Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Medieval Girdle Book by Margit J. Smith

Smith, Margit. The Medieval Girdle Book. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2017.
384 pages, 7.375 x 10.5 inches, hardcover, dust jacket. ISBN: 1584563680 / 9781584563686. $95.00.

Reviewed by  Nicholas Yeager

Girdle books are mysterious, almost mythical structures, designed to allow the owner to “wear” the book, hanging from a long tail attached to one’s belt (girdle). That there are only 26 known survivors of this structure makes them a rare item even to binding historians. Margit J. Smith gives a thorough description of these known examples in The Medieval Girdle Book, having visited libraries in Europe and the United States to research them first hand.

By shedding light on the development and use of girdle books, Margit J. Smith focuses on their construction and materials employed. She isolates the girdle book from other structures and places it in the medieval world as a separate and short-lived use. One wonders why personal, portable books didn’t last and whether the advent of small, portable printed books had some influence in the demise of wearable bibliographic accessories.

Margit J. Smith was an academic cataloging and preservation librarian at the University of San Diego when she attended the Montefiasconi Library Project in 2003 where she took a class on the girdle book, igniting a fourteen year study of this structure.

The mechanical challenges of how to make girdle books have been elusive to most binders as there has been very little published. Pamela Spitzmueller gave a presentation discussing the girdle book at the Guild of Book Workers Standards conference in 2000. Her handout describes briefly the two versions of a girdle book binding that Ms. Smith calls primary and secondary covering styles. All but 2 books are laced onto wooden boards, making the basic structure of the girdle book the same as wooden board bindings of the 14th - 16th centuries. Forwarding a girdle book is no different than contemporary bindings. Even the 2 paper board bindings are forwarded in the same way.

The Medieval Girdle Book reviews the 26 bindings by dividing them into 4 chapters according to each book’s contents: Religious (19); legal (5); philosophical (2); and possible girdle books (8). The thirty-three page introduction gives a thorough description of the 2 types of coverings employed and where and when these bindings were made. Table 1 shows books by location and whether manuscript (20) or printed (6). Table 2 dates and places the the books and again indicates manuscript or print while Table 3 covers the possible girdle books examined. Tables 4 & 5 indicate books that have protective flaps in addition to the extension to hang the book from a belt. An overall survey describes each book in its historical context, the interior or the book, the construction and exterior of the book.

The photography is of a high quality and the overall information is well done, whetting one’s curiosity about each book. The design, typography and printing are well done, making for ease in reading. However there are no indicators within the book to aid the reader in knowing what section or chapter one is in. By sorting the books by subject, one has reason to flip between sections to look at images for comparison. The addition of headers would make for a better reading experience. Lacing-on patterns, paste-downs and images of all sides of a book would have been helpful to discern manufacturing clues.

The Medieval Girdle Book is a well-written book, for the interested binder that will further one’s understanding of the structural and covering solutions employed in making girdle books. While the specifics of all aspects of making a girdle book are hinted at, a conscientious practitioner can infer enough to make one’s own girdle book. Reading this after having read (or along side) of J.A. Szirmai’s The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding (1999) gives the serious binding student a lot of information to help navigate their education in the era of wooden-board binding structures.

Nicholas Yeager is a rare books librarian/historian of the book, scribe and motorcyclist. He is also the creator of Zorbix.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings by Julia Miller

Miller, Julia. Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings. The Legacy Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2018. 707 pp., features 717 full-color images, with an accompanying DVD an additional 650 images and a short video. $125.00.

Reviewed by Barbara Adams Hebard

Julia Miller embarked on an ambitious journey when she set out to write Meeting by accident: selected historical bindings. Book conservators, indeed book lovers in general, should be grateful for her diligence. Miller could have rested on her laurels after producing the acclaimed Books Will Speak Plain, instead choosing to elaborate on books that previously had received brief mention in that publication. Readers should not be intimidated by the high page count—707 pages of densely packed text—not only because the text is rich with information, but also it is complemented by 717 full-color images. The colored illustrations clarify Miller’s detailed focus on the bindings’ characteristics in a way that black and white or gray scale images would fail to do. Legacy Press is to be commended for committing to include so many full-color images, a costly production. The six chapters within Meeting by accident: selected historical bindings each could each could have merited a separate book; making this $125.00 volume a bargain.

Miller’s chosen topics for the first four chapters are binding styles that have not always received ample attention in binding structure or book history publications, in part because they are not generally considered to be the most glamorous styles and/or are lacking exciting ownership associations, for example. In those chapters she looks at: bindings decorated by staining, canvas bindings, over-covers, and books made for scholars. Miller clearly is fascinated by the techniques used by bookbinders of the past and, indeed, in these pages the structure of those books has become more interesting because of the questions that she poses and answers about them. Add to that, likely many an institution has examples of these styles either incorrectly, incompletely, or not identified because of the lack of readily available language with which to describe them. Miller has changed that, Meeting by accident has given catalogers and conservators precise terms to use for records or reports. The footnotes offer a wealth of information and their tone is conversational. Miller, recognizing that other conservators and bookbinders are in her reading audience, uses the footnotes to: explain her reasons for choosing a particular descriptive word, assiduously credit others either for their workshops or publications that further illuminate the topics, and offer links to on-line data-bases with additional visual aids to educate the viewer.

Chapter five, “A Gift from the Desert: A Report on the Nag Hammadi Codices”, can be summarized by Miller’s own words, “The purpose of this chapter is to give the reader an idea of what the Nag Hammadi bindings look like and how they were put together, and what they represent to the history of the codex and the history of hand bookbinding”. She completely delivers on those words and, as with the four prior chapters, has packed the numerous footnotes with more information and with the same painstaking effort to honor the research of others.

In “A Model Approach”, the final chapter in this pithy volume, Miller is, “urging the reader to engage with historical bindings by creating models of structures interesting to you. The rewards are great: you gain a better understanding of historical binding developments and you soon comprehend the possibilities (and limitations) of modern materials”. The models, she points out, have value beyond that given to creating a bookbinding—when used in a teaching setting, they offer cultural and historical importance. Seeing and interacting with a physical object engages a student beyond the knowledge gained by merely reading about its existence.

Julia Miller’s Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings, can be interpreted as a quiet yet persuasive call to preservation action, within the volume she is: asking conservators and curators to look at under-appreciated structures with new eyes; teaching them in great detail how to study book structure, thereby tempering decisions regarding the care and custody of historic materials; and fostering an appreciation of the value of historic models both for instructing the professionals as well as students.

Barbara Adams Hebard was trained in bookbinding at the North Bennet Street School. She was Book Conservator at the Boston Athenaeum for 18 ½ years and became the Conservator of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College in 2009. Ms. Hebard writes book related articles and book reviews, gives talks and presentations, exhibits her bookbindings nationally and internationally, and teaches book history classes. She is a Fellow of IIC, a Professional Associate of AIC, a board member of the New England Conservation Association, and has served several terms as an Overseer of the North Bennet Street School.