History of Bookbinding Structure

A Brief History of Book Structure for Professionals in Restoration and Bookbinding: Notes, Bibliography, Terms and Techniques


It is only possible to understand how the books of today came to be by looking at the needs of mankind in early civilization. Books were one of the earliest tools invented by man to record those matters which were desired to become permanent or long lasting, ie. to control money, debts, inventories, taxation and religious expression. So really we owe books to government and religion or philosophy and the coincident early development of language as symbols and numbers. The Latin word for book, libro, comes from the word liber which meant tree. The word book itself comes from the Germanic term bokiz, referring to the beechwood on which early written works were recorded.

Earliest “books” were probably leaves which in India were used pre-AD for the enscription of sutras (leaves are similarly used even in modern times in Southeast Asia) (hence the word we use today in describing pages as leaves), the inside of tree bark, later ivory (with darkening agents rubbed into the scratches), wax painted wood (encaustic), and, still later, clay tablets. Earliest “pens” were sticks, eventually “stylus”. With the invention of cloth, another substrate became available for decoration and record keeping, whether cotton, hemp or linen, and sometimes on silk.

Later, the Egyptians invented papyrus and ink. Early books were made of rolls of papyrus and kept in tubes on shelves on the wall from whence we get the term “volume” from the Latin “volvere” (to roll), as applied to books. Titles became necessary and were added to the rolls as hanging tags.

At some point, it was realized that it was significantly easier to page through a document if it was sewn together in lengths that were easy to hold open in the hand. Thus the codex structure was invented. Codex as a term comes from the Latin caudex, meaning ‘the trunk’ of a tree. The Chinese and Japanese early adopted the codex structure and have maintained it as a traditional book structure even in modern times. In the Middle East, the earliest extant codices have been dated to second century AD.

Eventually, in the Western world, parchment or vellum became the materials of choice for permanent records. Parchment, because it comes from the hides of animals, is much less dimensionally stable than paper or papyrus, it is always attempting to reform itself to an animal’s shape if allowed to re-humidify. Thus it required strong panels on either side of the codex — and clasps to keep the book closed and free of moisture. So once again, the book returned to its tree beginnings and wooden boards sewn to the codex became the norm for covers. Books were stored lying down on shelves or stacked in piles on the floor or tables. They were very precious items. History is replete with examples of individuals who bankrupted themselves building a library. Few people owned books and it was rare for a gentleman’s library to consist of more than 100 books. They were rarely titled and, if so, were likely titled on the outer textblock edges rather than on the spine. In later medieval times, books were most frequently to be found in religious houses, monasteries or convents, and kept safe by being chained to library reading benches. Only certain trusted and literate people had access to these libraries, the librarian was one of the most powerful titles in a religious house and his or her job was to direct the members who were scribes in reproduction of books and determine who would have access to individual volumes. The earliest book extant overbound in leather dates to the 7th century AD in the West and around the 3 or 4th century AD in the East. The addition of the leather cover allowed for more expression in decoration but many methods of decoration such as gold-tooling, inlay and onlay only began to be produced on luxury bindings and religious works around 15th century AD in the West. Usually the leather came from cows, calves, sheep, goats or pigs, sometimes from deer. Goatskins are the preferred leather of choice for fine bookbinders today.

Finally, we come to the age of early printing. The age of humanism. The age when the book traditions of the Middle East began to be adopted by the West. The shift in power and in the center for the arts from the East to the West in the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In what seems almost a cataclysm, in only a period of a few hundred years, what we think of as the “modern” printed book took off. First papermaking entered the West from Persia having traveled from China where it began purportedly as long ago as the first century BC and beginning in Persia in the 9th century. When humanism began to take off in the 14th century, European and Islamic scholars searched for early Greek and Roman philosophical texts and the demand for reproduction of these rare texts by scribes was overwhelming. Additionally, humanism and better education led to a demand for the wider dissemination of the Bible and texts in the vernacular language such as Dante’s Italian. Previously, most texts were written in Greek or Latin. Gutenberg’s invention of movable type and the printing press in 1440 met this demand and completely reinvented the production of books. Gutenberg needed paper as a material on which a printing press could operate. Parchment or vellum was simply too thick for use in a printing press. It is hard to convey the enormity of Gutenberg’s technical innovations. From a single point of origin, in Mainz Germany, printing spread within several decades to over 200 cities in a dozen European countries. By 1500, printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than twenty million volumes. In the 16th century, with presses spreading further afield, their output rose tenfold to an estimated 150 to 200 million copies.

Fine bookbinding today does not depart very much from the kinds of structures that the first printed books were bound in. It is not certain, but is widely speculated that these early printed works were simply bound in paper wrappers and sold to individuals who then took them to a stationer to have them bound. The decoration of bindings was a matter of individual taste and books were frequently printed years before and in cities other than where they were bound. Thus one can find in national library collections the same printing bound in remarkably different bindings reflecting distinct localized binding styles.

