Saturday, February 26, 2011

How do Books Speak? A critical review of Julia Miller's Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings

Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. Julia Miller, The Legacy Press: Ann Arbor, MI, 2010.  511pp. Illus, with DVD. ISBN-13: 978-0-9797974-3-9 (cloth) $80.00.

A critical review by Chela Metzger

“The book is dead” is a phrase that seems to have generated a cottage industry of keynote speakers and opinion pieces over the years. Let’s leave questions of the book’s relative death or life until the end of this review. Let’s agree that both dead and living things can be carefully and lovingly described, and an accurate description may be the best way to honor a book, dead or alive. Julia Miller, conservator, binder and book historian, has undertaken an enormous task in her Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. She has championed the miles of shelves holding historic bindings in America’s research collections. She has tapped into the unique perspectives of book conservators and librarians, as well as book historians.  She has placed today’s books artists alongside the anonymous binders of years past, and she has drawn all these different groups into a continuum. She builds from this synergy, and the synergy lends her book force and weight.

Book skeleton image
Image frrom Letterology blog Monday November 29. 2010, book structure models by British Artist Sarah Mitchell

The Structure

Look through the chapter headings, and you see that the book offers what a handbook needs to offer. Miller lays out well-organized information and images that you would want by your side as a reference. As an introduction, she has four chapters of western book history, starting with the earliest codex forms in the west, and ending with the electronic book reader. She then lays out two chapters on identifying and describing historic bindings, and a final chapter entitled “The Task Ahead and Conclusions”. This final chapter is followed by three appendices offering a set of binding terms in a hierarchy form, a sample historic binding survey with a case studies, and a set of guidelines for book stack maintenance and book condition assessment. She also includes a glossary, a bibliography, an index and a DVD packed with additional images of historic binding features. Illustrations are crucial to this book. Miller has groups of full color photographs, as well as black and white photographs dispersed throughout. Some historic structures are delightfully illustrated with original drawings done by book conservator and book artist Pamela Spitzmueller. Miller has done a thorough job packing an extraordinary amount of information into a single volume (and DVD).

van Gogh “Still Life with Bible” 1885 from Wiki Commons


Certainly Miller’s book is not entirely new in subject matter, but it offers a new and useful combination of information. Others have given us heavily illustrated books on western bookbinding history, like Szirmai’s The Archeology of Medieval Bookbinding, (1999) or Jane Greenfield’s ABC of Bookbinding  (2002).  And we already have a few handbooks, which focus on dating a national binding style, like David Pearson’s English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800: A Handbook (2005). Arguments for including binding information in bibliographic description have already been developed by a few bibliographers, as Miriam Foot has shown in her excellent chapter on bibliography in Bookbinders at Work: Their Roles and Methods (2006).  And in his short, highly illustrated Book as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Text (2008), Pearson has already argued passionately, as does Julia Miller, for the unique artifactual qualities of historic books in libraries. What Miller’s book does which is especially innovative is offer a set of carefully crafted tools to carry out the bookbinding documentation she has argued so passionately for.

Miller is urgent in her arguments. She wants all who can do so to add to the bookbinding description work that has already been done, and she would like people to do this work SOON. As those of us who work in research collections well know, cataloging is an enormously time consuming and intellectually demanding process.  Given time and money constraints, special collection materials are sometimes very minimally cataloged. (For more on the Council on Library and Information Resources funding to catalog these “hidden collections” see This cataloging problem makes intellectual access difficult or impossible. If these sometimes unevenly cataloged collections are moved to remote storage, an additional burden of access will be imposed. To describe a book, it is best to have the book in hand. So, Miller seems to argue, now is the necessary time to begin careful binding description projects. Her fear is that already inaccessible closed stacks will soon become even harder to access after being taken away to remote storage.  Her urgency combined with a crystal clear love for historic books drive the book forward.

