Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 105
April 1996

COMMENTARY: Written to last, built to self-destruct

by Joanne Sonnichsen

Is it possible that American hard-cover books, published to our new standards for permanence of paper, will nevertheless disappear within only a few decades?

Thanks to the superb efforts of people like Ellen McCrady, we can take pride in the paper used for American publications. Her Abbey Newsletter (and later Alkaline Paper Advocate) fought for years to educate the book world about the necessity of using acid-free papers. Finally the battle has been won. Now the pages can keep their color and suppleness for years.

Unfortunately the books won't last.

These wonderful pages are no longer bound into books in such a way as to ensure their permanence. The spines of most publishers' hard-cover editions are now constructed along the same principal as "Post-it" notes. If you care to test this, simply take a recent $30 book and flex its spine a few times. You may even have to read it once or twice to get it ready for the test. Then, as you begin to turn each page, tug on it. You will probably be able to pull it out fairly easily. If you are careful, you might even be able to avoid tearing the leaves. When you are finished, so is the book! You will have a lovely pile of white pages that will retain their color and suppleness for years to come. You could even conceivably put these loose sheets back into their case binding. The book would be clumsy to store that way, however, and pages would probably escape from time to time each time the book was used. It isn't even always necessary to flex the spine to destroy the book. Often just loving use is sufficient. My introduction to the glued-only spine came when a desolate owner brought me a book for repair that her late father had given to her, and she was shattered when a section of it fell out. It was a copy of the beautiful red-leather-bound National Geographic book on China. Although it was possible to replace that section, it will only be a matter of time before another section works its way loose. This was an expensive book, meant to be an heirloom. However much money the publishers saved by gluing the spine instead of sewing it, that will not compensate for the distress of the many people who bought the book and are now finding sections of it falling out.

There is a better way to keep those pages over the decades: keep the folds of the signatures intact and sew the text block at the spine. Sewing the signatures of a book is part of correct book construction. When the book is printed, several pages are printed on one sheet. That sheet is then folded to produce the familiar signature of 8, 16, 32, etc. pages. Sewing may be done by hand or by machine. With either method, the pages are securely fastened into a text block. Over time the pages may loosen - if so, they can be resewn.

A book constructed of sewn signatures is a book meant to be used over the years. When we pay $30 for that hard-cover copy, instead of $10 for the paperback edition, it is because we want to be able to keep the information for re-reading, for reference, for sharing, and for posterity.

If, after the top is trimmed, the fold of the signature is cut off and only glued, the integrity of the structure is compromised. The opening of the book is stiff. Damage to the text block is assured (unless the book is never opened). Repair of the damage will either be temporary - awaiting the next problem - or prohibitively expensive for most books (by guarding each page so that signatures can be made up and sewn).

When a reader buys a paperback book with a "perfect" binding, he is giving up the long-term use of the book for a reduction in its price. When he buys a hard-cover book he pays a premium for a book that he is planning to keep. If that book is "perfect" bound, he is not getting what he has a right to expect. Unfortunately, few book buyers are even aware of the problem. Even those who are may be lulled into a false sense of security by seeing the familiar U-shaped gatherings at the spine that seem to denote sewn signatures - but that does not always indicate a sewn book. The only way to be certain the book has been sewn is to see the sewing threads at the fold of each signature.

As Bookbinders, we have a responsibility to bring this information to the public. As book buyers, we have a right to demand proper construction in the hard-cover books we buy.