Bookbinders at Work
Their Roles and Methods
By Mirjam M. Foot
New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2006
Hard back: ISBN: 1584561688 Price: $59.95
It's an exciting time to be a bibliographer. For most of the twentieth century, W. W. Greg and Fredson Bowers's work on descriptive bibliography-deducing the nature of the "ideal" copy of a book based on the evidence from copies of the book itself-have influenced the work of book historians. Collectors and dealers use modified forms of Greg and Bowers's methodology to determine that a book is complete and not missing pages. Their work focused almost exclusively on the hand-press period, before printing became automated, and considered only the work of the printer and not of illustrators or bookbinders. The printed page ruled in Greg and Bowers's world. After all, it was believed, once a stack of unbound pages left the printer, anything could happen. The bibliographer's mission was to figure out what the printer intended.
In the last decade, scholars have upended some of that received wisdom, proving that publishers, or the pre-nineteenth century equivalent, bound far more books than previously imagined. Many book historians argue that these original publisher's bindings should now be an essential part of any descriptive bibliography. The problem is that most bibliographers paid little attention to the bindings of books printed before about 1820 and a lot of research needs to be done to identify early publishers' bindings.
Mirjam Foot, a professor at University College in London, has taken an initial step by surveying the published writings about bookbinders in the sixteenth through early-nineteenth centuries. In Bookbinders at Work, she considers the information found in early bookbinding handbooks, encyclopedias, and other printed works that reference bookbinding. Many photographs enhance her book, with color reproductions of bookbindings and of illustrations depicting binderies.
Foot's book is a useful compendium of primary-source materials, particularly her translations from binding guides written in languages other than English. Much of what we know about early bookbinding has come from the bindings themselves. Comparatively little research, before Foot's book, has looked at the few surviving instruction manuals. The casual reader may have trouble following the technical details, but most collectors of books printed before 1820 will learn a great deal about bookbinding techniques from Bookbinders at Work.
Currently, early books in original boards command a premium on the market. Once it can be shown that some of the "contemporary" leather bindings are also original to the book, prices for those volumes will likely start to rise. Then the exciting times for bibliographers will become exciting times for the collectors who have the right books.