Form and Function: The Genius of the Book

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“Form & Function: The Genius of the Book” was one of the Exhibitions at the Folger curated by the Folger’s Head of Conservation Renate Mesmer and includes more than 110 rare books from the Folger collection, including printed books and bound manuscripts. It was exhibited in the Folger’s Great Hall and opened on June 16th, 2018 and closed on September 23, 2018. Offering an entirely different perspective, Mesmer chose the volumes not for their contents, but to show the key parts of a book and the many ways they can be combined.

Logo for the Form and Function exhibit

"Folger conservators are fortunate to have the opportunity to closely study and examine many books in our collection," she explains. "In doing so, conservators train their eyes by repeatedly seeing features and structures of the books." The volumes in this exhibition gave visitors a chance to do the same, exploring the steps that bookbinders followed centuries ago, from techniques for folding pages, to sewing patterns, to the wide range of board and covering materials.

Visitors could also touch and feel materials such as leather, fabric, and parchment, see an early bookbinder's tools or a conservator's modern equipment, and watch videos on papermaking, printing, sewing, and bookbinding. Magnified views explore small details, including the fine touches of an embroidered 17th-century binding. Scientific research, including the use of DNA analysis and advanced imaging, adds still more to the rare book story.

Understanding the art and craftsmanship of such volumes helps us explore how books were made and used, makes it possible to conserve them, and gives us the knowledge to appreciate them. In the exhibition, the books spoke for themselves—not through the information stored inside them, but as unique, hand-crafted objects in their own right.


Renate Mesmer is the J. Franklin Mowery Head of Conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She is a book and paper conservator with more than 20 years of experience in the field. She formally trained as a master bookbinder in Germany and has pursued further conservation training at renowned institutions throughout Europe and the United States. She has held previous positions conserving and restoring books and manuscripts at the University Library in Mannheim, Germany; the Speyer State Archives in Germany; and the centro del bel libro in Ascona, Switzerland.

Contents of the Exhibition

Exhibition Highlights and Discoveries

  • Books with boards that are detached reveal normally hidden elements, from sewing supports to medieval manuscripts re-used as spine linings
  • A bound manuscript by an early 18th-century Quaker student is a work in progress, undergoing stabilization and repair in a project funded by Folger donors
  • Findings from the DNA analysis of wood, parchment, bookworm waste, and dust may tell us more about economics and other aspects of book production and ownership
  • A Shakespeare First Folio is accompanied by a copy of detailed notes from bookbinder Roger Payne, who rebound the volume in the late 1700s
  • An infrared image shows an inscription concealed by a pastedown in a 17th-century book—and an ultraviolet image lets us read very faded writing in another
  • A fascinating selection of bindings ranges from cheap, plain, and serviceable to those fit for a king or queen, including tooled goatskin and embroidery on religious themes

The Constructive Elements

Book Terminology

Bookbinders and Manuals

Historic bookbinding manuals and images of bookbinders at work help us understand how the tradition of bookbinding was passed on through the generations.

An engraving added to a copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare shows the English binder Roger Payne (1739-97) hunching over a book in a press. In a report adjacent to the engraving, Payne records the work he performed on this First Folio and describes his plan for the binding. He finished the book in a style he thought suitable, using motifs from plays in the gold tooling.

Useful Dates

In Orbis Sensualium Pictus C5525, the Czech philosopher Comenius provides Latin and English terminology for many different trades, including bookbinding. Beside an image of a bindery, Comenius provides English and Latin instructions to bind a book, explaining folding, beating, sewing, trimming, and covering boards in leather or parchment.

  • See images from this volume here

In A Short Instruction in the Binding of Books, Dirk de Bray, a Dutch bookbinder and painter, provides detailed bookbinding instructions and illustrations, compiled during his bookbinding apprenticeship. The manuscript (shown in facsimile) was completed with great attention to detail, especially considering its small size.


