ìspring backî ledger binding retained the rigid cover but permitted the text back to suddenly flex out of its cover. Such double binding structures actually have their origin in late Coptic bookwork of the 7-8th centuries.


This is a wonderful 16th century bookbinding illustrating the refinement of the anatomy of the book at the end of the era of wooden covers. Our model represents work from northern Europe.

The boards were quarter cut oak or beech wood and were frequently covered with alum tawed pig skin. Tawing is an ancient skin curing method that causes the skin to whiten rather than darken as in the tanning process. The text was well sewn onto flax cords

Handling and Action

You must know the secret of opening the clasps. This is a continuous pinch-and-push finger motion. Squeeze the text at the location of a clasp and simultaneously move off the freed hook with your thumb. The double action made the book ìchild proofî (and, in the 21st century, fairly adult proof too). Note the solid feel of the closed and clasped book and the slight release of the text compression as the clasps are disengaged preparing the book for the opening action.

In the operating anatomy of the wooden board bookbinding the leverage applied through the board by the reader is directly transmitted to the movement and opening of the text. The back linings of vellum which are adhered to the inner face of the board, act to transmit the leverage of the board on opening. Note how gracefully the various motions of the boards are transmitted to the book. Many later bookbindings are crippled in this respect and cannot absorb the various actions of reading. The covering and the sewing supports transmit the leverage while closing and the clasps keep this leverage charged in the closed book.

Note the vellum panel linings revealed in the lower board opening which were put down to the inside of the boards to transmit the opening motion. The colored endbands were sewn onto linen pieces and adhered to the text back and put down to the boards as well.


The 17th century ìlimpî vellum binding shows us innovations and style in book production. This remarkable binding type, popular during the Italian Renaissance, came to notice again as a survivor of the Florence flood of 1966. This simple, springy and tough structure associated with exemplary materials and both the limp vellum and subsequent 18th c. paper bindings now have the attention of modern book conservators.

Handling and Action

Note the springy action and a need for two handed reading. Note the secure lacing of the cover and the well sewn endband and light weight of this book. This binding can be tumbled and tossed without damage. The limp vellum binding was a favorite for popular books of poetry, new literature and classical school texts.


The 18th century leather binding represents the letterpress trade of bookmaking. Letterpress binders bound printed sheets, as contrasted with stationary binders who bound blank or ruled sheets. Pasteboard, made of sheets of paper, replaced wood for book covers. The sewing is on single cords and the boards are covered in calf leather. Many of the features and book actions of the wooden board era have changed and many other abbreviations will subsequently occur as the hand bookbinding trade develops further. But the persistent method of attachment of the boards prior to application of covering materials remained the same. The in-boards, laced construction will be supplanted by cased construction.

Handling and Action

Open this book upside down while watching the cover. Notice the severe crease of the joint and relative inflexibility of the spine. Such impairments of book action caused structural failures and difficulties of reading. Although this bookbinding shares the structural type of the earlier wooden board binding, sewing onto cord supports, tight joint without a groove and covering in skin or leather, it does not share the book actions of the earlier work. The boards do not transmit leverage and the text block is immobilized.


The 18th century paper cover binding paper case binding from the German trade represents the earliest production case binding with cover made a separate operation and then attached to the text by adhesive alone. Here the case is made with an underlying spine wrapper of handmade paper joining the two boards. This lapped, bare-board cover is then over-covered with decorated paper.

This case construction binding predates the better known production cloth case binding in the 19th century. Note the relative lightness and construction economy with a fully decorated style including edge trimming and coloring.

Handling and Action

A full, lay-flat opening is provided including a releasing action at the joint, as the text back moves away from the spine of the cover.


This is a 19th century publisherís in-boards cloth binding. The boards were attached to the text prior to covering in the traditional in-boards production method. Note the quarter cloth covering and the untrimmed edges. The sewing and printed paper label are the same as used in early cloth case binding of the period.

The identifying feature of in-boards work is the torn waste sheet captured by the cloth turn-in, which is usually hidden under the pastedown endpaper which you can see under the unattached lower board opening in the model. Also note that covering cloth is adhered directly to the back of the text.

Handling and Action

The adhered cloth across the back is vulnerable to creases and preferential opening positions. The sewing on sawed in cords remained unchanged during the in-boards to case transition period. This was an abbreviated, high speed hand sewing which was unsuited to heavy use. Note the pattern of stitches in the folds indicating alternating stitches as two gatherings were sewn with each pass of the tread.

Be sure to notice the details of the lower board reveals and compare these with the lower board features in the cased model. For example, note the high speed mitered turn ins of the covering paper.