It was in this era that blind tooling and finally gold-tooling became almost the norm for fine books. The earliest known gold-tooled leather bound book is in the British National Library. It is a Persian binding and is tentatively dated to the 13th century. Blind tooling is suspected to have migrated from the Arab tradition into Spain with the occupation of the Moors. It then spread throughout Europe. Gold-tooling spread to Venice first from Persia and then was spread by ambassadors and travelers to Venice throughout Italy and more northern binding centers of Europe.
Books were received from printers in “sheets”, trimmed by the printer sometimes, more often by the binder, the signatures were sewn together, forming the “text block,” using thread, usually linen for strength, on cords across the back of the signatures. The cords themselves were linen, hemp, sometimes linen tapes, sometimes leather or alum tawed pigskin. The boards, whether of wood or layered card (from whence we get the word cardboard), were cut to the proper size for the text block. The ends of the cords were threaded through holes in the boards. Head and tail bands may have been sewn, further strengthening the text block, or left off. Then the spine was lined with glue and paper, following which a covering was glued or pasted to the boards and spine. This structure is known as a “tight back” spine. This created a very solid but somewhat inflexible structure. Books of this period are frequently found with the boards detached because of the strain and pressure applied to the joint between the spine and the boards and the drying out of the covering material and the glue. The reader, in pushing the book around to keep it open, eventually destroys the book.

Somewhere in the middle of the next period, text block edge decoration became fashionable. Originally, only the top edge of books were decorated in an attempt to prevent dust from migrating between the pages when books began to be shelved upright. This became a luxury addition to fine bindings when the decoration was done in gold leaf and/or edge painting.

Later innovations in book structure included the rounding of the spine and the creation of a “shoulder” for the boards to fit in, providing more movement in the spine of the book and reducing pressure in this very important joint. Further innovation allowed the spine cover to be detached from the spine during the construction of the book by creating a “hollow.” Although this allows for even more movement in the spine, it also remains an area of weakness in the structure. Much more modern innovations, for speed of manufacture, include the replacement of the sewn head and tail bands with mere ribbon glued in place and with the use of material glued to the spine and just endpapers glued onto the boards to construct a “case binding” which is constructed entirely off the text block until the last step in the manufacture of a so-called “perfect binding” structure. Modern paperbacks by and large eliminate the sewing steps altogether, the folding of signatures, replacing all structural binding with simple glue. Of course, the glue is a plastic resin of some kind which dries out in use, leaving us with pages falling out of our books without the ability to be reattached.

I do not have time to discuss the impact of papermaking on books but this too is a fascinating history lesson and I encourage you to look into it. It really is essential to understand how a paper is made if you are going to bind a book made of it. At the very least you need to know you are using an acid free paper made of rag, if possible, and that its grain, as well as that of the board, runs parallel to the spine. Suffice it to say, that paper made of pure cellulose, i.e. cotton, linen, hemp and sized with gelatin, will last longer than paper made with wood pulp, straw, oxides or other materials and chemicals embedded in the paper which contribute to its becoming brittle, fragile and stained quickly by UV and other processes. It is said that women’s fashion trend of wearing less material in the early 20th century contributed to the escalating use of wood pulp for making paper in the modern age. Plastics and polyester clothing have also contributed to the decline in materials available for fine paper making.

Structure of Modern Artists Books

Books are a romantic term for structures made of paper and other materials which may or may not have internal images. Artists books in modern times can be constructed in almost any manner using a minimum of tools, sometimes simply holding themselves together without any glue or thread. It is possible to construct a modern artist book with simply paper and a knife of some kind. I have several examples to show you that evidence this simplicity. There are many books available that demonstrate how to construct modern artist books. There have been many fewer books printed in recent times on how to fine bind a book, probably because fine binding is rarely done anymore and has become an art form.


I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to study both fine binding and modern artist book construction with talented and innovative masters. To them I owe my thanks for introducing me to this fine and fascinating art.

© Kathryn L. Thomas April 2012 kaththomas2@gmail.com


There is a wealth of information available on the history of books, papermaking and book arts and I encourage you to seek out some of the books listed below whether in libraries or to make a library for yourself on these subjects. The world of books is quite literally our entire world, its history is the history of civilization. You may find, as I have, that bookbinding and your understanding of the materials used can lead to an inexhaustible interest in every human endeavor.

Bologna, Giulia – Legature, dal codice al libro a stampa, 1998, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore (Milan, IT) ISBN 978-8804457510

In Italian, In French- La Reliure d’Art: L’Art de la Reliure a Travers les Siecles, 1999, Grund (Paris), ISBN 2-7000-2226-2 – Beautifully illustrated color history of binding to the 20th century all European countries but the books pictured are primarily from Italian libraries.

