Archives for category: Book manufacturing

We used to spend a lot of time focussing on the quality of the output we’d get from various typesetting systems. You’d get out your loupe and scrutinize raster lines in Pacesetter or Linotron 202 repros, as if something you could only detect under high magnification could ever matter at all. But in the early days of phototypesetting this was the focus of concern: the image produced by a bit of metal type was something we knew. You knew you could rely on that good old analog reality; you could always see it; you could observe by eye and touch how smooth those curves were; you could always feel it as it indented the paper.

From Hugh Williamson: Methods of Book Design, 3rd edn. © Yale University Press 1983

Because a digital image can only be 1 or 0, on or off, black or white, the image maker has to make a decision around those curved edges: is more of my little dot black, or is it mostly white? On a curve this will obviously lead to a jagged edge as the decision goes one way or the other as you move along the slope. But it’s all on such a tiny scale that you really can’t see it happening.

Nobody would waste their time like this any more.  When a book is processed through a modern-day text processing system it remains a digital entity until it reaches the printing press, or just before that when it is used to create a printing plate. There’s not really any output to look at until you see a set of printed sheets, so we’ve just stopped worrying about it. I think this illustrates two things:

  1. If people don’t have enough to do they will worry about needless stuff, and
  2. It is difficult for people used to a tactile process, literally a hands-on-workflow, to repress the urge to touch their work, just to make sure it’s still there.

One could be forgiven for thinking that a leaf book, if it wasn’t a tree-identification manual, was a large volume used for pressing plants between sheets of blotting paper. Plant collectors seem to have moved on a bit from such rough and ready tools. The first item in The American Museum of Natural History’s instructions on How to Press and Preserve Plants reads “Buy or build a plant press”. Nothing about looking for a heavy tome.

A leaf book is actually a book containing one leaf (2 pages) from a famous book surrounded by suitable commentary and fluff. For example 2 pages from a Gutenberg Bible surrounded by pages telling you how well Gutenberg’s presswork was executed, how he invented movable metal types etc. etc. Truly a publication for the collector: just not the botanical sort. In ABC for book collectors John Carter explains a leaf book succinctly.

“A leaf book is (or was – they are out of fashion) a way of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. A seriously imperfect copy of a famous book presented the opportunity: some suitable authority on the book would be asked to write an essay on it, a distinguished printer would be asked to give it typographic form, choosing a page slightly larger than that of the book in question, and printing as many copies as there were surviving leaves. The whole would be handsomely bound, with one leaf of the original laid in. A Noble Fragment 1921, in which this treatment was bestowed on over 200 leaves (about a third of the whole) of a copy of Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, was the original leaf book. The evidential (not to say monetary) value of a single leaf of that Bible is now so great as to make this seem deplorable vandalism; at the time, no doubt, it was regarded as an honest way to bring to a larger market something in itself virtually unsaleable. Hard cases make bad law: a leaf book is always in some way a hard case. But breaking-up is not to be condoned, even in a good cause.”


The Folger blog, The Collation, brings a nice little study of how shading has been introduced into line art over the centuries.

Detail from page 1 of C. Walter Hodges, The Globe Restored: A Study of the Elizabethan Theatre. Second edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Folger PR2920 .H6 1968.

They use as their example this drawing of the Globe by C. Walter Hodges for an OUP book. Not sure I don’t prefer it without the tint as shown below.

C. Walter Hodges (1909-2004). The Second Globe Under Snow. Pen and ink drawing, circa 1968. Folger ART Box H688 no.3.5.

Still it does unquestionably make for a greater contrast between snow and non-snow areas.

The Folger, inveterate collectors, not only have the book, they have the artwork prepared for the book. Here’s a detail of the tint overlay.

We used to make these sorts of things all the time, using an Xacto knife to cut away the bits of a Letraset sheet of tint dots in order to create highlight and shadow, or often different shades of flat colors. You can see the feint cut marks in the backing sheet which remained after Mr Hodges had tweezered off the little bits of tint he wanted to remove.