"Librarian" merit badge from the Boy Scouts of America

Thinking Like a Librarian

A unique feature of Millers work is her painstaking development of controlled vocabulary for describing historic bindings. This element of her work is one of its greatest strengths, and needs to be addressed in some detail. The task of carefully describing bindings has merit in its own right, and has been done by esteemed scholars for years, though rarely on a national scale, or with a comprehensive visual documentation component. If we consider a book as a technology, and think of how other technologies, from arrowheads to wheels, are documented in archeology then we can imagine books described the same way arrowheads are described, with a controlled vocabulary developed by those who know the most about arrowheads and their gradual changes over time.

Story in Stone by Val Waldorf

Such efforts at controlled vocabulary for describing books have been part of book history for years, and Miller is careful to acknowledge this. Glaister’s 1960 Glossary of the Book is an important effort, as is of course the excellent ABC For Book Collectors by John Carter, which also came out in 1960.  Etherington and Roberts Bookbinding and Book Conservation a Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology (1985?) is a reference book many of us cannot live without. There are certainly other efforts past and present being made internationally in this area, for one example see <>.

But librarians, who rightfully claim dominion over the rigorous development of controlled vocabulary for accurate information retrieval, have generated their own somewhat lesser known list of binding terms. Miller is well aware of the American Library Association Rare Books and Manuscripts Division thesaurus of binding terms. She is actively working to have specific terms she considered crucial added to their approved list so more librarians can use them in cataloging of historic bindings. For example, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section is now considering officially approving her term “visible structure through damage”(see page 4). Imagine if you could go into any rare book library, type that term into the catalog, and could accurately generate a list of every book in the collection damaged in a way that reveals the book’s manufacture and use. This is the power of controlled vocabulary used for information retrieval, and Miller is intent on harnessing that power for research.

Screen shot of capture of RBMS Binding Terms List

Miller’s own descriptive hierarchy lists terms in a way that relates them to each other and ties each “descriptor” to her own survey form. The effort put into this thesaurus and glossary in her appendix is enormous. As she says “ The author …draws on long experience as well as the work of many scholars who have suggested and compiled terms and definitions for hand-bookbinding in the past.” (p. 306). Miller’s “Historical Bindings – Structure and Style Hierarchy” is meant to help in creating and filling out her Historical Binding Survey Form, and terms are all defined in her glossary. Her efforts pay off, not just in the sheer number of terms, but in her work’s intellectual care and sophistication.

It is instructive to briefly compare Miller’s thesaurus with the RBMS thesaurus and with the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus. (The AAT is an increasingly international resource Miller does not mention, but which aspires to be useful for library and archival materials--accessible online at

Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus

With the Getty’s AAT you see bindings and binding components classified under objects in the information context, narrowed down to gathered matter components, narrowed down to bindings. When finally further narrowed down to “binding by style or decoration” the AAT lists 26 style terms (not all are shown in the illustration above). The RBMS binding thesaurus lists 31 style terms. Miller has 141 style terms listed, and that is just for the common styles with numerous examples. She has 50 uncommon styles listed, where there were few made or few survive. AND Miller defines her terms in a glossary as well as offering a wealth of explanatory photos. Unlike Etherington and Roberts or the AAT she does not footnote individual entries so you can follow them back to a specific citation. We could quibble over what to call a style and what to call a structure and other finer points of vocabulary--but the shear numbers here speak for themselves. Miller’s thesaurus has brought together many more bookbinding terms than two of the standard hierarchies for bindings terms used in the US today.


For many conservators, using other people’s documentation forms is an enjoyable professional challenge. In some ways description and condition forms are our special form of literary production in conservation, and a good form helps the person filling it out notice the book in front of them more deeply. It was very useful to sit down and describe a real book using Miller’s “Sample Historical Binding Survey Form—Categories and Sub-Categories” in chapter 6. Her survey form is designed to be used in concert with chapter five “Identifying Binding Materials and Applications”.  Careful use of her appendix “Sample Survey Suggestions and Description Case Studies” helps the reader understand her survey rational and offers a survey designer many workflow tips. Miller moves from the outside of the book to the inside in the survey structure. She warns the reader that one size does not fit all when developing a survey, and that it is to best to first try your survey on a sample section of the collection. These suggestions, along with the form itself, make sense.

