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Library News

An Odyssey, Part 1: Book Anatomy

by Robin Gee on 2021-07-16T11:04:31-05:00 | Comments

In the library, we do our best to keep all our materials in good condition and to keep track of where they are at all times, but every once in a while a book turns up unexpectedly and in bad shape, like this one!  This 1852 book is a copy of The Odyssey of Homer According to the Text of Wolf: With notes: For the use of schools and colleges by John J. Owen.  It was found sans call number, barcode, or explanation with some other uncatalogued materials in an office. Its poor condition means extra care is necessary in opening it, or even picking it up, but also makes it easy to see the parts and pieces that hold a book together.

With the outer cover missing, all the binding structures which would usually be hidden are on display. Like a sketch in a biology textbook, this uncovered state allows a glimpse of how those structures work together to keep the book in one functional piece. Welcome to Book Anatomy 101!

Title page for The Odyssey of HomerLexical field of case-bound book - modern hardcover book binding

What we think of as a book might be more formally called a codex, the technology which surpassed the scroll as the preferred carrier of written information. This book is a long way from a handmade object composed in a scriptorium, but its basic format is the same.

Each leaf is part of a larger folio or sheet of paper. The folios are stacked and folded in half to form signatures, or gatherings which look like little booklets. Without outside covers, you can see enough of the uncovered spine to count the signatures in this book.

Look from top at the folioImage of pages sewn together

The stack of signatures is sewn together into the textblock, usually by stitching the signatures to cords or cloth ribbons. Wear-and-tear on aging paper mean that the sewing between signatures is beginning to show when you crack open this copy of the Odyssey!

The ends of the sewn cords or ribbons might be left long so that they can later be attached to the boards, while the sewn-together side of the text block might be reinforced with cloth or paper backing material called mull or lining. Reinforcements at the top and bottom of the spine are called the headband and tailband.   

 Three layers of the mull or lining are visible on the uncovered spine: the cloth is glued right across the back of the signatures, including the tailband and half the headband. On top of the cloth is glued an unidentified printed page, with a few shreds of brown paper clinging to the outside of that.

tailband of the Odyssey            Backing material, old newspaper

The boards or covers of a book are customarily covered with leather, cloth, or paper. Inside the covers, the gutter that runs along the spine (between the board and the first signature of the text block) is called the joint. To protect the text block and cover the hinge, a sturdy sheet of paper is folded in half and glued flat against the inside of the board. The glued half is called a pastedown, and it hides the ends of the sewn cords or ribbons and any edges of the covering material that were folded over from the outside of the boards. The other half of the pastedown paper is left free as the first blank page of the text block, and it’s called the flyleaf. The pastedown and flyleaf together can sometimes be called the endpages or endsheets.  

This book has no sturdy boards to which endpages could be pasted. Its nominal covers are made from several sheets of heavy paper glued together. The only thing holding them to the text block is the edge of the cloth mull or backing material, which is glued between two layers of the paper cover to create a cloth hinge.

Cloth book hingeBook cover for Homer's Odyssey, with handwritten title

To see some excellent photos, explore bookbinding techniques, and learn more about the history of the codex, visit The Society of Bookbinders' website.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this blog, which will investigate the origins of the paper used to create the covers, the stamps and stickers lurking on the endsheets, and the handwritten notes scattered throughout The Odyssey. This enigmatic codex still has some secrets to share!

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