Archives for category: Book manufacturing

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.

Kerry Mansfield’s book Expired looks at old library books. There are lots of photographic examples at The Guardian and an overlapping set at Hyperallergic.

Thanks Nathan for bringing this to my attention.

Jeff Peachey’s blog tells about splitting paper. Taking a single sheet of paper and dividing it into two sheets each half as thin, sounds insanely difficult. The benefits, if you want to display on your wall both sides of a single printed leaf, are obvious. (One does perhaps have to repeat one’s disapproval of dealers who dismember old books in order to obtain pictures they can sell to intellectual punters.) I don’t imagine paper splitting is as easy as the description suggests though. The things book restorers have to get up to!

Here’s a video from the Morgan Library’s blog showing how it’s done. It all works well, but I think we can assume lots of attempts which don’t work out, resulting in the destruction of a leaf which takes with it whatever information it contained. In other words this is a high-risk activity.

As usual, if you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of the post in order to view it in your browser.

To the book manufacturing operative paper splitting sounds hair-splittingly close to paper slitting. Paper slitting is the cutting of a single roll of paper into two or more ribbons as it races through the rollers at the back end of the press, or in the mill where it has been made in a continuous roll as wide as the Fourdrinier machine it comes from.


Codex is the word used to indicate that form of content holder which we think of as a book: a bunch of folded pages held together on one side and conventionally, but not necessarily, protected by some sort of cover. It can also be used to indicate a manuscript volume: The Codex Sinaiticus is a famous example. Indeed The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as its single bookish definition, ignoring the folded book/not-scroll definition, which meaning has presumably evolved in the last century or so, maybe as a result of the growth of book history as an academic subject: this OED entry is one of those not revised since 1891. They cite a listing of recipes for medicines as their only other non-obsolete meaning for codex. My school Latin dictionary (published by Cassell & Co. in 1927) gives “codex, codicis, m, = caudex, trunk of a tree; a book, composed of wooden tablets, covered with wax; a book, document.” This all seems a bit more definite than other sources suggest: but maybe there really are Latin documents which use codex in the sense of wax writing tablet. The editor, Professor Thomas, is obviously plumping at least for the derivation of the bound book from wax tablets. But if we are starting off with caudex, a tree trunk, log, block of wood, ending up with “book” may a bit of a stretch, but there are theories. Perhaps we’ll have to await the OED editors’ adjudication when they get around to updating this entry.

The development of the codex is often held to be associated with the Christians in 2nd century Rome. The earliest known reference however is from Martial in the 1st century who encouraged his readers to buy his poems in this new format. “You who long for my little books to be with you everywhere and want to have companions for a long journey, buy these ones which parchment confines within small pages: give your scroll-cases to the great authors – one hand can hold me.” Sounds a bit like paperbacks for railway journeys, doesn’t it? I still like my suggestion that the preponderance of early codex volumes from Christian sources is not a result of there being more of them in the first place. Rather I suspect it was a result of differential survival rates. Monks would no doubt go to considerable trouble to hide their codices — they well knew how laborious they were to create — and would clearly be more motivated to save the devotional literature on which their life was grounded rather than those bulky pagan classics, while reading laymen, thin on the ground anyway, might be less heedful about their books when the Vikings were landing. Thus more “Christian” codexes would survive the times of trouble, no matter whether there were more or fewer of them at the start. It’s dangerous to draw conclusions from the absence of evidence, but we shouldn’t altogether ignore it in making our guesses.

To come up with the idea of the codex we did first have to “invent” the page. Scrolls, the functional predecessors of the codex, weren’t of course written in mile-long lines; their text was indeed divided up into blocks which could be said to resemble pages. They were only written on on one side though. Some papyrus pages were first found at Oxhyrynchus in Egypt, written on both sides and thus presumptively from things we’d call books rather than scrolls. The presence of page numbers is also diagnostic — they were obviously not needed if you were just unrolling a scroll as you read. But papyrus was liable to break when folded, and was in any case more suited to the hot dry climate of Egypt than to Europe’s more humid environment. We can say with some confidence that the codex format couldn’t really take off till there was a regular supply of parchment. Exactly when parchment was invented, or more importantly was perfected is not know. Herodotus says that writing on skins was common in his time, the 5th century BC, but what’d be needed would be a regular supply of good quality, and we can only speculate rather circularly that such conditions began to appear in 1st century Rome, as attested to by Martial.

Keith Houston’s The Book has just been published, and is, as I’ve said in my review, an invaluable resource on many topics including this one. Here’s a piece of his for about the origins of the codex.

This Pompeiian lady holds the putative precursor to the bound book — a polyptych of wooden-framed wax tablets fastened together as a unit — while her more conservative partner strokes his beard with a papyrus scroll, the principal means of written communication for 2,000 years prior. Obviously an intellectual couple.

Wikipedia shows a modern reconstruction of a wax tablet: hollow out a ⅛” thick board, leaving a protective rim around the edge and fill the depression with wax so that it can be impressed with a stylus. When the message has been read it can be smoothed over, and the tablet reused. In the picture the woman is warming the end of the stylus in her mouth to heat it up and make writing in the wax easier.