Her survey form is emphatically not meant to lead the user into poking and prodding at the book in a damaging fashion. She repeatedly cautions the reader not to assign terms to bookbinding elements they are not sure of, particularly in the case of sewing patterns and endpaper attachments. The wisdom of this is clear. The pages of diagramed endpaper types and textblock sewing styles offered in articles by Nicholas Pickwoad like "The Interpretation of Binding Structure: an Examination of Sixteenth-Century Bindings in the Ramey Collection " (in The Library, 6th series, 17 (September 1995), pp 209-249) and by Bernard Middleton in his History of English Craft Bookbinding Techniques (1963) are extremely useful and important.  But positive identification of one style or another of these often well hidden bookbinding features like sewing and endpaper construction requires more specialized training in bookbinding history than Miller is looking for here.  In her quest for basic historic binding description implemented by interested but not necessarily expert people, she has made choices about the level of binding detail to include in her survey. Some details the conservation reader might be used to seeing in a description form, such as exact collation, layers of endband structure, spine lining types and structure, composition of sewing supports, and board lacing patterns are not emphasized in Miller’s book. This is an important distinction. The survey form Miller offers is not a conservation documentation form, and serves other purposes.

Image by Yukio Miayamoto using Adobe Illustrator. From Image from, posted May 27, 2007.

Worthy Pictures

This book is replete with illustrations, and with photographs in particular. She makes excellent use of photos to explain terms in her survey form, as well as to delight the reader with interesting and beautiful examples of bookbindings. Like many photographic images meant to show technical information, there are occasional limitations. For example, while using Miller’s survey form a reader might want help in identifying the type of board used to construct the binding. Her written descriptions of pasteboard, waterleaf board and pulpboard are very good.  The fully exposed inner board face of pulpboard she uses as a photographic example clearly shows the book edge trimmings and other recycled matter she describes as commonly found in pulpboard. But on simple inspection her pulpboard and waterleaf board photos are similar enough to cause confusion.  In fact the waterleaf board photograph also seems to show the bits of paper and refuse found in the pulpboard. Miller recommends a magnifying glass as basic equipment for describing bindings. To complement that basic identification tool, magnified photographic details of materials like pulpboard could be very useful in a handbook. But this is a small complaint. Miller offers far more photographic references to aid in identifying historic binding elements than any reference book I can think of, and that is not even including the supplemental DVD with its many fine color images. (If you are still hungry for more images of historic bindings, see the British Library’s, one of a growing number of online visual resources.) Miller has used many images from the University of Michigan collections in her book, and from a few other institutions. But her private study collection of historic bindings is perhaps essential to the development of this book. Sensitivity to binding features is finely tuned over time by daily living with these artifacts, and her photographs represent this sensitivity is well.

Image from U of Wisconsin Madison  History of Science and Technology Digital Collection.

Historical Context

This review has not yet touched on the four chapters of western bookbinding history Miller offers the reader of this handbook. Since in some ways Miller’s concerns about description seem to overshadow the context of bookbinding, it is easy to skim these and move on to the more action oriented chapters. One rarely reads a handbook in order from page one to the end in any case. But for those looking for a masterful summary of bookbinding history, these chapters are very useful.

The chapter on the birth of the codex from earlier scrolls and tablets is extremely scholarly and detailed. This is to be expected given Miller’s work with early codices in Egypt, and her access to University of Michigan’s department of papyrology. Miller is careful to note that information on the earliest codices is given in her handbook to show the reader how decorative and structural elements ebb and flow through the long history of bookbinding, not because she expects readers to survey these ancient materials.