Diehl, Edith – Bookbinding its Background and Technique, 2 vols in 1, 1980, Dover (USA), ISBN 978-0486240206 – Classic mammoth study of the history of the book and bookbinding technique

Febvre, Lucien and Martin Henri-Jean – The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800, 2010, Verso (London UK), ISBN 978-1-84467-633-0 – masterful history of early printed books originally published in French as L’Apparition du Livre in 1958 by Editions Albin Michel

Ikegami, Kojiro – Japanese Bookbinding: Instructions from a Master Craftsman, 1994, Weatherhill, Inc. (USA, NY), ISBN 0-8348-0196-5 – Traditional techniques for Oriental bookbinding

Greenfield, Jane – ABC of Bookbinding, 2002, Oak Knoll Press (New Castle, DE, USA) – ISBN 978-1-884718-41-0 – Excellent source for information on binding over the ages. Very well illustrated

LaPlantz, Shereen – Cover to Cover: Creative Techniques for Making Beautiful Books, Journals and Albums, 2000, Lark Books (NYC, USA), ISBN 0-937274-87-9 – Artist book binding techniques and projects

Lindsey, Jen – Fine Bookbinding: A Technical Guide, 2009, Oak Knoll Press (USA), ISBN 978-1-58456-268-9 – Modern techniques for binding books in leather

Miller, Judith – Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings, 2010, Ann Arbor, MI, The Legacy Press, Ann Arbor, MI, ISBN 978-0-9797974-3-9

Petroski, Henry – The Book on the Bookshelf, 2000, Vintage Books (NYC, USA), IDBN 0-385-70639-9 – History of the influence of methods of storage and use on the structure of books and vice versa.

Young, Laura – Bookbinding and Conservation by Hand: A Working Guide, 1995, Oak Knoll Press (USA), ISBN 1-884718-11-6 – Techniques for binding and repair of books by hand – leather, cloth, paper.

Zeier, Franz – Books, Boxes and Portfolios: Binding, Construction, and Design Step-by-Step, 1990, Design )Press (KY, USA), ISBN 0-8306-3483-5 – Techniques for creating books and enclosing structures including boxes for all purposes

The following are somewhat more expensive and rarer:

Haldane, Dennis – Islamic Bookbindings in the Victoria &Albert Museum, 1983, World of Islam Festival Trust, ASIN B0006EFYNS (a little rare, a little expensive, but lots of pictures of the most beautiful antique bindings on earth from Turkey, Persia and India – which inspired most of the binding styles in Venice, Florence, Rome and elsewhere in the 1400-1600’s – inspiring!)

Hobson, A.R.A. – Humanists and Bookbinders: The Origins and Diffusion of Humanistic Bookbinding, 1459-1559, Cambridge University Press (UK), ISBN 978-0521355360 (rare and expensive but phoenomenal)

Middleton, Bernard – A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique, 1996, Oak Knoll Press (USA), ISBN 978-1884719291

Middleton, Bernard – The Restoration of Leather Bindings, 4th Revised and Expanded Edition, 2004, Oak Knoll Press (USA), ISBN 978-1584561194

Mitchell, John – An Introduction to Gold Finishing, 2005, The Standing Press (UK), ISBN 0-9521626-2-8 – Techniques for gold-tooling on leather book covers with gold leaf. (expensive)

Mitchell, John – The Craftsman’s Guide to Edge Decoration, 2005, The Standing Press (UK), ISBN 0-9521626-0-1X – Techniques for edge coloring, sprinkling, edge marbling, gilding edges with gold leaf, fore-edge painting. (expensive)

Szirmai, J.A. – The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding, 2009, Ashgate (UK & USA), ISBN 978-0-85967-904-6 – Extremely detailed descriptions of binding structural techniques throughout the middle ages from the Near-East to European, from the Coptic codice to Renaissance limp vellum bindings. (expensive but worth it for the serious student of historic bindings)

Webberley, Marilyn & Forsyth, Joan – Books, Boxes & Wraps: Binding & Building Step-by-Step, 1995, Bifocal Publishing (WA, USA), ISBN 1-886475-00-8 – Techniques for creating artists books and boxes (rare and expensive)

Other resources:

ODLIS – http://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/odlis_A.aspx – OnLine Dictionary for Library and Information Science – Dictionary of terms associated with books for librarians and researchers

Roberts, Matt T. and Etherington, Don – Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology – http://cool.conservation-us.org/don/don.html – on-line dictionary of terms associated with binding and repair of books (without illustrations) – also available as a hardback book (with illustrations) – 1982, Library of Congress (USA)- ISBN 0-8444-0366-0 (on-line version is more current)


Barrett, Timothy – Japanese Papermaking: Traditions, Tools & Techniques, 1983, Weatherhill, ISBN 978-1891640261 – Thorough study of Oriental papermaking techniques through history

Hills, Richard -“Early Italian Papermaking, A Crucial Technical Revolution”, IPH CongressBook, 1992, Vol. 9, p. 37-46. – “An excellent review of how the Italian papermaking community changed Arab style papers into a distinctly European paper that remains familiar to us today.”