Laced-on board bindings could be covered in leather, parchment, and alum-tawed skin in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Front, back and spine of 264- 831q - gold tooled with raised bands

After the boards were laced on and the edges of the textblock were decorated, the covering material was applied. The process involved molding the material tightly around the sewing supports, adhering it to the sides, and folding it over the boards. Molding parchment, which is much stiffer than leather, over the raised sewing supports could be challenging. One way to avoid problems was to mold patches of a softer material, such as alum-tawed skin or thinner parchment, around the sewing supports before covering the rest of the book with a single piece of parchment, which had cutouts where it fit over the raised supports.

Before the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, boards were generally made of wood, but over time, paper based boards, which were cheaper and faster to prepare, replaced wooden boards.

Book covers were often blind and gold tooled, with the raised sewing supports on the spine an integral part of the design of the book’s aesthetic and not only a structural feature. Fastenings such as ties or clasps could also be attached to the boards, for practical and decorative purposes.

Items Included

Folding Printed Sheets

The printing and folding of sheets was an elaborate process that required extreme precision from both the printer and the binder. The accuracy of the printing layout was critical to ensure that the pages were in the correct order after folding. The physical act of folding the sheets also needed great care to ensure smooth folds, as well as straight, precise positioning of the page.

The number of pages printed on a sheet of paper varied depending on the format of the book. The unfolded example seen in the link below is an octavo, meaning the sheets were folded three times, creating eight leaves (sixteen pages). Notice that some of the pages are printed upside-down and seem out of order, but once folded, the pagination and orientation will be correct.

Books could be sold either unbound or bound in simple, temporary bindings, sometimes without opening the folds, trimming or cutting the edges of the textblock. These edges were trimmed later by the binder when the book was bound in a more permanent, durable binding, made from materials such as leather, alum-tawed skin, or parchment. Some of the bindings were originally intended to be temporary but were never altered, and unopened folds suggest that some of them were never even read. Nowadays, conservators and curators leave such folds uncut and preserve the temporary binding, as these features are important evidence of the book’s history.

Items Included
Sewing methods, spine lining & board attachment

Spine Lining and Board Attachment

Once the textblock was sewn, the next steps were to shape and strengthen the spine, to cut away the rough edges, and attach the boards.

First, the spine was layered with glue. Next, foredge, head, and tail were trimmed with a plow or a draw knife. The spine was rounded, and the shoulders were formed for the boards to nest in. Binders used whatever scraps of material were available to use as spine linings, including paper, parchment (often manuscript or printer’s waste), and fabric. Spine linings were glued between the sewing supports or along the full length of the spine in order to support and reinforce the shape of the book. They could be prepared to fit the width of the pine, or to extend beyond the shoulders. The overhanging portion was glued to the board, adding strength to the joints.

The boards were precisely cut to size and matched the thickness and shape of the shoulders. They were attached to the textblock by lacing the sewing supports through the holes. A margin, called a square, would be left around the textblock at the head, tail, and foredge in order to protect the edges of the textblock from damage.

Early bindings were bound primarily in wooden boards, but gradually, during the sixteenth century, bookbinders transitioned to using paper-based boards, such as pulp or paste boards.

Being able to see these different materials, which are usually covered, offers conservators, curators, and researchers the opportunity to identify the manuscript, printed fragments, and materials used for the boards, allowing them to learn more about their histories and creation.

Items Included

Sewing Techniques

Sewing is one of the most important structural features of a book. The sewing connects and secures the gatherings and allows the book to be opened and closed.

Over the centuries, sewing techniques and materials have varied, but the principles have remained the same: gatherings are joined by sewing through the folds with linen thread onto a support such as cord, alum-tawed skin, leather, or parchment.

The bindings in the image to the right represent commonly used sewing materials and techniques from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Sewing on flat, raised, and recessed supports can be done in a variety of ways, such as all-along, abbreviated or longstitch. The binder considered the type of binding, size, thickness, and weight of the book when choosing the sewing technique and materials to be used. However, it was not uncommon for a binder to simply choose familiar techniques and materials.

