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01. Bookbinding History and Introduction

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The first ever books in the world were the Egyptian papyrus rolls, which were composed of several columns of ancient writing scripts. The first of these manuscripts goes back as far as the 25th BC, and until the Christian era, they remained quite popular. However, during this period, the paper or the book industry underwent a transformation, and parchment started replacing the Egyptian papyrus rolls (more on Egyptian Papyrus Rolls on Wikipedia). Writing on parchments was arranged in parallel columns, and vertical lines were used to separate one column from another. This particular pattern gave rise to the idea of cutting the parchments into flat panels, which comprised of either three or four columns. Later on, this form evolved into the books we see today.

An illustration of a Papyrus roll and it's container

Figure 2. An illustration of a Papyrus roll and it’s container

Books have been part of the world since the early ages, and so the need to bind them together has also been present since then. In the olden days, a much different binding concept was used than what exists today. The Egyptian papyrus rolls were stored in a tubular binding as shown in figure 1. The parchments were also often wrapped up in a roll, and secured with a ribbon. However, when parchments started being cut into paneled forms, the binding also evolved. The new binding was more convenient to use and remained durable for longer than the tubular form. As such, it became the preferred choice. In the beginning, the paneled parchments were hinged along any one of the edges, and were bounded with stitches or a lacing.

The columnar arrangement of writing was prevalent even at that time, particularly so for the Latin books. Generally, the Romans used three to four columns to separate content on a single parchment. This style has been transferred down the generations, and exists even today. Several published papers, journals, textbooks and reference books have pages that have been divided into two or three columns. Adopting this style makes the text easier and quicker to read. There are also many books which differ from this, and consist of only a single column. As such, their sizes are also reduced so that the text becomes more legible.

The Evolutionary Stages

Figure 2. An example of a large animal skin used for binding.

Figure 2. An example of a large animal skin used for binding.

The bindings that were used in the olden days comprised of pretty much the same components as the bindings that are seen on books today. The books comprised of folded pieces of parchment that were assembled into a single pile and sewn together. Cords on the back of the pages provided more support to the books. The size of the books was large, an inspiration from the huge skins that were used to make the parchments. An example of this sort of book is shown in figure 2.

As time passed, the bindings were further modified. Wooden boards were added on the front and the back to protect the pages, but they were not sewn onto the cords. Later onwards, the cords themselves were laced through the edges of the wooden board. This gave rise to a more durable and compact form of book as depicted in figure 3b.

The final modification occurred when the wooden boards were removed and a leather sheet was used to cover the entire book, concealing the inner cords, sewing and the hinges. The resulting form enjoyed not only durability and protection, but was convenient as well. Shown in figure 4, this form of book was very similar to the books that are seen today.

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External Influences

The process of bookbinding development has its own simplicities and complexities. For the last eighteen hundred years or so, the basic book construction has not undergone any major changes.  This is very easily noticeable if traditional and modern books are compared. Just like the olden days, even today’s books have pages that are folded and sewn over each other. These pages are then placed into two boards, which are also attached with the rest of the book onto the hinges, such that all the binding and sewing is concealed below them.

As history has always shown, every process, method or technology is always influenced by other factors, whether they are directly related or not. Similarly, throughout the ages several events affected bookbinding even though they did not have much to do with literature. During the Middle Ages, knowledge was preserved and guarded by the monastic order. Since these people had access to all the text and material, they took up the bookbinding task. They had the wisdom and were extremely skilled with arts and crafts, qualities that are bestowed only to a lucky few. Using these, they started the process of assembling all knowledge in a compact and easy – to – decipher form.

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Figure 5. Inking done by a Reed Pen

Figure 5. Inking done by a Reed Pen

The roots of bookbinding lie in religious literature and history (timeline of Bookbinding from Cave Paintings to the Internet, courtesy of History of Information website. Also a small summary of the ‘History of Bookbinding‘ from Wayte Binding (UK)), and so the beginnings were associated with priests and churches. As such, the first ever books that were written and bounded together in the modern form, were on religion and science. In those days, the writing tools that were used resulted in the formation of large letters, as shown in figure 5. With this in consideration, the paper size was also large. Generally, all writing onto books was done with a reed pen.

