The Wonderful Craft of Bookbinding

The 1896 edition of Richard Hakluyt's Voyages crafted by renowned bookbinder Joseph Zaehnsdorf (1816 – 1886). Zaehnsdorf's style is an exemplary model of bookbinding craftsmanship, one that will never be dated. Cover plates dressed with fine leather, gilded letters and decorations on both cover and spine, spine with acmes and embossed elements.

A book without its binding cannot really be considered a book, now can it? Coming across hundreds of books on a daily basis, at OKYPUS we tend to accept that awful doctrine which dictates that 'a book's content is almost as important as its binding'. This is a statement that might sound as a direct insult to any author, however we cannot help but acknowledge its partial truth. This has to do with a lot more than just the obvious aesthetic reasons. When a master's craftsmanship is employed to a book's binding process, it more often than not guarantees the book's long-term preservation. And this is why books as old as four centuries have stood the test of time. So, long story short, bookbinding is a truly important part of book manufacturing. And one that can produce magical wonders indeed.

Bookbinders at work (ca 1930s). If you ever visit an independent bookbinder's workshop nowadays, you'll probably notice that the equipment they use has not changed much since the time this picture was taken.

The bookbinding craft has its origins long before the advent of typography, dating as far back as the 5th century BCE. It initially appeared in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts, mainly in the regions of Southeast Asia and Egypt. Palm-leaf manuscripts were written in ink on rectangular cut and cured palm leaf sheet. Each sheet typically had a hole through which a string could pass through, and with these the sheets were tied together with a string to bind like a book. Of course, like paper, palm leaves were also susceptible to dampness, insect activity and mould.

Palm-leaf manuscripts with various methods of string-attachment. Some of them look more like hand-fans than actual reading material.

With the advent and evolution of typography, bookbinding became a regular trade. A variety of bookbinding methods developed through time but, despite any differences between them, their philosophy was the same. After all, bookbinding can be defined as nothing more than merely the process of assembling a stack of papers into a practical format for reading (=book). Of course, as with any trade, few bookbinders managed to stand out from the crowd, thanks mainly to the artistry they applied to their products. John Ratcliff, for instance, was America's first ever bookbinder of the seventeenth century and he's well known for binding Eliot's Indian Bible in 1663. Another example is that of Jean Grolier (1489-90 – 1565), Treasurer-General of France, whose penchant for binding the books of his own massive library became a trend amongst dedicated book collectors.

The Eliot Indian Bible crafted by bookbinder John Ratcliff. This is a book made in 1663 but you wouldn't have guessed it from this picture. Ratcliff's craftsmanship preserved the book for more than three centuries. This item can now be found at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, in Philadelphia.

A typical Grolier leather binding with decorative embossed elements on the cover and spine. The books from Grolier's collection are more than four centuries old but they have stood the test of time thanks to their masterly bindings.

In today's industry of book manufacturing, the bookbinding process is being conducted on a grand scale using sophisticated machinery. Still, independent bookbinders' workshops operate in high demand, mainly to repair damages made to books of sentimental value to their owners. There are, however, and those book collectors who share the practice initiated by Jean Grolier (mentioned above), a practice that has now come to be called 'private bookbinding'. In the case of private bookbinding, the book collectors assign the books of their libraries to independent bookbinding workshops; the workshops then 'dress' the books in a more elaborate binding, leather or cloth. This process almost always requires the complete disassembly of the book and the subsequent assemblage of its pages within a new binding. The book collectors who are in the habit of private bookbinding usually have their initials in gilded letters stamped on the books' spines. Private bookbinding is not such a costly practice as one would presume, but it's certainly one that chiefly concerns incurable book lovers.

In concluding, we shall recite the bookbinders' creed "Primum non nocere" (Firstly, do not harm). We should really treat our books with the respect they deserve. For what else do books deserve indeed? A book is, first and foremost, a medium through which education and culture are spread, the archetypal symbol of man's civilization. Their preservation benefits us as human beings and the generations to come.

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