The 19th century case construction cloth binding instigated a momentous change in the process of binding. This change lead to both quicker production and to eventual mechanization of the bookbinding processes.

This important transition is indicated by slight exterior changes. Infact the appearance of the shelved book with its cloth spine and letterpress paper label was indistinguishable from earlier in-board work. Note the full cloth covering and trimmed edges. Note also the groove impression in the joint which indicates use of edged press boards. Another identifying feature is the text back lining and endsheet pastedowns sealed over the cloth turn-ins.

Look in the unattached lower board opening to see the snagged miter trimming that indicates the lightning speed of the assembly work. See the scissor cut of the back lining.

Case construction subsequently permitted gold stamping and die stamping of the entire cover. As a counterpart of eventual mechanized sewing, case construction offered a binding process that could also be mechanized.

Handling and Action

Notice the case construction release of the text back from the spine of the cover, as was evident in the earlier German case construction work. This mobility is enabled by a cover-to-text attachment set back from the fold of the endpaper as well as by the flexible span of the joint or groove set by the use of edged pressing boards.


This limited edition binding was developed in 1987. It represents the capacity of the codex to project itself into the future of reading and bookmaking. The use of the outer sewn folio as the cover board is know from Coptic bookbinding of the papyrus era. The double cover design, represented here with a free acting spine wrapper, is also from the Coptic tradition.

Handling and Action

The double acting, double cover is clearly apparent at the linen wrapper which acts as a case construction cover while the inner boards attach and act in alignment with the folds of the gatherings. The animated action at the head and tail of the double cover is visually focused by the opening configurations as well as a reveal of the sewn board laminations. This point of visual focus is more usually associated with an ornamental endband.

How to continue with your own book studies

If this experience of the book binding models encourages you to investigate book crafts and book studies further, there are many ways to continue.

Book kits can be fun and enable you to quickly produce books of your own. What you have learned from observing the teaching set will enable you to work with a useful understanding of book binders’ terms and good sense of the structures and actions of books. Also there are many excellent organizations and literatures that will also support any level of interest in book studies.

SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publication) is a wonderful academic organization which will introduce you to people who have created their own careers in book studies. The GBW (Guild of Book Workers) includes many bookbinders and annual workshops offer craft demonstrations by highly skilled book workers. Regional book centers, both state based organizations affiliated with the Library of Congress Center for the Book as well as independent and university based centers for the book will lead you directly to workshops and study opportunities. Find all these organizations on the Web.

A note on making bookbinding models

Making a model of a type of bookbinding is more exciting than making a bookbinding. This is because at least three additional craft challenges are involved in historical bookbinding model making that are not present in other contemporary bookbinding. The model must produce a representation of the historical exemplar, the model must be made with method, materials and approach in the spirit a historical period and the model must recreate features of mobility now lost in extant artifacts.

Producing a representation of the exemplar is opened to different approaches. A facsimile representation will follow features of the exemplar closely. Many models have been made of the Stonyhurst Gospel and all of them attempt to replicate the actual features of a real book. Another approach is to follow a composite exemplar. This method establishes an assembly of features common or shared among exemplars. In this approach of following a historical prototype, the model itself will be a prototype representing composite features. The bookbinding models in the teaching set use this approach. Yet another approach follows a hypothetic exemplar which may not be represented in the historical collections at all, but which must have existed as a transition or pre-cursive type of bookbinding.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of model making is frequently neglected. This is the departure from familiar technique and attitude into a remote and divergent frame of mind. The historical crafts people did not work in our social or technical environment. They worked in their own. This immense distinction usually accounts for telling discord between models and their exemplars. A representation model of publishersí cloth binding of the early 19th century is a rather easy assignment. But it is an immense challenge to convey in craft technique the speed with which the work was done or the ordinary and drab character of the work which was a by-product of an adverse industrial surrounding. A bookbinding model is a representation of a historical binding type produced by a contemporary bookbinder, but that should not be all it is.

Finally, the bookbinding model is an important teaching resource if it recreates and re-presents to students a particular mobility and haptic handle of books once known to historical readers. Again, this is a difficult craft challenge. Many implications of historical materials, historical methods and remote book uses must be carefully considered.

So making models of historical bookbindings accentuates the experience of bookbinding. Beyond skills of contemporary craftwork this specialty requires both expert evaluation of historical materials and evidence of historical methods and a bit of defiance of time in its communion with others of another era.



This teaching set of historical bookbinding models is designed, specified and narrated by Gary Frost, at Iowa Book Works in Coralville, Iowa. Production is by BookLab II of San Marcos, Texas and Em Ellison of Lisbon, Iowa.

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