Bindings Workshop

On Tuesday 6th June the Old Library hosted a book bindings identification workshop for College Librarians in Cambridge who have a responsibility for rare books and manuscripts.  Dr. Emily Dourish, Deputy Head of Rare Books at Cambridge University Library, lead the workshop which proved to be a fascinating and informative session.

Here, Dr. Dourish explains what a binding can tell us about a particular book’s history, and why it is important for librarians to make note of a binding’s features when cataloguing:

Why is it important to describe bindings when cataloguing books in your historic collections? What Nicholas Pickwoad describes as ‘the archaeology of the book’ can tell us much more than just what a book looks like; what is contained in each layer, and are they all the same age or different? Who has left their mark on each part of it? If multiple items have been brought together, why were those specific items chosen and at what date? At one end of the economic scale, fine leathers and gold leaf are evidence of a wealthy owner. At the other extreme, a very tatty binding is good evidence for heavy use of the volume, and often enables a closer examination of the materials used, such as fragments of manuscript or printed leaves.

It may be possible to identify where, when and by whom a book was bound, but approximate dates are also useful. You can find out a great deal about your collections by giving them a 360° examination; when adding what you find to your catalogue records, add as much as you can and feel confident about. Even a simple description can still be very helpful to a researcher, and scholars using your books can often supply more information about context and other copies; encourage this exchange of knowledge!

In the lead up to the workshop I selected a range of items from the Old Library’s collection for Dr. Dourish to talk about.  We chose the Old Library collection for practical reasons, although we have some wonderful bindings in the Pepys Library.    Any of the binding terms in red text are explained more fully in the glossary at the end of the article.

I selected some bindings which would be typical of what might be found in a Cambridge College library, such a full calf binding with double gilt fillet border, and a ‘Cambridge’ binding.  A ‘Cambridge’ binding is so-called because it was a style typically used by the bookbinders of Cambridge in the 18th century.  The style features a central rectangle of a different colour to the rest of the leather on the boards with a decorated frame around the central rectangle.

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[Image 1: Old Library I.7.12 with double gilt fillet border

[Image 2: Old Library I.6.6, Cambridge binding]

I chose a selection of bindings which varied in age, the materials used, size and quality.  Here are a few examples of the bindings on show:

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[Image 1: Old Library I.4.18, fore-edge painting.]

[Image 2: Old Library I.4.18, gauffered and painted top edge.]

This is an example of a fore-edge painting.  It shows the crucifixion scene on the fore-edge with gauffered and painted top and tail edges.  The book itself is a Lutheran bible, so trying to reconcile the ornate decoration with the Lutheran scepticism of venerating religious imagery is an intriguing prospect.  From the small size of the bible, it was certainly used in a domestic setting, and there are other examples of highly ornate Lutheran bibles used in the domestic sphere, such as this later example from the Bridewell library in Texas.

The Lutherans generally accepted imagery so long as it was not used as an aid in prayer.  Martin Christ says that by the early seventeenth century, when this Bible was printed, ‘Calvinists had gained a foothold in some German territories and so the Lutherans repositioned themselves more strongly against Calvinists and one of the ways they did this was by focusing strongly on images and church furnishings.’


[Old Library I.4.4: 15th century binding, rebacked]

This is an example of a 15th century binding which has been rebacked at a later date, but the original leather on the front on the back has been kept, complete with blind stamp decorations depicting the fleur de lys and the double headed eagle.


[Old Library L.32 : German pigskin binding with clasps and armorial stamp]

Book clasps are a good indicator of where the book was bound.  If the clasps fasten at the top, the book would have been bound in Germany or the Netherlands.  If the clasps fasten at the bottom, the binding would have originated in England or Italy.  This is certainly a German binding, indeed we know the name of the binder responsible for this work: Conrad Neidel, who worked in Wittenberg.  The coloured armorial stamp on the front board is the coat of arms for the splendidly named Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, who was the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg in the late 16th century.

Image6 wm

[Old Library N.2.12: Modern binding]

Not all of the bindings that we displayed were old.  This is a wonderful 21st century binding, full-bound in ‘Liberty’ cloth.  The book is a facsimile of the Kelmscott Chaucer produced by William Morris, and was a gift from a former Master of the College,  Duncan Robinson.

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections


Glossary of terms

Blind-stamp – see Stamps.

Boards – Strictly speaking, the base material for the hard- covered sides of a book (eg wood, paste-board) not including the binding material such as leather.  However, ‘upper board’ and ‘lower board’ are usually used to describe the front and back cover of a book, including the binding material.

Clasps – metal catches attached to the book which keep the block of paper in shape.

Double gilt fillet border – a border of two gilt lines near the edge of the board.

Fore-edge painting – Painted decoration on the fore-edge (the exposed outer edge of the book’s pages)

Full calf binding – a full binding is a binding which is made of solely of one material, and in this case a calf leather.

Gauffred – the gilded edges of the book decorated by the impression of heated tools.

Rebacked – where the spine of a book has been repaired and replaced, often keeping the original binding of the book.

Stamps – Stamps were used to impress decorative designs on the covers of a book  If they are blind stamps, the decoration is simply created by the indentations in the leather without any further colouring or decoration, and a gilt stamp employed gold-leaf to

Top and Tail edges – the exposed edges of a books pages at the top and bottom of a book.



Christ, M. (2017).  Lutheran bible with fore-edge painting. [email].

Dourish, E. (2017).  Blog Post. [email].

Greenfield, Jane. ABC of Bookbinding: An Unique Glossary with over 700 Illustrations for Collectors & Librarians. New Castle, DE : New York, NY: Oak Knoll Press ; Lyons Press, 1998.


With thanks to Martin Christ, Emily Dourish and Abigail Brundin for their help.

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