Book conservation in lockdown

What do Conservators do when separated from the archives and rare books they normally work on? One answer is that they make their own! Tony King, our Senior Manager Collections Care and Conservation, describes the process of creating a historic bookbinding.

The history of Western bookbinding stretches back to antiquity and has involved significant changes in the way books are bound, sometimes leading to obvious external differences but often not. Books are complex 3-dimensional objects and working out how a book was put together several hundred years ago requires a fair bit of detective work. Very few descriptions of life in the bindery have survived so the only way to really understand the processes involved is to make a new book using what we believe to be the techniques, tools and materials of the period.

Lockdown proved to be the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about a pivotal time in bookbinding history by making a binding model of a book from the 15th century. Luckily I had all the materials at home as this is something I had been meaning to do for a while!

The paper pages that would form the body of the book (textblock) were folded into gatherings of 6 sheets and then sewn together. The sewing thread passes along the inside of the folded gatherings and exits at the spine fold in several places to wrap around lengths of linen cord held vertically in a frame. Sewing proceeds along the spine until reaching the end of the gathering at which point the next gathering is placed on top and sewing jumps up to the new gathering and continues back along the spine travelling in the opposite direction.

With sewing complete the book is now a block of pages held together thanks to the linen cords that run across the spine. These cords will give the final book the characteristic raised spine band look often seen on older books. The ends of the cords are left long at this stage as they will be used to attach the boards later.

Boards are shaped so they fit the textblock.

The next stage is to shape the wooden boards. British bindings of this period have boards generally made from oak and would be considered very thick by modern standards (8 -12mm) but they are often thinned and shaped near the edges to reduce the bulky appearance. The first part of the shaping process is to bevel the inner spine edge so it sits snugly up against the textblock shoulder. After planing the edge and achieving a good fit, the outer spine edge is rounded to give the finished book an evenly curved spine.

After a final shaping of the boards, holes are drilled to accommodate the cords which are secured in place by hammering oak pegs through the same hole. Once I was confident that the boards were securely attached, the pegs and cord were cut off flush with the face of the board.

The book is covered in white alum tawed calf skin, a material that is very much like leather but produced differently. During the covering process the book is ‘tied up’ whilst still damp with thin cord wrapped around the raised bands across the spine to ensure adhesion and leave decorative impressions when dry.

Headbands are the bands of wrapped thread that run across the top and bottom of the spine. In later books the headbands are tucked in where the covering material meets the textblock and the purpose is purely decorative. Early books can have elaborate headbands which are much more substantial and add a significant amount of support to the binding structure. The endband style I chose uses 2 different coloured linen threads wrapped around thin cores to produce a striped pattern.

Books in our collection from the 15th century are incredibly precious and need careful handling so it is only by making a model that we get to experience how these object felt to the readers of the time before they became fragile. The great surprise is that despite how chunky these books look and how substantial all the components are, they are extremely flexible and must have been a pleasure to read. Upon releasing the slight tension on the brass clasps the book wants to open and will happily lie completely flat. The action of opening the book flat causes the pages to fan out allowing you to read right into the spine folds.

The bookbinders from this period and earlier were masters of the craft with a deep understanding of what was required of a book structure and how to achieve it; each component of the book contributing towards something that not only functions extremely well but protects the contents. These bindings represent a high water mark in terms of quality which would gradually decline in the coming centuries as increasing economic pressure and changing fashions forced binders to find cheaper and quicker ways of making books where external decoration was more important than function and longevity.

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