If like me you start getting crazy trying to figure out exactly where on the printed version these cut-out highlights appear, you’ll finally figure out that The Collation have photographed the overlay from the back. In other words the tint image is flopped with regard to the line drawing.

A half bound book is not one which is liable to fall apart because nobody completed the job: it’s a book which has a binding with leather on the spine extending onto the front and back covers, and leather corners. Leave out the leather corners, and you have a quarter bound book. There’s even a style with very wide corners which rejoices in the name three-quarter bound.

Antiquarian book dealers often get even more specific, saying half morocco or half calf for instance.

Morocco is a soft pliable leather often used for gloves, wallets, and shoe uppers. But it has been mainly associated with book binding, and nowadays especially Bibles. It was originally made solely from goat skins and was imported from the Levant, Turkey or maybe even Morocco, but the name gradually came to cover cheaper leathers made from sheep skin and from split calf skin. French Morocco, for example, is the name for a leather made from sheep skin. Although leather is still being tanned in the traditional way in Morocco, most leather traveling under this name no longer has any connection with that country. Flora the Explorer has an interesting blog post about tanneries in Fez, from which this picture is borrowed.

You’ve really got to need a job to work in a traditional tannery: the smell is appalling, as I experienced in Varanasi (Benares) twenty-five years ago. Here’s a YouTube video of that same Fez tannery.

(If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.)

John Carter, in his ABC for book collectors, gives the traditionalist’s take on the subject:

“Morocco: A handsome, hard-wearing leather made of goatskin and apt for dyeing in strong colours. Islamic in origin, the morocco leathers were first imported into western Europe through Turkey and Venice, domesticated in Italy early in the 16th century, north of the Alps early and in England late in the 17th.

As the goats were bred in Anatolia, the use of morocco as the name for the skins used by Islamic binders in the Levant and European binders using the same source in the 16th and 17th centuries is an erroneous back-projection of later practice; goatskin is better. Even more perversely, when Tangier was ceded to England with the dowry of Catherine of Braganza (1661) and the great Restoration binders got access to skins re-tanned and dyed in Morocco (though imported from south of the Sahara), they persisted in calling them Turkey, which became the normal name until well into the 18th century.

So morocco has no more geographical significance than its sub- species levant and turkey, for most of it used for binding comes from other parts of the world; and the only common denominator among the numerous varieties of leather which go under the name is that they are all goatskin.

Of the various types of morocco commonly specified in catalogue descriptions, levant, hard-grain and niger* refer to differences of grain, pattern or texture in the actual skin when tanned and dyed; straight-grain and crushed morocco refer to its treatment before it is put on the book; and morocco extra, super-extra or elegant (an old- fashioned term) refer to the degree of elaboration and the amount of gilt which have been lavished on it by the ‘finisher’ in the bindery.


* Niger: A kind of morocco (goatskin). True niger, which comes from West Africa, is a soft skin with an unemphatic, variable grain. It is locally tanned and dyed (hence native-dyed); the favourite colours, seldom quite even, being crimson, orange to brick-red, green, or the natural buff. The slight variations of grain and colour which give niger its character are seldom successfully achieved in the imitations of it.”

Do bear in mind that almost all grains displayed by different leathers are nowadays applied by stamping after the tanning process has been completed, so although they originally denoted different grades of leather, they now almost always just refer to different (artificial) patterns.

The Digital Reader, following the New York Times‘ lead, tells us it’s all over in a post entitled Book Mending is Going the Way of the Buggy Whip. The article quotes Mr Vass of the Kings County Library system in Seattle, who opines that he will be the last of his kind. He may be right if he means the last bookbinder to be an employee of a library system, though even there I’d suspect him of excessive pessimism. The world is a large place after all. Maybe he’ll be the last in the USA.

