Traditional bookbinding is a far cry from what we see in book production today, as with most other aspects of hand-press practices. The result of this type of binding is a very durable book; you might be surprised to find that many books created 500 years ago, like the books of Dr. Poste’s donation, may only have been rebound once or twice in their long, dynamic lives. The average book bound by today’s standards and practices, however, that is regularly used, will likely fall apart within its owners lifetime. Gluing paper to paper will only get you so far in terms of durability.
Before the Bind: An essential piece to the process of producing a hand-press era book happens right before the bind, after the ink has dried, known as format. Format, as described by Philip Gaskell in his text A New Introduction to Bibliography, is “the arrangements of its formes and the subsequent folding of the printed sheets as indicated by the number and conjugacy of the leaves and the orientation of the paper in the gatherings” (80). In simpler terms, format refers to the way and direction in which the large, printed sheets are folded before they are sewn together, resulting in the seamless order of the book.
Essential to proper formatting, printers used specific combinations of letters and numbers called signatures to give the person folding the paper direction for how to correctly do so. These combinations are found at the lower margin of at least the first page of each folded section, and typically follow the letters of the alphabet (A, B, C, Aa, Bb, Cc, and so on). As will be demonstrated by Dr. Poste’s books, preliminary leaves (pages prior to the core text) are not signed like the rest of the book, and are often distinguished by symbols like the asterisk and an accompanying number instead of an alphabetical letter (Carter and Barker 203).
Watch this video from the Discovery Channel’s show How It’s Made for a visual of this general process.
John Carter and Nicolas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors, 8th ed. (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004).
Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1995).
“How It’s Made Traditional Bookbinding,” YouTube, accessed January 18, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nICeso8336Y.