Rare Book School Student Delves into Bookbinding History

July 26, 2021

Dear Friends of the UW-Madison Libraries,

Thank you so much for providing me with the opportunity to attend a Rare Book School course this summer. It was a fantastic experience from which I learnt a great deal. I attended Karen Limper-Herz’s course entitled Introduction to the History of Bookbinding. The course dealt primarily with the European context, although North America was also mentioned. We covered not only the techniques used in creating fine, hand-made book bindings, but also discipline-specific language, the history of the trade, bookbinders of note, and characteristics of different regions. In short, it was a thorough introduction to the little-known field of rare bookbinding.

The course began with lectures on the terminology of bookbinding. This distinct terminology, and its European language translations, is essential to correctly identifying rare book bindings in cataloguing and metadata creation. It is also the lingua franca of the rare books’ trade. This extensive corpus of terminology was made clearer and more palatable thanks to a thorough and informative video demonstration, made by a Rare Books School binder, of the step-by-step process of creating a fine binding. I was surprised by the skill involved, the intricacy of the stitching work, and the delicacy of the blind and gold tooling process.

Besides this explication of terminology and technique, our instructor, Karen Limper-Herz (an expert in the field of incunabula and rare book bindings from the British Library), provided us with a series of lectures on the history and developments of bookbinding. These lectures were delivered over four days and focused not only on chronological developments in bookbinding from the start of the Middle Ages, but also looked at regional peculiarities across Europe. I now feel much more confident in identifying the period of a bookbinding, and I will have a more educated guess at the book’s locus of creation. Karen filled her lectures with high-quality images of historic book bindings from the British Library, Rare Books School and other unique collections. This made the lectures visually stunning and memorable.

Karen also had two of her colleagues come and give us guest lectures. Here, the zoom context was an advantage, as one speaker, Jan Storm van Leeuwen, was in the Hague, and the other Mirjam Foot, in London, but both were able to join us virtually and share their expertise. Jan discussed the role that trade publishing played in the history of book bindings, with specific reference to the example of the 18th century French firm of Albert Mame de Tours. Miriam looked at the peculiar tastes of rare book collectors and gave numerous examples of several amazing, primarily modern, artist binders whose work is often collected. Both lectures supplemented our course content well.

In short, taking this course, particularly in such a condensed period of time (ca. 4.5-5 hours of zoom classes per day), has helped me to quickly develop a much firmer understanding of the field of book bindings. This course’s topic called to mind my former studies of archaeology, as charting the evolution of book bindings is very similar to using artifacts as chronological indicators. Having completed the course, I now feel eager to continue my studies of bookbinding history and, of course, grateful to have had this fascinating opportunity!

Sincerely, Elizabeth Richert