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The Book As Artifact: Physical Properties

LeviathanBook history involves an overlapping set of disciplines. When considering the book as an artifact, the field of bibliography takes center stage. A New Introduction to Bibliography by Philip Gaskell (1972) continues to be the foundational text on bibliography. It explains the five parts of description in analytical bibliography:

  1. Information and Identification. Transcribe the front matter and other parts the book to gather evidence about the book itself including the author, title, printer, publisher, and place and date of publication.
  2. Production Elements. Explain the physical aspects of the book's manufacture including the format and collation of the book. The paper size, foldings, and other elements can be calculated using a formula.
  3. Technical Note. Describe the technical aspects such as binding, figures, type, paper, and plates.
  4. Contents. Describe the contents of the book.
  5. Notes. Include information about the book's history and copies examined.

Emphasis in one of the five parts will depend on the purpose of the project. For instance, a scholar may be interested in the manufacture of the item or the contents.

The image on the upper right shows the title page for Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbes. It's filled with interesting information about the book. A 1904 reprint lacks this title page.

Jared Jenisch (2003, 229) notes that there's

"a long history of the study of the book as a physical object. Analytical and descriptive bibliography, which is rather like cataloging gone mad, attempts to describe, but of a single copy of a book. It attempts to determine the collation of pages in signatures, the state and issue to which a book belongs, sometimes even the provenance of a given copy - who owned it, where it came from".

From the size and shape of a book to it's paper and binding, the physical properties of a book are important to understanding how and why is was produced.

Read Belanger, Terry (1977). Descriptive bibliography. In Jean Peters (ed), Book Collecting: A Modern Guide. R.R. Bowker, 87-101. Available:

The Future of "The Page" and "The Book"

Before jumping into the traditional structure of the book, keep in mind that the concepts of "book" and "page" are evolving in the electronic world. What's required for something to be a book? Does it need to be paper or can it be digital? Can it contain artifacts or other elements? Does it need to have pages? Does it need to be linear or can it be branched or chaotic?

A book is a published collection of connected pages. How does this concept change when a reader is faced with an electronic screen with scrolling text and images?

Read Piper, Andrew (2015). Turning the page (roaming, zooming, streaming). In M. Levy & T. Mole, The Broadview Reader in Book History. Broadview Press, 511-524. IUPUI students can view the article online.


Book Cover and Book Jacket

Before the dust jacket became common, the cover held valuable information about the book. Now, most of this information is found on the book jacket.

The front cover of a book normally contains the title, author, and sometimes the illustrator. The spine usually contains the title, author, and an indication of the publisher such as a the name and publisher's logo. In the United States, the spine text when vertical runs from top to bottom. The back cover often contains biographical information about the author, a short summary, quotes praising the book, and a bar code with the ISBN number.

wild thingsA dust or book jacket often covers a book. In addition to what is normally found on the front cover, spine, and back cover, information may also be found on the flap. The inside flap of the book cover often contains a description of the book. The back cover flap often contains author and publisher information.

A blurb is the summary information provided on book covers about the author and the book. In addition to a book summary and author information, quotes from reviews and other authors, references to related work, and awards for the current book or other books by the author might be mentioned.

While sometimes the cover or dust jacket is useful in identifying particular editions of a book, this isn't always the case.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak has used the original cover art since the first edition in 1963 (see image on the right).

readTry It!
Read Tanselle, Thomas G. (2003/2004). Dust-jackets, dealers, and documentation. Studies in Bibliography, 56, 45-140. IUPUI students can view the article online.
Choose three books with dust jackets to examine. Compare the dust jackets to the book covers. What would be lost if the dust jacket were removed? What's the role of the dust jacket in the world of electronic books? What if the dust jacket no longer existed? What would be lost?

Book Binding

Early books were printed with paper covers and distributed unbound. Owners were responsible for working through a bindery if they wanted their book bound. The sewn text-block was laced into a board.