In all-along sewing, the sewing thread enters and exits the section at the kettle stitches and catches every sewing support in the section.

In abbreviated sewing, the binder leaves out or skips parts of the all-along sewing to save time and material, as well as to control the swelling of the spine.

In the longstitch sewing, sections are sewn to the cover or to a patch of material-often leather and parchment-through one or more pairs of holes.

Items Included

Decorative Elements

Clasps and Ties

Fastenings were attached to a cover to hold a book closed when not in use. They range from simple ties made from leather, alum-tawed skin, or fabric, to elaborate clasps made from brass or other metals. Parchment’s sensitivity to changes in humidity often resulted in a textblock warping and pulling the boards open. After the introduction of printing and the increased use of paper instead of parchment for the textblock, fastenings became more of a decorative component than a functional one. Wooden board bindings were often fitted with raised metal bosses and corner pieces, called furniture, which protected the binding from getting scratched and damaged. More often than not, furniture was also used to emphasize the status and importance of a book and its owner.

Items Included

Edge Decoration

Common edge decorations from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries were colored, gilt, or gauffered edges. Many times, these different methods would be combined. Decorating the edges was not just for aesthetic reasons. It also protected the edges from showing dirt.

The process of edge decoration always started with cutting away rough edges, using a press and a sharp blade. Next, the edges would be polished to create a smooth surface onto which decoration was applied.

Gauffered & gilt edge of BX1750.M8 V3 1551 Cage

For colored edges, the pigment-based colorant could be sprinkled, dabbed, painted, or marbled on.

Gilding edges required extreme precision, timing, and skills from the binder. The binder needed to be very experienced to lay the extremely thin gold leaf on the edge, which was coated with adhesive made from egg white. The finishing touch was polishing the gold with an agate stone. This last step could easily ruin the binder’s work if the binder began the process too early.

Gauffered edges were created by pressing engraved tools onto the edges to create a pattern.

Items Included


Endbands were sewn or adhered to the head and tail of the spine of the textblock for both decoration and structural support.

Before the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, endbands were commonly sewn directly on the book over a core (made from cord, parchment, leather or alum-tawed skin), tied down to the textblock every so often, or in every gathering, providing a firm attachment to the spine. The ends of the core were laced through the boards, adding strength to the joints of the binding at head and tail.

Basic endbands were worked with plain thread on a single core, while elaborate, colorful endbands were skillfully sewn around one or more cores, using colored linen or silk thread in a variety of techniques to create beautiful patterns.

Binders were constantly trying to work more economically. Endbands were also stuck on with adhesive and not tied down or laced. While frugal, this provided less strength to the binding. These stuck-on endbands were produced off the textblock, sewn on the linen or parchment supports, and then adhered to the textblock once finished. The endband could drape over the sides of the boards to add greater strength to the joints, or simply be the same width as the spine.

Endband from PR2752 1788a copy1 v.17
Items Included

Embroidered Bindings

V.a.665 front cover

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, religious books such as bibles and prayer books were often bound in embroidered covers for private use. An embroidered cover provided decoration, personalization, and protection for the textblock.

The embroidery of such covers was commonly worked in silk, linen, or metal thread on a supporting background of canvas, velvet, or satin.

Floral designs and religious scenes were common motifs, with many designs wrapping around the entire cover in a single scene. Raised sewing supports on the spine were integrated into the overall design. The embroidery was completed once the size of the binding was known; it had to fit exactly around the spine and boards.

These beautiful bindings were not produced in large amounts, and most were unique. However, some designs were made from the same pattern and could be used to cover similarly sized books. The color and certain aspects of the design might change, but the main elements of the design would remain the same.

While some embroidered covers were made by women working at home, most were produced by professional embroiderers.

Items Included

Innovation and Skill: Conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library


One of the primary goals of the Folger Shakespeare Library is to preserve and enhance our collection. At the Folger, preservation begins with control of the library environment. Heat, moisture, and light are the biggest enemies of collection materials.

