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  • Can’t Judge a Book without Its Binding
  • Randy Silverman (bio)

The history of research libraries is, in one important regard, the history of institutions in conflict with themselves. Responding to competing interests, they strive to provide unimpeded access to scholarly books while maintaining those same volumes in perpetuity. In practice, these bastions of knowledge lean toward pragmatic maintenance solutions when dealing with the vast majority of their collections, employing methods often antithetical to archival or museum practice. While providing access to a wide range of books greatly benefits users, research libraries' policies governing general collection repair often disregard the significance of the historical material culture held by these cultural storehouses, naively shortchanging future scholars.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century publishers' cloth bindings scattered throughout a research library's circulating collection represent cultural treasures. These fragile objects are important artistic works integrally linked to the book they were designed to protect; moreover, they are significant evidence of publishing's evolving history. Unfortunately, their preservation is often arbitrary. Over the past century sanctioned library repair and rebinding practices have destroyed the covers and sewing structures of possibly half of these scarce bookbindings, and the damage continues unabated.1

Throwing out the Baby with the Bathwater

Since the early 1980s the study of material culture has blossomed as a methodology for exploring the previously undocumented evolution of specific technologies or little-known histories of minorities, working women, and the anonymous masses who left few if any written records upon which to base critical research. The research potential of books retaining their original publishers' bindings has gained recognition during the past two decades because these three-dimensional works provide [End Page 291] evidence of two hundred years of book history, including technological advances brought on by the Industrial Revolution, the development of commercial art, and the changing nature of women's work. Laudable bindings were designed by noteworthy painters, architects, typographers, and some of the first female graphic artists. Collecting and preserving material needed for scholarly research, a universally acknowledged responsibility of research libraries, includes preserving multiple editions of books and their bindings. Comparing subtle changes occurring between different editions, for example, can lead to an understanding of the author's role in shaping a text's evolution and how this has possibly been adulterated by other editors over time. Further, the quality of the materials used in the book's production reveals clues about the publisher's intended market with different editions and the way the book was originally received by contemporary readers. Pirated editions, often lacking a publication date, can be attributed to a specific decade by clues gleaned from the binding's physical cloth, stamping media, and graphic design elements. Rather than being redundant, retaining numerous copies and editions in original condition, both locally and in libraries throughout the country, provides access to three-dimensional information essential for scholarly comparison.2

As the only storehouses of both material and textual literary information, research libraries have a vital role to play in preserving their three-dimensional holdings. This concept has been recognized over time by library organizations such as the Commission on Preservation and Access and the Council on Library and Information Resources and by scholarly groups such as the Modern Language Association.3 Yet these cultural resources are threatened by the use of damaging repair materials and methods such as improper use of tape and the complete rebinding of books in a misguided attempt to make them more durable. Future scholarly use of these increasingly rare resources will be thwarted if research libraries do not actively reverse this trend.

The preservation role of libraries should be as great as that of museums. Society trusts museums to collect and permanently protect significant artwork and historical objects: the paintings of John Sloan and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the ceramics and embroidery of Walter Crane; the furniture and textiles of William Morris; the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley; the posters of Will H. Bradley and Blanche McManus; and, outside the museum walls, the architecture of Augustus Welby Pugin, Bertram Goodhue, and Stanford White. That these same notable individuals also designed publishers' bookbindings is a fact seldom recognized by the research libraries holding their books. Precariously, most...


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pp. 291-307
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