If you pressed too hard you’d scratch the bottom of the case, and we’ve found lots of information about everyday life in Roman Britain from such survivals found in excavations. They are of course hard to interpret because the scratches come from many different writings. This example comes from The Museum of London. You can just make out the scratches of letters in the wood. Finds have been made of simple wooden units which were written on in ink, and this appears to have been a technique used for “postal” communications. The thin slices of wood would be folded over and tied together for delivery. Homer even refers in Book 6 of The Iliad to what is probably such a thing: “Many, of fatal import, all graved on a tablet infolded”. Pope puts it more elegantly if less specifically: “To Lycia the devoted youth he sent,/ With tablets seal’d, that told his dire intent.”

The Romans appear to have referred to these memo pads pretty straightforwardly as “waxes”, cerae, though an alternative term tabulae exists; but it appears to be a bit more general referring to any tablet on which one could write in any way (stone, metal, clay, wood), narrowed down as tabulae ceratae when used specifically for “waxes”. If there were multiple “leaves” bound (tied) together, the inner “pages” might be hollowed out on both sides. “Waxes” were not invented by the Romans: they took them over from Greece where the may be seen on vases from the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Inevitably this happy chappy looks to us like he’s working on his MacBook.

Douris cup, c.480BC. Berlin, Antikenmuseen

No wonder the guy in front of him looks a bit startled. But he is of course writing on a (rather large) triptych wax tablet set.

Nor did the Greeks invent them: they got them from earlier middle eastern cultures. The oldest surviving example of a wax writing tablet comes from fourteenth century BC Turkey.

Just because something new comes along doesn’t of course mean that any piece of technology instantly disappears.  People like to use tools they are familiar with, and if they work well there’s really no reason to innovate just for the sake of innovating. The everyday use of wax writing tablets continued for centuries after the invention of paper: they were apparently still being used in the Rouen fish market in the 1860s.


How long have we had books? What about printed books?

Who knows when the first book was actually produced? How long does a piece of writing have to be for us to call it a book anyway? No length at all: we are perfectly happy to accept the existence of blank books. Books are not just physical objects; the are also intellectual output. Within this definitional haze, we have agreed that the oldest complete dated printed book in the world is The Diamond Sutra which may be seen from time to time at The British Library. It is dated May 868 AD. What’s the oldest handwritten book? Hard to be certain, but obviously much older. Papyrus scrolls are subject to decay and don’t just leap out of the ground shouting “I’m here, I’m here”. We have found papyrus scrolls dating back to 1,500 – 1,800 BC. (The Dead Sea Scrolls are relatively modern; consensus dates them to the last three centuries BC.) Maybe we could think of the Epic of Gilgamesh in cuneiform on clay tablets as a book, but apparently the text wasn’t really finalized till about the 12th century BC.

Epic of Gilgamesh. Photo Getty Images


But let’s leave all these bits of clay and scrolls to one side and focus on what we tend to think of as a book: a number of folded pages bound into a pair of covers. The codex, as such an object is named, was allegedly originally invented to deal with Christian literature in 2nd century Rome. (No doubt that statement is too bald by several orders of magnitude — the folks around at the time didn’t leave us firm evidence, so we try conjecture and balancing of evidence.) The earliest known reference however is from Martial in the 1st century, who encouraged his readers to buy his poems in this new format which takes up less space than a scroll and is more comfortable to hold in one hand. Let’s just start the life of the codex in the second century and, although manuscript codices can obviously still be produced*, mark its ending with the printing of Gutenberg’s Bible in 1454. So the reign of the manuscript book lasted for about 1,200 years: let’s just say 1,100 years, since that would neatly represent twice as long as the current lifespan of the printed book, which, despite some recent panic, doesn’t yet look doomed to being superseded by the ebook.

Yes, what we think of as a book has been around for about 550 years: a third of the time we have had codices, and maybe a sixth of the time we’ve had books.

But during these 550 years we’ve been busy. We got off to a quick start, and have been accelerating ever since. Peter Stoicheff informs us in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, “the press itself was small and cheap enough that within fifty years of its invention Europe contained at least 200 of them, and they produced more books in that short time than had been produced by hand to that point in history”. (You can see this spread dynamically in the map linked to at my post Atlas of early printing.) Our book output built slowly and steadily. “Prior to 1750, approximately one hundred new titles were published annually in England; by 1825 approximately 600 annually; by the end of the nineteenth century approximately 6,000”. We were up to 184,000 in 2013.

The British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue now records over 29,000 titles which more or less corresponds to the output of those 200 presses over those 50 years. Of course the older the item, the more likely it is to have disappeared without a trace, but we can only deal with what we can deal with, and I take this to mean Professor Stoicheff is telling us that we know of something like 29,000 manuscript books produced from the first to the fifteenth century. This means, I guess, that every couple of months now we publish more books than ever existed prior to Gutenberg’s revolution. No wonder we suffer from angst about what to read next.


* In the late 1650s there was a newspaper issued twice a week by Henry Muddiman, handwritten and distributed to a select group of subscribers. In Dawk’s News-Letter (1696-1716), Ichabod Dawks exploited the personalization implied by the handwritten format by setting his newsheet in a specially designed typeface, Scriptorial English No. 2, leaving a space at the top so that the subscriber’s name could be entered by hand after the text had been run off.