The Digital Reader‘s main beef with the whole concept is economic, and his math certainly does suggest that by a financial measure Mr Vass should be the last of his kind. Before WWII the economics of the business were completely different. We all tended to be more careful at conserving resources: not because of any ecological purity, but because “things” just cost more relative to labor than now. There used to be tinkers: now we just chuck old pans away and buy new ones. Governments actively discourage tinkering with automobiles in order to make them last longer, and manufacturers join in by making their vehicles more and more computer-driven. People are aghast to see me darn a sock or patch a pair of pants. It’s the same with books: unless there’s some sentimental attachment it’s just more reasonable now to toss a book with a broken binding and go out and buy another one.

BUT — you can still get your book repaired. There are many freelance hand binders out there who will continue doing this sort of work for private customers, though it can’t ever come cheap. Furthermore though, there are several companies who specialize in book repair for the library market, and if their back-logs are anything to go by, this is not work that’s about to disappear. Companies specializing in one-off library rebinding have found the development of digital printing technology a great opportunity for expansion. Bridgeport National Bindery‘s trajectory is a good example. Originally a library repair business, in the early 90s they pioneered a new business model by adding a binding service for printers who were using Xerox DocuTechs to print ultra short runs of books. After a few years they figured that they could easily enough get into the printing part of that business, and they did, first with DocuTechs and then with other print engines. Success built, and they began doing four-color photo books — the sort of book individuals put together as a family project, a wedding album or whatever. Eventually the new elements in their business mix dwarfed the old original one-off repair business, and now BNB has withdrawn from library repair. Acme appears set to pick up the slack.

A step-by-step can be found in this ALA slide deck which has links to many videos showing details of the process.

Academic authors like to have offprints — little booklets consisting of just those pages in a journal on which their own article appeared — so they can give them to colleagues, especially those whose work has helped them in their own research. Nobody can afford to buy copies of the entire book or journal issue for this purpose. In the olden days, before digital printing made a publisher’s life so easy, we used to run on a few copies of each journal issue, so that they could be left unbound, cut up into individual pages and reassembled as offprints. The offprints tended to become less and less elaborate as the years went by. They might have had a little cover in the early days — in very classy journals, they might have been reimposed, given a new pagination sequence, and made up into proper little mini-books — but latterly they’d tend to be just a bunch of loose pages wire stapled down the spine margin. They might even come with the last page of the previous article or the first of the next incorporated, though this of course created problems for these other ones, so you’d have to run on even more sheets than if your articles all started on a recto. In order to facilitate the offprint process journal articles will tend to repeat bibliographic information on the first page of every article. This has nothing to do with the needs of the journal issue itself: it is so that the copyright notice will appear on each offprint on its own.

Collaborative book volumes, collections of papers on a single topic by a group of academics, can be regarded as effectively nothing more than single-issue journals bound in hard covers. As academic publishers never like to pay much for articles to be published in multi-authored volumes, the convention grew up that part of the author’s remuneration would be the provision of similar offprints. And they would be handled in exactly the same way. This meant the production people would have to remember to buy extra paper and tell the printer to add x number of copies to the ordered quantity for the book itself. Such specialist academic volumes are usually straining at all the limits of their budget anyway without some dumbhead’s error leading to a costly instant reprint in order to fulfill the offprint requirement.

Nowadays of course offprints can be done whenever and in whatever quantity desired by being run off on a DocuTech or similar digital print engine. Just another way computers make our lives easier.


You’ve probably come across one of those books in your public library which looks like a paperback except that it’s bound in hard covers. This is a book which has been prebound. I went to my local library to photograph one of these objects for this post, and discovered that the world has moved on. We now, in NYC brach libraries anyway, just put the paperbacks straight onto the shelves without bothering to prebind them into hardbacks. I guess we don’t care whether the books last or not. I did locate a pair of Before/After pictures from Bridgeport National Bindery which illustrate the transformation. (These are not prebinds though. They are rebound textbooks; rebound after use. The process is identical though.)






Prebinding is an odd term whose origin may become a little less strange when we look at its history. In the olden days, when money was less of a problem, smart libraries would consider edition binding, the hardback bindings provided by publishers, inadequate to the stresses of library use, and would habitually send out their new hardbacks to be rebound in a stronger, Buckram-covered, reinforced binding before putting them on their shelves. As part of the service the binders who did this work, library-repair binders, would provide full library services too, adding shelf labels, pasting in the lending record pouch, maybe even Brodarting.