Miller’s chapter on the medieval manuscript book gives an especially in-depth look at Gothic bindings.  As she notes on page 61:  “The Gothic board attachment set in motion a train of structural change that remained in force for a long time, apparent in the curves spines of books from the Gothic era right up to the end of the twentieth century”.  While more “typical” bindings dominate her condensed history, she is careful to also cover limp and stationer’s bindings. I think her statement that stationer’s binding were part of a class of binding “plainer, more pedestrian and intended primarily to protect.” (page 84) bears a bit of examining. Her own chosen example of an Italian stationer’s binding from the mid-fourteenth century has a lovely two part scarlet dyed cover, careful lacing patterns, and a buckle closure--all steps that went far beyond basic protection into the realm of decorative. Perhaps it is safer to say stationers and other “limp” bindings had their own traditions. (To be fair, she does specifically note the lack of documentation for this style of binding.) Overall, Miller carefully reminds the reader that manuscript books came in many styles and forms, and does an excellent job setting the stage for the transition to books printed on paper.

Image of  15th century wooden board binding from University of Iowa Library Bookbinding Models Collection

The two bookbinding history chapters covering 1450-1800 and 1800 to 1900 will probably be the ones most referred to by users of this handbook, since most US collections have material created in these eras. It is here that she really delves into the nitty-gritty of bookbinding steps like sewing, endbanding, lining, board shaping, edge trimming and coloring, leather paring, clasps and so on. Some binding steps, like endbanding, are just hard to understand without technical drawings, and adding a few more line drawings here could have helped a less experienced reader. AAs in her earlier chapters, Miller is careful to note different bookbinding formats like stab sewn or stationer's bindings. Her excellent section on Colonial American bookbinding traditions is particularly useful, and we can all look forward to the publishing of her current research into the use of wooden boards(scaleboard) in early American bookbinding. In her last chapter, which romps through the intense innovation and variety in bookbinding from 1800 to 1900, she pays special attention to case binding elements, the changes in paper production, the manufacture of bookcloth, and of course the shift to publisher controlled binding choices. Miller notes that the variation of bindings within 19th century editions, coupled with the wide use of stereotyping to produce the textblocks, can both lead to serious problems dating material from this era. These features can make typical bibliographic research for these under-appreciated materials even more difficult.

All four of these history chapters are well written and delightfully footnoted. Any teacher who wants a comprehensively illustrated introduction to western binding that covers everything from the Nag Hammadi codices to Smyth sewing to would be well advised to send her students to this handbook.

The Death of the Book

At the beginning of this review the dreaded “is the book dead” phrase was used as a red flag, then dropped, with the promise of bringing it back. So here it is again: Is the book dead? In chapter four “The Book From 1800 to 1900”, Miller has already introduced the book-death theme:
“The end of the nineteenth century and the end of making books by hand for the masses could be seen as the end of the road for the making of the handmade book. This occasional feeling of impending doom is magnified by the rush of institutional collections to digitize their books, including their rare collections, and the suspicion that, after digitization, inaccessible storage will be the fate of some of the collections…we have a few years to establish our claim to access artifact bindings, and we must hope our small voice will be heard” (p.190)

Miller’s final chapter in Books Will Speak Plain begins with Emily Dickenson’s voice saying:

“Forever is composed of now—”

This mysterious line of poetry makes the reader stop and contemplate. What does it mean? Taken negatively, the Emily Dickenson’s NOW could be the sad dwarfing of historic bookbindings in the face of massive institutional responsibilities to digitize information and preserve digital information. Taken negatively the FOREVER of Dickinson’s phrase could be the permanent lonely isolation of historic bindings warehoused in cold and remote storage as if in a morgue. Or taken positively the NOW of Emily’s poem could be the current efforts Miller and many others are making to describe historic bindings accurately and share that information. And taken positively the FOREVER in this line of poetry could be the permanent new life historic binding description will have when incorporated into a library catalog accessible to all--the dream of universal and permanent access to information that has been the dream of librarianship since ancient Alexandria.

