Language of Bindings Network

Principal Investigator: Professor Nicholas Pickwoad
College: Camberwell College of Arts, CCW

Project Summary

Texts can exist without physical form, but for almost two millennia, most texts have been preserved as written or printed sheets enclosed within a binding. The binding is therefore the container of information, both erudite and popular, and is often more revealing about its origin than the text it contains.

The binding, through its materials and techniques (and decoration, if it has any), can indicate where it was made, when it was made and what type of reader it was made for. This is critical information for use in the growing study of the history of the book and can provide information that may not be available from any other sources.

However, bookbinding has not yet been embraced as a core element in the history of the book. This project created a Network of experts from a range of institutions in the UK and across Europe, who worked together to agree on a methodology for describing bindings using a widely accepted terminology.

This was the first step in systematising the study of bookbinding and allowing the collection of uniform data from book collections in Europe and the U.S.A. This data can then be used to analyse how bindings were made, their frequency and both the geographical and chronological spread of the components and materials found in them, thus identifying their development and the trade links they illustrate as well as mapping their history and establishing time-lines to facilitate their use as historical evidence.

This project ensured that the agreed methodology is put into use by the participating institutions, because an objective of the Network was the preparation of a grant application to the EU Culture Programme to describe a critical mass of bindings from Europe, available in 16 European languages and this methodology will form the basis of this research.

This project is strong in the wide participation of important book-related organisations and the Network is ambitious in that it will cover most of the history of Europe through the collections of the participating institutions. This was a critical aspect of the work, because wide participation ensures acceptance of the methodology by many partners and ultimately a unique resource for the study of bookbindings and history in general.

In addition to the important benefits for historical resource offered by this project, two additional contributions can be identified:

  • It augmented the study of bookbinding as a craft and therefore it benefitted to a wide range of students and professionals working in the field of book production (including book arts, graphics, publishing etc.) and conservation.
  • It offered a technical framework for recording any object within and outside the cultural heritage field.

Finally, this project offered a particularly important advantage for the use of books in the digital age: A digital or digitised book can be viewed online in the form of digital images. This completely removes the physicality of the book as an object and therefore reduces dramatically the audience's (mostly the public's) experience of reading a book. By offering a structured way of presenting the binding-related information, this experience can be enhanced and the historical value of the binding restored.

The project allowed an important change in the public's understanding of history by retaining access to the contextual information of the physical book within an electronic environment.