Book spines at Harvard

On a recent trip to Harvard's library to view their selections for the Beyond Words exhibition of illuminated manuscripts, I was enchanted by all the books surrounding me in the built-in bookshelves. The books are behind glass, so these photos aren't very good, but they're fun to see.

I don't know why these books are housed together here. Were they all from a particular collector, or from a certain period? You'll notice many "incunables" (i.e., books printed before 1501), which might be one factor. As a book binder and designer, isn't it interesting to see the diversity of materials, structural features, and decorative elements for a historical collection of great age and importance?

Gilded and blind decoration - some just labeled. The spines have structural bands, fake bands, and some with no bands on the spine at all (i.e., smooth spines). Check out the one on the far right - all X's!

For the image above, the book at left seems to have been bound later. Although we have the X's again, which evokes the middle ages and early renaissance because book spines from that period weren't decorated (books weren't shelved upright, but flat, so titles were on the covers), the leather looks like a lower-quality sheep skin common in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and the spine bands seems fake too, also suggesting an 1800s binding. The next few are very gold! But a bit worn. Not bad at all, considering they've lived for over 500 years! A beautiful smooth spine, and then three volumes with raised structural cords and to me, binding dates of the mid 1700s. Finally, a repaired parchment binding with wonderful mis-shapen titling on the label.

Below, we have a great big white binding, which seems to me to be roughly contemporary with a 1490s printing. However, the titling seems a few hundred years later. The panel with the title is highly polished and further decorated with a blind border, and is just so neat and orderly, that it looks a bit out of place on an early binding, when all the aspects of book production were still experimental. It still looks great though, as a binding, and as an example of blind tooling. Maybe the original spine had a paper label, or ink inscriptions, or nothing at all.

Below is a poor photo -- but look at the book second from left! What a zany spine decoration! I'd suggest this smooth spined tight-back is from the mid to later 1700s, contemporary with the others it's adjacent to. All tight-backed, all with structural raised bands, no hollows. Some with elaborate gilding, some with none. Some with no title, paper label, or leather label. Great to see!