Covers can be made of a wide range of materials including leather, wood, cloth, cardboard, or even metal. The binding can be plain or ornate. Some covers are decorated using fine metals like silver or gold. They may also incorporate jewels or other objects. In some cases, the spine was painted. In some cases, gold leaf was used.

During the 19th century, publishers' bindings became more common. In most cases, book covers were made separately from the book. Because they weren't woven into the structure, they were generally less durable than a hand-bound book. Publishers tried a wide range of materials and techniques for book binding. For example, in 1889 a patent was issued for a Book Binder's Press Board.

The introduction of mechanization in the 19th century, led to publishers binding the entire print run with identical binding. By the 20th century, most books were bound by machine. Today, books are generally classified as hardcover or softcover depending on their binding.

Binding Process

After the book is printed and paginated, the loose pages are ready to be bound. The pages of the book are sewn together by a book binder. Cords are stretched between the top and bottom of a frame. The sewing thread passes through folded sections of the book then around the cord. The sections are tied together at the top or bottom of the spine. The spine is then covered with hot glue and placed in a press to dry. A hammer may be used to round the spine while it's in the press.

Boards made of wood were then attached to the front and back of the book. Loose ends of cord are tied to holes in the board. Today, these boards are made of pasteboard or cardboard. The book is then covered in cloth, leather, paper, or some other materials for extra protection. Depending on the purpose of the book, it may be highly decorated or left plain.

When opened, this type of book lays flat without damaging the spine.

Examine the the image (by Simon Eugster) below. It provides clues about how the book was printed and bound.


Read Pearson, David (2013). Bookbinding. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.

try itTry It!
Explore British Bookbindings: 16th-19th Century, French 19th-Century Bindings, Database of Bookbindings, Six Centuries of Master BookBinding, and examples of Hand Bookbindings. Notice the different approaches and materials used.

Book Paper

Paper is a highly specialized area within book history. The composition, quality, and thickness of paper varies tremendously.

According to Darnton (1979, 521), in eighteenth century France

"the raw material of literature had far more importance than it does in modern publishing. No only did paper account for as much as 75 percent of production costs but also its quality had a great influence on the decisions of consumers. Book buying in the eighteenth century differed considerably from what it is today because the men of the Old Regime devoted a great deal of attention to the physical aspect of books. They cared about the material of the page as well as the message printed on it."

Read Chamberlain, Daven Christopher (2013). Paper. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Laid vs Wove Paper. Because of the wire cover moulds used, early papermakers could only produce laid paper. Laid paper contained furrows causing it to be uneven in thickness. In the mid-18th century, James Whatman invented a mould with woven wire-cloth that produced an unblemished woven paper that worked much better for printing.

Baskerville's Virgil was first printed on woven paper in 1757. By the late 18th century, wove paper was replacing laid paper in popularity.

The first paper machine was invented in 1807. This eliminated the need for laid or wove paper.

Watermarks. In some cases, paper contains a translucent image or pattern embedded by the papermaker called a watermark. This faint mark may be an emblem or lettering that can be seen when examining the paper against a light source. Originally, watermarks were used to identify the source and date of paper production. Later they were connected with paper size and trademarks. They may also be used in deluxe editions to identify the edition.

Watermarks can be integrated into both hand papermaking and mechanized papermaking. In hand papermaking a copper or brass wire design is placed in the mold and embedded while the paper is being made.

A number of techniques are used for creating watermarks in a mechanized process.

The dandy roll process involves using a water-coated metal stamp during manufacturing. The wire embedded on the dandy roll causes an impression. This technique was invented by John Marshall in 1826.

Another technique involves a cylinder mould. Introduced in 1848, the design is created as a relief on the roll surface and pressed into the moist paper.

Some watermarks have been used for security purposes or to prevent forgeries. During the time when hand-presses were used, publishers placed the watermarks on the creases as a method of authentication.

The image below by Ambassador Neelix shows a watermark on a copy of Quodibets by Robert Hayman. Click the image to view a larger version.