We record temperature and humidity in all collection storage spaces as well as in the Great Hall (former exhibition space) including every display case used in exhibitions. Light exposure is monitored in every exhibition to ensure that the items are only exposed at an appropriate level. At the end of every exhibition, the amount of light exposure is calculated. This information helps curators and conservators make informed decisions about future displays of a rare item.

Temperature & humidity reading of the Exhibit Hall

Gray devices called data loggers record temperature and humidity every thirty minutes. Conservators regularly evaluate these statistics to help Folger engineers make necessary adjustments to the building’s systems.

Books from the Folger collection are used often by researchers, and over the decades wear and tear become evident. Boards and spines are sometimes detached and might easily get lost. Folger conservators came up with an easy fix by wrapping a quick-tie around the book to hold loose parts together.

When more protection is needed, conservators build a custom-fit phase box from cardstock, which encloses the whole book. To allow the book to fit aesthetically with the rest of the books on the shelf, phase boxes have clear spines.

For very rare items, a sturdy clamshell box with rigid walls is made from binder’s board and fabric.

Book Conservation

V.b.110 fore-edge before treatment
Spine of 214- 216f before treatment

Folger book conservators aim for minimally invasive repairs to ensure that the historically significant aspects of a book are not altered. This sometimes requires innovative thinking.

Consider the binding on V.b.110. A few gatherings had slipped out of position. The range of treatment options was limited by an unusual old repair, which conservators recognized as important to the history of this item. Using tweezers, wire, and a dental floss threader, they were able to work around this unique repair and resew the loose gatherings in place, without dismantling the textblock.

168- 646f had been repaired many times and became extremely stiff due to thick layers of glue and the spine lining. This spine needed careful cleaning. Once the old glue was removed, conservators applied high quality adhesive and attached a new durable cotton spine lining. The leather was lifted, and the book is now ready to be repaired with new leather.

While minimal intervention is always the preferred approach, sometimes damage is so severe that extensive treatment is required for a book to function.

As an example, 214- 216f was repaired through a technique known as a reback. This is a common treatment option for books with detached boards and broken sewing supports. During a reback, the original spine is lifted skillfully from the textblock. Sharp tools such as scalpels are used to lift the material or to make precise cuts and openings in order to add new features, such as the spine lining and new leather. When possible, the original leather spine is adhered over the repair leather for a subtle transition between old and new material.

Conserving a Bound Manuscript

A fragment from V.b.378 before treatment

The large and profusely illustrated manuscript, V.b.378, is the work of Daniel Waters, a Quaker student who lived at a meeting house in Covent Garden, London, in 1705. In content and form, it most resembles a copybook-that is, a bound volume of handwriting and mathematical exercises created by a student, in which edifying themes guide every entry.

The manuscript has not yet been made available for research or consultation due to its condition. In 2014, it was shown at our annual Acquisitions Night for treatment adoption, and various steps of treatment were adopted by generous Folger supporters.

The treatment of this manuscript is in progress. Manu pages are illustrated with thickly applied paint that is cracking and flaking. The 112 leaves have been treated to stabilize cracking, flaking, and loss of ink and paint.

These areas were stabilized by applying a very thin Korean handmade paper made from the mulberry tree, using a highly diluted adhesive. Many of the leaves had split along the spine fold, so it was necessary to add extensions to the pages to enable sewing the textblock together in the future.

Missing areas, holes, and tears in the leaves were repaired with specially toned Korean handmade paper applied with a high-grade wheat starch paste.

Through a Conservator’s Eye

Folger conservators are fortunate to have the opportunity to closely study and examine many books in our collection. In doing so, conservators train their eyes by repeatedly seeing features and structures of the books and materials helps conservators to understand the history of an object, evaluate it, and suggest appropriate treatments. Conservators, curators, and scholars work closely together and learn from one another about how to interpret these important clues.