Hiebert, Helen – The Papermakers’s Companion: The Ultimate Guide to Making and Using Handmade Paper, 2000, Storey Books (VT, USA), ISBN 1-58017-200-8

Hiebert, Helen – Papermaking with Plants: Creative Recipes and Projects Using Herbs, Flowers, Grasses and Leaves, 1998, Storey Books (VT, USA), ISBN 1-58017-087-0

Hunter, Dard – Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, 2011, Dover Publications (USA), ISBN 978-0486236193 – Classic study of hand papermaking techniques around the world.

Barrett, Timothy – “Early European Papers/Contemporary Conservation Papers”, The Paper Conservator, vol 13 (1989): 1-108

Reimer-Epp, Heidi & Reimer, Mary – The Encyclopedia of Papermaking and Bookbinding: The Definitive Guide to Making, Embellishing, and Repairing Paper, Books, and Scrapbooks, 2002, Quarto Publishing, Inc. (UK) Running Press Book Publishers (USA), ISBN 0-7624-1214-3

Terms and techniques

A leaf or folio is a single complete page, front and back, in a finished book.

The recto side of a leaf faces left when the leaf is held straight up from the spine (that is, an odd-numbered page).

The verso side of a leaf faces right when the leaf is held straight up from the spine (or an even-numbered page).

A bifolio is a single sheet folded in half to make two leaves. Each half of the bifolio is a folio, though the terms are often used interchangeably.

A section, sometimes called a gathering, signature or, especially if unprinted, a quire,[20] is a group of bifolios nested together as a single unit.[21] In a completed book, each section is sewn through its fold. Depending of how many bifolios a section is made of, it could be called[22]:
duernion – two bifolios, producing four leaves;
ternion – three bifolios, producing six leaves;
quaternion – four bifolios, producing eight leaves;
quinternion – five bifolios, producing ten leaves;
sextern or sexternion[23] – six bifolios, producing twelve leaves.

A codex is a series of one or more sections sewn through their folds, and linked together by the sewing thread.

A signature is a section that contains text. Though the term signature technically refers to the signature mark, traditionally a letter or number printed on the first leaf of a section in order to facilitate collation, the distinction is rarely made or printed today.[24]

Folio, quarto, and so on may also refer to the size of the finished book, based on the size of sheet that an early paper maker could conveniently turn out with a manual press. Paper sizes could vary considerably, and the finished size was also affected by how the pages were trimmed, so the sizes given are rough values only.

A folio volume is typically 15 in (38 cm) or more in height, the largest sort of regular book.

A quarto volume is typically about 9 in (23 cm) by 12 in (30 cm), roughly the size of most modern magazines. A sheet folded in quarto (also 4to or 4º) is folded in half twice at right angles to make four leaves. Also called: eight-page signature.

An octavo volume is typically about 5 to 6 in (13 to 15 cm) by 8 to 9 in (20 to 23 cm), the size of most modern digest magazines or trade paperbacks. A sheet folded in octavo (also 8vo or 8º) is folded in half 3 times to make 8 leaves. Also called: sixteen-page signature.

A sextodecimo volume is about 41⁄2 in (11 cm) by 63⁄4 in (17 cm), the size of most mass market paperbacks. A sheet folded in sextodecimo (also 16mo or 16º) is folded in half 4 times to make 16 leaves. Also called: 32-page signature.

Duodecimo or 12mo, 24mo, 32mo, and even 64mo are other possible sizes. Modern paper mills can produce very large sheets, so a modern printer will often print 64 or 128 pages on a single sheet.

A quire is a set of leaves which are stitched together. This is most often a single signature, but may be several nested signatures. The quires for a single book are arranged in order and then stitched together as a set.
Trimming allows the leaves of the bound book to be turned and still open. A sheet folded in quarto will have folds at the spine and also across the top, so the top folds must be trimmed away before the leaves can be turned and opened. A signature folded in octavo or greater may also require that the other two sides be trimmed. Deckle Edge, or Uncut books are untrimmed or incompletely trimmed, and may be of special interest to book collectors.

[Insert Timeline for Structure of the Book]

From Greenfield, Jane – ABC of Bookbinding, 2010, Oak Knoll Press, ISBN 978-0-902813-17-5 by permission

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