So one can see how in a world where a librarian considered edition binding so contemptible as not really to qualify for the name “binding”, prebinding your books before issuing them to your patrons might be what you’d call it. Going even further back we can find libraries buying unbound sheets from publishers, which they’d then have stoutly bound before shelving. According to Bound to Stay Bound Books the industry came up with standards for library binding in 1923. They direct us to a librarians’ Hall of Shame, but unfortunately their link no longer works, so we cannot gawp at examples of lousy edition binding. We all know they are out there however. I once worked for a company which had two divisions, one doing reference books (which were by and large strongly bound and well able to withstand more than 100 borrowings) , the other a trade list where, shamefully, many of the books, even though large, were bound without any reinforcements. A cynic might claim trade publishers prefer not to address the question of reinforced binding head on: they would really prefer that their books should fall apart before 100 readings, so that their customers will feel impelled to go out and buy another copy! The binding of this cookbook is a disgrace — though I did have ultimate responsibility for it myself. (The annotation refers to the recipe, though it might as well refer to the binding.)

Making prebounds has became even easier with the advent of digital printing. Now instead of carefully removing the paperback cover and laminating it onto boards for the rebound book, the binder can simply scan the paperback cover and reoutput it scaled to fit the hardback exactly.

I’ve always wondered about the legal position of converting paperbacks into hardbacks. I guess it’s not really a legal question: more of an ethical one. After all publishers issue paperbacks at a cheaper price for a mass market sale, and many, especially university presses, depend on the higher priced hardback to amortize the “discount” given to the customer on the paperback. If the hardback costs $74.00 and the paperback $29.95 obviously a librarian who can get the book prebound for less than $44.05 (which they certainly can!) is going to be able to stretch the book budget a little further. If all librarians did this and the publishers didn’t ever sell the couple of hundred hardbacks they’d made, clearly there would be difficulties for the publisher: not only would they be left with hardbacks on hand, but every paperback sale would fail to make its margin. The profit margin had assumed a helping hand from the higher-priced hardback, which would be carrying a large proportion of the up-front costs of the book. Until the books are sold such an allocation is just wishful thinking.

Here are stacks of paperbacks awaiting prebinding at Bridgeport National Bindery.

I discover that prebinding has a second meaning. The website TechTerms informs us that “Prebinding is an optimization process that allows faster launching of applications in Mac OS X. Often, when a program is opened, it loads data from files called dynamic libraries. These libraries must be located each time a program is run since their memory addresses are usually undefined. When a program incorporates prebinding, the addresses of the library or libraries referenced by the program are predefined.”

This image comes from Jeff Peachey’s blog post of October 20, 2015.

G. Ruse and C. Straker. Printing and its Accessories. London: S. Straker & Son., 1860. Robertson Davies Library, Massey College. University of Toronto.

Never really thought about it but it does stand to reason that litho stones would have to come in a variety of sizes. Just placing your image in the middle if a gigantic stone would make registration even harder — plus hauling the thing around — just look at those weights!

Atlas Obscura brings a collection of photos of stones from the Puck Building at Lafayette and Houston in New York City, where Puck magazine used to be printed by the J. Ottmann Lithographing Company.

I notice than some of these stones are right reading — this has to mean they were being used in an offset lithographic press.


Apart from the occasional scrawl on the blackboard I never had to write on a “slate” at school, but one knows that millions of predecessors did. For me there’s an old world charm in the design of this slate book from Thomas Nelson: things were still being designed to look a bit like this when I was a child. It’s not really slate on the inside; just a tough coated paper manufactured to take chalk and allow it to be erased again and again.

These images come from Jeff Peachey’s blog.

I’m not sure exactly when slates stopped being used in schools. Mrs Brewer’s Parlour implies that that would be in the early 20th century, but I bet it was much later.