Miller starts each of her chapters with an evocative line of Emily Dickenson poetry, and the temptation is add more poetry to the mix here is strong. T.S. Elliot writes:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”

(Four Quartets 1943)
Perhaps our special collections are not headed for remote storage immediately, since it seems general collection materials may be first to move that direction, and that could take a long time. Indeed it is often harder to access these historic bindings now than is ideal even though they may live right on campus. Remote storage may not be much of a change, given that reality. But it is easy to share Miller’s sense of urgency about describing our nation’s extraordinary historic bindings. This urgency can be based as much on opportunity as fear. Miller mentions the vital twenty-first century book arts communities, bookbinding communities and book conservation communities. These groups are all passionately engaged with books as physical objects. Couple this synergy with new digital tools and the ease of sharing information.  Then keep in mind the energized interdisciplinary and growing field of Book Studies within academe…these factors all add up to making this a prime time to do the historic binding study Miller is calling for.  Miller has filled her book with her excitement at these possibilities, and they bear repeating.  As we move toward a screen-based world, we may indeed know books “for the first time”.  The book seen deeply and lovingly described for the future is brought alive. The book described and made accessible in new ways is given new possibilities -- it is not dead.

A Footnote

Finally, the comprehensive, articulate, wonderfully footnoted and gently humorous vision Miller brings to her book is a tribute to what might perhaps be called the “heroic” generation of American bookbinders/conservators that she is part of. Many of these people are thanked in Miller’s preface, and it is a long list of names. Those of us who have relied on this group’s energy and teaching in our own work can never thank them enough.

A Footnote to the Footnote

Legacy Press has also recently published Cathleen Baker’s From Hand to Machine:  Nineteenth-Century American Paper and Mediums. (Reviewed in the Bonefolder Jeffrey S. Peachey). The press must be commended for nurturing this level of scholarly work, and presenting it beautifully. 

Chela Metzger started her official association with books by working as a library assistant at the age of 9. She graduated from Simmons College as a card-carrying librarian in 1990, and began her more intimate association with the craft of bookbinding at the North Bennet Street School in 1991, working 2 years with Mark Esser. She followed that with an internship in rare-book conservation at the Library of Congress in 1993, and began her paid conservation career as a project conservator at the Huntington Library in 1994. She began teaching book conservation to visiting Latin American interns in 1999, and moved into full-time lecturer work in 2001 at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2011 she began as Conservator of Library Collections at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Winterthur, DE. Having been the recipient of amazingly generous teaching in the past, she hopes to help carry on the tradition, integrity and discipline of bookwork in all its facets. On-going bookish research interests include: history of the book, binding in Spain and Latin America, future of books and libraries, the binding of archival materials historically, how books are depicted in art, social life of books. She is also a member of the Editorial Board of The Bonefolder.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bind-O-Rama 2011 - Artistically Reversible: Where Conservation and Art Meet

Welcome to the 2011 Bonefolder Bind-O-Rama that demonstrates the intersection of conservation and the art of the book. We challenge binders and conservators to think about their work in different ways and to create compelling new work that applies “non-destructive and completely reversible book structures.” Since 2003, the Tomorrow’s Past movement (See The Bonefolder, Vol. 7, 2011) has led the way with work that demonstrates a high regard for the integrity of the original object, the application of current conservation best practices, and an innovative interpretation of book structure and aesthetics resulting in work that is lasting and fresh.

The integrity of the original is a key value of this movement, and stresses that books are not rebound or interpreted simply for the sake of doing so. Books of significance as artifacts with key elements of the binding in treatable condition or requiring simpler treatments are not appropriate candidates for this kind of treatment. Suitable books would be those that may have boards or other elements missing, have been previously repaired/rebound and showing the negative effects of those treatments, or whose original structures may have caused the breakdown of the binding in the first place. All treatments completed for this Bind-O-Rama must conform to current best practices in conservation, be reversible, and ultimately “do no harm.” This is NOT an altered book event. In contrast to past Bind-O-Ramas this event will be juried by the members of The Bonefolder’s board who are themselves trained conservators and active in the field. Kathy Abbott, a member of the Tomorrow’s Past movement will also participate as juror.

For ideas and more context please see the article in The Bonefolder, Vol 7, by Charles Gledhill, the Tomorrow's Past web pages, and this post at the Riverlark blog entitled Old wine in new bottles.