The bibliographical analysis of paper is a specialized area of bibliography. Allan Henry Stevenson (1903-1970) pioneered the study of watermarks. He was able to date the Missale Speciale or Constance Missal, a previously undated incunable. Some thought the book might predate the Gutenberg Bible (c. 1455). Stevenson's research with paper was able to date the book at 1473.

One of Stevenson's most famous articles Watermarks are Twins shows the depth involved in studying this very narrow area of book history.

Read Stevenson, Allan H. (1951/1952). Watermarks are twins. Studies in Bibliography, 4, 57-91, 235. IUPUI students can view the article online. This article is a great example of a researcher selecting a very narrow focus for research and making discoveries based on attention for detail. Think about an area of research in book history you could explore with this depth and passion.

To learn more about paper and paper history, explore the Memory of Paper and Paper through Time websites.

Format and Pagination

The size and organization of pages is an important aspect of the book as artifact.


What does the word format mean? It may seem like a simple question. However for those interested in studying books, it reflects the complications of working in a broad, interdisciplinary field.

Format may refer to the particular way information is encoded for storage on a computer file. It can also indicate the characteristics of an audio or video file. In television and radio, it refers to the overall program concept and branding. In word processing, it involves changing a document to fit a particular page size.

In book production, format refers to the size of a book. The size is based on the number of times the sheets are folded into the binding to create the leaves such as folio, quarto, octavo, duodecimo, etc.

Bibliographer Thomas Tanselle (1995) has long been concerned about the term "format" when describing a book or other media. After noting what he views as inappropriate uses of the word, he suggests the following definition.

"Format is a designation of the number of page-units (whether of printing surface, handwritten text, or blank space) that the producers of a printed or manuscript item decided upon to fill each side of a sheet of paper or vellum of the selected size(s); if paper came to a printing press in rolls rather than sheets, format can only refer to the number of page-units placed on the press at one time for the purpose of printing one side of the paper" (Tanselle, 1995, 112-113).

Tanselle concludes that

"how one reports historical data is properly influenced both by the rigor of one's analytical procedures and by the depth of one's understanding of how the information can be used; but, as with every genre of writing, no one form of presentation will necessarily seem the most appropriate for every situation. What must be kept in mind above all is that procedural concepts should not be approached as puzzles that one struggles to fit evidence into, but rather as aids to clear thinking - for the goal finally is to set forth what happened at a past moment with as much clarity as possible" (Tanselle, 1995, 115).

The number of pages is an important consideration in understanding a book. In the past, the number of pages was based on the format, so a book might contain 32, 64, or 128 pages.

The format and number of pages is an indicator of size. It's important to know both the length, width, and height of a book in addition to the number and weight of the pages. These all provide clues regarding size.

Something as simple as the size of a book is important to consider when describing the physical characteristics of a book. Size is closely associated with use. For instance, small medical manuals could be carried by physicians, while large format folios might be kept in a reference library.

An octavo (8vo) is a book made by folding a full book paper sheet into three right-angle folds to produce 8 leaves or 16 pages. To create 32 pages, double-sized sheets are folded 4 times. Although the exact size depends on the book paper, generally this approach makes a book about 7x10 inches. This is the most common size for today's hardcover books.

Read the first couple pages of Tanselle, Thomas G. (2000). The concept of format. Studies in Bibliography, 53, 67-115. IUPUI students can view the article online. Think about the importance of precision in the use of vocabulary associated with book history. Why is standardization of vocabulary important? How and why does the use of some words like "format" evolution?


The sequencing of book pages in essential in book production. The practice of marking pages with consecutive numbers began around 1550. The recto (right facing side) normally contains odd numbers and the verso (left facing side) even numbers).

To learn more about "the page," skim the preface to Mak, Bonnie (2011). How the Page Matters. University of Toronto Press. Available:


In the past, many books contained separate plates for illustrations. In book design, a plate is an image that has been added on a separate page, often using a special paper. Many times these plates are bound in groups within a book.

