by Emily Tipps
Knowledge of book history is essential to the investigation of a single binding; a scholar can bring what she knows of a period or place to her study of a specific book. However, by necessity, history generalizes, whereas hand-bound books are as unique (and indeed idiosyncratic) as their binders. Therefore, when examining a book it is often the historical discrepancies—the oddities—that can serve as forensic keys to their histories. As books and binders are individuals, so too are those who examine them. Two scholars examining the same evidence might reach opposing conclusions about its history.
In her afternoon Standards session on October 15, Martha Little began her presentation with the introduction of the above ideas. What followed was a smart and steady stream of illustration by example. First, she explained how two binding scholars, Berthe van Regemorter and Roger Powell, examined the same pair of wooden Egyptian boards and came to wildly different conclusions about how they had been bound. Then she passed around two models: the first bound according to van Regemorter’s theory and the second according to Powell’s. The physical examples (thoughtfully constructed by Little at twice the original size to make them easier to see) made it painfully clear that Powell’s was the more likely theory.
It is tempting to review Little’s illuminating presentation piece-by-piece, but so much was packed in to the three-hour session that it would take pages and pages to do so; so I will summarize. One by one, she brought out books (her own and borrowed from friends) for us to view, pointing out those idiosyncrasies I mentioned earlier, explaining what they revealed and how they led to deeper understanding of the books. What first appeared to be a single volume proved to be two volumes bound into one, likely by an amateur. The direction and quality of markings on a fore-edge implied it was trimmed using a dull-bladed plough. Little demonstrated a simple process, using the reagent potassium iodide, to test for the presence of starch adhesives. She demonstrated a technique, honed at Trinity College, for mapping sewing and tacketing holes in each signature of a book to learn more about original and rebound sewing patterns. Apparently a mouse had feasted on an 1815 volume; his hungry excavation was like an archeological dig, revealing a perfect cross-section of the pasteboard cove.r (Other boards we learned about: pulp board; straw board; and board with an embossed, wove pattern from worn-out woolen couching blankets.)
Somehow, in her engaging litany of things to look for in a book (staining, wear, endbands, sewing holes, types and colors of thread, pest damage, evidence of lacing-on of an over-cover, creases left at the head and tail of the gutter by folding down from a parent sheet…), Little managed to work in a demonstration of cord-making, and a detailed explanation of the finer points of twist direction, and its rather confusing annotation in writings about book archaeology (as in J.A. Szirmai’s The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding); for example, 4z/4s/4z/s.
Little delivered a clear and measured presentation of abundant and fascinating content. Her presentation was supported by visual aids: carefully drawn-out illustrations of fiber, yarn, thread, plied thread, re-plied thread, and twist direction. She also sent participants home with a practical handout of features to look for in an examination, attended by this forewarning: “Remember that anything you notice on a binding may be the result of mistakes, inconsistency, lack of skill, whim or innovation. A binder doesn’t always do things that make sense to a future observer or accord with prevalent practice”—a reminder that binding is a people’s practice, replete with human strangeness and imagination.