The compiled books were often bulky and huge. Though, paper size did contribute to this, a more prominent reason was the thickness of the handmade paper on which the matter was written.  With extreme patience, the people of those days carefully wrote each letter, word and line onto the pages. They had an artistic edge and decorated the text with calligraphic styles and brilliant colors.  The covers which were used to protect these books also displayed flashes of bright colors, which can appeal to the eye even today.  There are so many examples in this regard that anyone would be astonished with the creativity they reflect. Beautiful designs adorned with sparkling gems, precious stones, and gold leaves, the leather covers definitely had a lot to boast about.

Figure 7. An intricate book cover

Figure 6. An intricate book cover

Figure 6 shows an example of a stunning book cover featuring an exclusive style.  The creativity did not end with just the covers but was prevalent in all other aspects of the books as well. Even the boards were fixed closed together with gold latches or clasps that were adorned with engraved designs.

The monastic binders utilized good and high quality materials in the process. They had a lot of time with them and had the proficiency as well. These two things were utilized by them to produce astounding work that speaks of quality in today’s era as well. The ceremonial books which were created were considered to be great works of art, and were to be used by only a selected class of people. They were usually beautiful and presented ample knowledge to those interested, but all this was not their greatest qualities. The most supreme attribute of old books was that they were literally one of a kind; they were unique and original, and none other could suffice in their place. As such, they were guarded with extreme care and were often secured with chains to the tables or shelves in whichever library they were kept.

8 - Folded Paper

Figure 7. Paper being folded multiple times.

Other factors which impacted bookbinding included papermaking. Originating in the lands between Europe and Asia, the tenth century saw the rise of this new methodology (see also History of Paper @ HQ PaperMaker). The paper at that time was made from hand, and roughly bore the same weight as the parchment. However, the facts that it could easily be folded and sewn together made it more preferable than parchment. As the art of papermaking spread across the globe, people realized that this new material did not always have to be given just a single fold. Instead, it was strong enough to be folded several times without getting damaged, as depicted in figure 7. If paper was folded two times, the resulting size was 9 inches by 12 inches, and if it was folded three times, the resulting size was 6 inches by 9 inches, the size of an average book today. The former style comprised of four leaves whereas the latter comprised of eight leaves.

Paper was widely available, and it generated a new interest in the formation of books. Since the creation processes had become easier, more books on a wide range of subjects started to emerge. This led bookbinding into a new development phase or the era of the ‘block books’. The text and figures for each page were first imprinted onto wooden blocks, with one specific block for a single page. These were then used as stamps to create several identical pages bearing the same matter. The blocks could easily be stored so printing could be done even later onwards whenever the need arose. – A full history of WoodBlock printing at Wikipedia.

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The block printing method was faster than the traditional reed pen. Speed was not an issue, but it still had its own drawbacks. Cutting letters and figures onto the wooden blocks was a tedious and difficult task that was accomplished only after extensive efforts.

6 Comments on "01. Bookbinding History and Introduction"

  1. David Walsh says:

    probably the best article I’ve found on the history and intro to bookbinding, thanks for writing.

  2. Peter says:

    Thank you, this has helped me no end! – Off to dig out my old bookbinding gear now. :-)

  3. Fred Perrin says:

    I’d like to start receiving this newsletter. Thank you.

  4. Steve says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this up, Paul, it’s a fantastic read! I especially like the woodcut printing video, it’s a shame that commercialisation had driven a lot of the more traditional arts off the face of the planet. Great to see though that there are people out there prepared to fight to help keep the arts alive!

    Keep up the great work, I’ve book marked the site and signed up to your weekly email digest too!

    In the words of Arnie… I’ll be back!


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