The Movement of a Well Bound Book

Walter Thomas Rogers.  A Manual of Bibliography. London: H. Grevel & Co., 1891 ( p. 95)

Although a nineteenth century fine binding should operate as Rogers describes, many earlier books were rebound at the time and forced into this style of binding; not a good thing for a parchment manuscript, for example. However, this ideal in binding is quite difficult (impossible?) to achieve, since the binder generally does not have control over important variables such as leaf size, drape, thickness, and number in each signature.

In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever experienced a “good” binding such as this. While the technical aspects of craft were high, the quality of materials was generally low. Possibly one of the most interesting aspects in making historical models is an attempt to understand and recreate book movement from various time periods. This is somewhat speculative since many of the details of craft techniques are unknown, and modern materials differ substantially from historic ones. Materials also change over time:  “Binding materials stiffen with age; Binding materials weaken with age; Binding materials are weakened by use; Binding materials are made more supple by use.” Tom Conroy’s, The Movement of the Book Spine (Book and Paper Group Annual, Vol. 6, 1987) is required reading for anyone interested in this topic.

Movement in and of itself is not the most important aspect of a book, but it is critical to understand so that a book can be safely handled, used and displayed. There is also fascinating research on the relation of haptics, memory, and learning. Much of a book conservator’s work is concerned with increasing and preserving— sometimes incrementally— a book’s movement.

3 thoughts on “The Movement of a Well Bound Book

  1. Kath Thomas

    Dear Jeff,
    For me this is the essential question for the handbookbinder. I have long wished that someone would create the scientific equation that we could rely on to get the movement correct. As in, if it’s this big, then this is what you need to do, and if it’s beyond this, then nothing you can do will make it work. But alas, such a “plastic,” as in flexible, art. Yes, I agree, Tom Conroy’s article is as close as I have found to the holy grail. I look forward to other commentors’ responses.
    Kath Thomas

  2. Tom Conroy

    Notice that this is a statement by a librarian, not by a binder. Rogers knew what a book should be, but the quote shows no awareness that some of the qualities he wanted were incompatible, or were impossible for the binder to achieve in certain books, or expensive enough that customers would not pay the price. Margins that are equal don’t look equal. With stiff pages, free opening can only be gained with a highly flexible spine; but that is incompatible with the “solid” back the Victorians loved. I still haven’t managed to figure out what they meant by “solid” sewing; the other catchphrase about sewing (“sewn too tightly” still heard in booksellers’ mouths) has nothing at all to do with the sewing, but is the result of over-lining the spine, so maybe “solid sewing” means a stiff spine. Joints as “elastic” as the Victorians wanted can only be gained by over-thinning the leather. Add in the usual demand for lots of uncracked gold tooling and a brutally low price, and is it any wonder that Victorian binders, faced with Victorian customers, ended up with weak joints and rigid spines?
    For my part, I agree with the great printer Theodore Low De Vinne: “What is a book made for? As I understand it, the book is made to be read and to be easily read. It is the thought of the author that is wanted and not the obtrusive exhibition of any notions of paper-makers, printers, designers or binders.” Judged on that basis I’ve got some that aren’t bad, even when the text block was uncooperative.
    I’ll get off the soapbox now. Thanks for the compliment.

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