V.b.366 before treatment

What might look like an unimportant stain can be a crucial clue to a conservator. V.b.366 is a seventeenth-century manuscript bound in leather. When it was acquired, many of the leaves were loose and the original sequence was not immediately apparent. The discoloration on one of the leaves could be identified as staining from the leather turn-ins. This is a clear indication that the leaf had been bound next to the turn-ins for many years and it helped is to reestablish the correct order.

INC M219 shows unusual protrusions on the cover, which caused conservators to take a closer look. The bumps are from the thick alum-tawed sewing supports, which are sandwiched between the pastedown and the parchment cover. When they examined the inside of the cover, conservators could see that two holes were punched into the sewing supports in a way that suggests the textblock, printed in the fifteenth century, was bound between wooden boards at some point.

Old Books, New Science

Advanced Imaging

Magnification and advanced imaging techniques reveal details that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Folger conservators and curators collaborate with imaging experts to make possible new ways of studying our collection.

The small size of V.a.665‘s embroidered binding makes it difficult to see the fine detail. Conservators examined the binding using a stereo microscope at sixty times magnification. They then created a digitized image at an extremely high resolution and quality using a Phase One 100MP Trichromatic XF Digital Camera. The camera produces images that allow us to study the full object at once and to share the new resource with scholars and members of the public.

The human eye is capable of perceiving light in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum (wavelengths of 400-700 nanometers). But what if something is faded beyond recognition or hidden under a layer of paper?

STC 24968 presents extremely faded writing. When illuminated under ultraviolet (UV) light, characterized by shorter wavelengths than visible light, the script becomes visible.

STC 24968 under UV light

BX3705.M6 P3 1665 Cage shows some dark features at the top edge of the pastedown, suggesting that there is handwriting below. An image of the pastedown taken in infrared light, characterized by longer wavelengths, allows us to “see” though the pastedown. The inscription reads “Censura facultati Theo. Contra,” relating the title and content of the book to a censorship process.

BX3705.M6 P3 1665 Cage under infrared light

Bookworms and Dust Bunnies

An emerging field of research known as biocodicology (codicology is the study of books as physical objects; bio refers to the biological materials) lets us analyze and understand book structures in entirely new ways. In this field, DNA analysis of nondestructive samples from wooden book boards, woodblocks used to make woodcuts, and parchment is combined with techniques such as dendrochronology (which uses tree rings to determine the age of wood), CAT scans, and multispectral imaging.

Together, these methods allow is to interpret information that is largely invisible to the naked eye-and to answer long-stand questions about book and parchment production. The Folger is at the forefront of combining biocodicology with more traditional forms of historical and library research. The collaboration between researchers from the humanities and the sciences is already producing results that are valuable to both disciplines.

Professor Matthew Collins and researchers at the University of York and the University of Copenhagen have obtained DNA and proteins from simple eraser rubbings of parchment samples. Identifying the species of deer, goat, calf, or sheep from which the parchment was produced provides insight into the economics of book production, the patterns of livestock management and mobility, animal diseases and epidemics, and crossbreeding programs. 152- 523q

DNA analysis of fecal dust (what we might call worm poop”) left behind by beetle larvae (bookworms) in hardwood boards cab reveal a book’s geographic and chronological history. Professor Blair Hedges of Temple University has shown that one beetle type thrive in northern Europe and a different type in southern Europe. This new technique has been used primarily on woodcuts so far. The implications for book historians and biologists are still being explored. BC60. J6 E4 1516 copy 2 Cage

In 2015, the Folger tested ordinary dust, which often includes skin cells, from the surfaces of two books in a proof-of-concept experiment known as “Project Dust Bunny.” Microbial DNA analysis and mitochondrial sequencing of the dust suggested the genetic identities of the book’s users and the presence of different types of skin bacteria and fungi. As a result of this experiment, Folger conservators have adapted new surface-cleaning protocols, archiving swabbed samples before treatment for possible future research. STC 2327