The Anatomy of a Book-Part 2: Or How to Recognize Different Parts of a Book

Authors Note: This is part two in a multiple part series on the anatomy of the book. This part will talk about the parts of a book while the last part talked about book history. If you missed the first part, or want to read it again click here .

Despite nearly a half-century of proclamations from critics and librarians alike surrounding the death of the codex, the book is still around. As with the history of books, I loved books my entire life but I probably could not have identified all the crazy little parts that make up the codex. In the last year I have quickly picked up a lot of strange book terms and I want to share them with everyone.

Let’s start with the outside.

The Spine of  A Rare Book- (Source: Burns Library, Boston College CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Spine of A Rare Book- (Source: Burns Library, Boston College CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Binding- this is what the book is bound in, the cloth or leather that holds the pages together. In the late medieval period, books were often bound in vellum or parchment. (Fun Fact: During the transition from manuscript tradition to printing, book bindings, finding that manuscripts were out of fashion and useless, would wrap book bindings in manuscript materials to strengthen the binding. This is a called  Manuscript Waste, it is often why we’ll have early modern books with medieval music on the binding! Also, it has led to my library’s most important accidental finding…a manuscript store inventory featuring “Love’s Labour’s Won” as a play by William Shakespeare. This priceless scrap of paper was hidden in the binding of a book.)

Manuscript Waste Binding! (Source: Burns Library, Boston College Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Manuscript Waste Binding! (Source: Burns Library, Boston College Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The binding includes the spine, which is the back of the binding where the pages attach and the boards which are the, often, cardboard but sometimes pulp used for the sides of the bound book. These are often called the covers of the book but that more refers to the paper or the leather that is affixed to the board itself to make it look pretty.

Along the spine we have the headband (or endband) at the top, this is usually decorative silk that is sown into the leaves of paper at the top.

Now that we have the outside identified, let’s talk about the paper. The paper itself is known as the text block, with top edge, bottom edge, and fore-edge being the names for the edges of the paper facing out from the spine.

(Fun Fact: You might see a rare book that has marginalia (writing in the margins) that seems as though it has “run off” the page! This isn’t because some medieval monk got drunk and wrote off the page, but because when books are rebound the text block is cut to make the edges look nice and clean and, sometimes, to better fit the new binding. (ok so the monk was probably drunk but it didn’t make him write off the page))

(Bonus Fun Fact: There is a tradition of “fore-edge” painting in the western world that is unbelievably cool. Sometimes this is just a scene that is painted on the fore-edge, but often there are two scenes visible depending on how the page is spread. To do this they would hold the page and fan it out just so to provide a surface to paint on!)

A fore-edge painting.  (Source: Stanford Libraries, Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A fore-edge painting.
(Source: Stanford Libraries, Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

So how does all that paper get into the book?

Last time I talked about formats and how they related to the folding of the large sheets of paper. Once the folding is started, the leaves are organized into what is called quires or signatures. When you’re folding paper 3 or 4 times this can get pretty complicated to make sure the leaves are in the right order. Not to worry, the printers thought of this!

There are two ways they make this easier:

  1. By using an old manuscript technique of catch-words, that is the first word of the next page on the bottom of the previous page, printers were able to tell what leaves went next based on matching up the words. (Fun Fact: There is a tremendous amount of research on the development of the “silent reader” in the early modern period. See Paul Saenger Space Between Words (1994), Before this, there was only reading out loud, and the catch-words allowed the reader to know what is coming next while flipping to the next page)
  2. As this went out of style as a form, printers started placing very small letters known as signatures (yes….you organize a signature based around a signature) in order to keep them in order. A would go with A, B with B and so on
A Catchword! This word will appear on the next page, helping the reader/binder. (Source: Provenance Project Online, Penn LibrariesCC BY 2.0)

A Catchword! This word will appear on the next page, helping the reader/binder.
(Source: Provenance Project Online, Penn Libraries Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Once the quires or signatures are in the correct order, they are then sewn to the spine of the book. In the early modern period people who bought books did not buy them bound like we do today. They would buy the books unbound, very often just sewn together and, then, take the books to a bindery where they were bound in the finest pig, goat, or calf skin of the owners choosing. (Fun Fact: this is why a lot of early modern books have leaves that are out of order, prefaces at the end, or, very likely, to be bound with a lot of different books making a sort of “greatest hits” of texts. We very often get reference questions pertaining to the order of texts in bindings. )

Let’s venture inside the book.

First you will notice that there is paper pasted to the inside of your nice hardbound cover. This is not some mistake but something called the end papers. The side that is pasted to the board is known, shockingly, as the pasted-endpaper and the one that is flapping in the wind (please close the book if this is happening!) is known as the free-endpaper. The next blank pages in are known as the fly-leaves (fun fact: the flyleaves is the name of my Wednesday night trivia team).

One past the blank flyleaves, we come, often, to the half-title which will have the name of the book and the author is in smaller type. After this you will have the Printer’s Imprint and the Copyright Page, these are familiar to everyone who has written a term paper, this includes are the important information like number of pages, ISBN number, publisher and city etc. Right before the text you have the title-page (many early books do not have these) with all the important information, publisher, city, author etc. Then, finally, you have the text of the book.

If you want to know more, or wonder where, besides class, I learned all of this, please consult: John Carter and Nicolas Barker. ABC For Book Collectors Eighth Edition,  (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll and British Library Press, 2004)

Categories: Starter Kits

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3 replies

  1. FWIW, books are still published using signatures. The printing presses put 16 pages of text on a huge sheet of paper, then fold it up into a little booklet so that each page gets its own “page,” and then a machine slices the folds in the signature pages (except for the fold that will be glued to the spine of the book). When publishers advertise their books, they give page counts that are in multiples of 16 (304, 320, 336, 352, etc.) Sometimes when a book is being designed, it looks like they’ll be too many blank pages to fill out the last signature, so the designer will do a half signature of 8 pages to go along with all the 16-page signatures that make up the rest of the book.

    I hope I got all that right. It’s been 20 years since I last worked in the book publishing industry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Stephen, you’re totally right! On most hardbacks and some paperbacks you can see the bunching of leaves that make up the signature where they are glued or tied into the spine. Thanks for the comment!


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