Additional examples can be found by Suzy Morgan, Gaylord Intern in the Conservation Lab at Syracuse University Library. In her posts she discusses the book she treated and some of the "ethical" questions. Take a look at these links: and

Another example is the work of James Reid-Cunningham, conservator at the Boston Athenaeum. His treatment is at

Karen Hanmer's example is at

To participate, please select the book you will treat/rebind carefully, keeping at the forefront the needs of book and your skills as a binder and/or conservator. Each entry must include:
  • Images: At least two, no more than 5 images of treatment including before, in-process, and completed. 
    • Specifications: Minimum 640 x 480 pixels @ 72dpi, jpg file format of your book. Files must be named as binder's name-1.jpg... (e.g. verheyen-1.jpg, verheyen-2.jpg) 
      • Examples below provided by Kathy Abbott.
  • Condition Report: please follow structure/syntax of example provided.
    • E.g.: Samuel Butler, Hudibras (London 1817). Bound in full leather; front board and parts of spine missing; text block sound with marbled edges.

      Hudibras (before, front board missing)
      Hudibras (before, front board missing)
      In process
  • Treatment Report: Includes statement of why the illustrated treatment was selected, description of selected structure, and aesthetics (please follow structure/syntax of example provided)
    • E.g.: Adapted ‘simplified binding’. Original sewing retained; spine lined with linen and hand-made paper; new endpapers of plain hand-made paper (to match the original); decorated, hand-made paper spine and hand-coloured, hand-made paper over hand-made paper pasteboards. 133 x 77 x 24mm. Bound in 2010.

      Hudibras (completed)
  • Brief Bio Sketch: of that includes training in binding/conservation (no more than 250 words)
    • Kathy Abbott served a four-year apprenticeship in bookbinding and then gained an HND from the London College of Printing, followed by a BA (Hons) from Roehampton University . She is currently self-employed as a bookbinder and book conservator and is a partner of Benchmark bindery, set up in 2009 with Tracey Rowledge. Kathy teaches bookbinding at the City Literary Institute and West Dean College and conducts many workshops across the UK. She has been exhibiting with the group Tomorrow's Past. since its formation in 2003.
  • Brief Treatment Statement: How this treatment approach impacts you and your work. (no more than 100 words)
    •  I create new structures which are sensitive to the needs of antiquarian books. They use little or no adhesive and are fully reversible. The inspiration for the colours used in the covers comes from those found on or within the original text-block.
All Images must be sent to <> at the time the entry form is submitted.

Actual online entry form will be added here during the summer.

Deadline for entries Oct 31, 2011.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Floods in Queensland, Australia - From Adele Outteridge

We are all very relieved that the Artists' Books Collection at the State Library of Queensland is safe and look forward to the its reopening.

The Studio West End (Wim de Vos and Adele Outteridge) is dry and back to business. The water came to the front gate of the old ice cream factory site where we are housed. Not so lucky were so many other residents and businesses in West End, CBD and suburbs of Brisbane. The devastation and heartbreak are hard to comprehend.

I was marooned at home with our street flooded in both directions from Moggill Creek. We had no power for five days so were spared the harrowing images that saturated all television channels. The water came into one lower room but not the main part of our house. We have a few wet books and some old stored stuff. We were very lucky compared with neighbours whose houses went under.

Below some photos I sent to Peter for the Bonefolder Extras blog.

West End, the Art Shed

West End, the Art Shed

West End, mud

West End, Melbourne St.
South Brisbane, more mud
Kenmore, raining again
Kenmore, young Tawny Frogmouth
West End, before the storm
Cyclone Yasi.

Thanks to all who have sent messages of support.

Adele Outteridge

Adele Outteridge Wim de Vos
Studio West End

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Beauty of Books

BBC4 began airing a 4 part documentary on Monday 7 February 2011 titled "The Beauty of Books" Although not available yet in the US (fingers crossed it will air soon on BBC America), the BBC has posted a YouTube video clip on the Codex Sinaticus.

The British Library (the featured institution in this documentary) has also posted a description of the program on their Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog giving a description of the first episode on Ancient Bibles with a link to the trailer.

Watch for this program to air on BBC America or PBS this year! When The Bonefolder hears when it will air, we will be sure to share that news with all of you!