The reasons for binding the leaves of a book are to keep them together in their proper order, and to protect them. That bindings can be made, that will adequately protect books, can be seen from the large number of fifteenth and sixteenth century bindings now existing on books still in excellent condition. That bindings are made, that fail to protect books, may be seen by visiting any large library, when it will be found that many bindings have their boards loose and the leather crumbling to dust. Nearly all librarians complain, that they have to be continually rebinding books, and this not after four hundred, but after only five or ten years.
The reasons that have led to the production in modern times of bindings that fail to last for a reasonable time are twofold. The materials are badly selected or prepared, and the method of binding is faulty. Another factor in the decay of bindings, both old and new, is the bad conditions under which they are often kept.
Valuable books should either be issued in bindings that are obviously temporary, or else in bindings that are strong enough to be considered permanent. The usual cloth case fails as a temporary binding, because the methods employed result in serious damage to the sections of the book, often unfitting them for rebinding, and it fails as a permanent binding on account of the absence of sound construction.
Any decoration but the simplest should be restricted to books bound as well, as the binder can do them. Many books, although well bound, are better left plain, or with only a little decoration. But occasionally there are books that the binder can decorate as lavishly as he is able. As an instance of bindings that cannot be over-decorated, those books which are used in important ceremonies, such as Altar Books, may be mentioned. Such books may be decorated with gold and color until they seem to be covered in a golden material. They will be but spots of gorgeousness in a great church or cathedral, and they cannot be said to be over-decorated as long as the decoration is good.
As a book cover can never be seen absolutely alone, it should not be judged as an isolated thing covered with ornament without relief, but as a spot of brightness and interest among its surroundings. If a room and everything in it is covered with elaborate pattern, then anything with a plain surface would be welcome as a relief; but in a room which is reasonably free from ornament, a spot of rich decoration should be welcome.
A much debated question is how far the decoration of a binding should be influenced by the contents of the book? Certain appropriateness there should be, but as a general thing, if the binder aims at making the cover beautiful, that is the best he can do. The hints given for designing are not intended to stop the development of the student’s own ideas, but only to encourage their development on right lines.
There should be a certain similarity of treatment between the general get-up of a book and its binding. It is a great pity that printers and binders have drifted so far apart; they are, or should be, working for one end, the production of a book, and some unity of aim should be evident in the work of the two.
Adapted from Bookbinding and the Care of Books by Douglas Cockerell, 2008
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