The book Nature Neighbors published by the American Audubon Association contains 648 color plates in Volume 2: Birds (see example below).



Examining page layout is an essential element of book description. According to Cormack and Mazzio (2005), the layout tells book historians a lot about how a book was intended to be used. They describe how three different book layouts were used for different types of reading in the school curriculum.

  1. Cornelius Schryver's 1533 phrase book was used to help students explore a play scene by scene using key ideas similar to the way today's short-cut guides are used by literary students.
  2. Giovanni Fabrini's Il Terentio Latino (1575) language textbook is written in Latin with word-for- word Italian translations surrounding the text.
  3. Richard Bernard's Terence in English (1598) prints each scene in Latin and English along with useful lists of key ideas.


Books are printed as editions. In describing a book, it's important to learn about the particular edition.

An edition is the total number of copies of a book printed at the same time in a particular way using the same set of tools (i.e., metal type, digital printer). Popular books may run multiple editions using the same settings with few changes. These are each known as printings. The book may have subsequent impressions where the book is not changed. The back of the title page (or verso) generally contains information about editions and printings.

The first edition of an important work is often valued more than subsequent editions. Bibliographers generally consider all printings from the first type setting to be first editions. However, book collectors consider only the first printing to be the first edition.

The second and subsequent editions are numbered in the order that they are published. A new edition indicates that the book has been revised or expanded. When studying a book, it's important to examine all of the editions because useful insights can be gained by looking at what has been deleted and added for each edition. For instance, you might notice changes in terminology such as the use of the words Indian, Native American, Native People, American Indian, or First America.

The first trade edition is the first edition of a book that hasn't previously been made available to the general public.

The expanded edition contains new material, supplements, appendix of other information along with the existing text.

The definitive edition is a complete text of an author's work(s) generally published after their death. It may include criticism and editor's comments.

The term limited edition is used when the number of copies (usually 100 to 1000) has been restricted to a particular number. In this case, the title page should indicate the total number of copies and any specific features. They may also be hand numbered such as number 32 of 100 and autographed.

An engraved edition is created from engraved plates rather than movable type. The process is expensive, so generally reserved for limited editions.

The deluxe edition of a work is generally set with a special type, printed on high quality paper, and bound with enhanced materials such as leather.

A colonial edition an often inferior quality and less expensive version of a book for distribution in areas outside the British Empire.

The export edition is prepared by the publisher for distribution in a different country than the first edition.

A royal copy of a work is made for royalty such as a king, pharaoh, or sultan. It's made of high quality materials and often contains the coat of arms or other insignia on the binding. These books are considered national treasures and often stored in special collections.

The canon is an accepted list of works by a particular author. A standard is used by scholars to determine what works are authentic.

A classic is a work that is widely accepted as outstanding in a particular area. These works continue to be analyzed by scholars and reprinted by publishers long after their initial publication.

The popular editions are printed on lower quality paper and bound using less expensive materials than the trade edition. Sometimes they are sold as part of a book club or an inexpensive line of books.

fictitious imprint. Known as fictitious imprints, a book is sometimes published without identifying information such as copyright, publisher, or author information to evade restrictions such as copyright.

Read Howell, Jordan (2014). Eighteenth-century abridgements of Robinson Crusoe. The Library, 15(3), 292-342. Notice the many different editions of this book over time. IUPUI students can view the article online.

try itTry It!
Examine a book.
Describe the edition and your evidence.



memoriamAn important part of documenting a book is learning about it's chronology of ownership.

This activity is called provenance. Understanding the ownership and readers of a book can provide context and evidence of its production and use.

Bindings, bookplates, inscriptions, autographs, and marginalia are all used in establishing provenance.

In the copy of Occultism and Common-Sense (1908) available at, a bookplate was glued into the front cover indicating that the book was given "In Memoriam Charles Josselyn". It was originally housed in the biology library by moved to the Educ Psych Library. The book was contributed to the digital library by the University of California Libraries.

In the same copy of Occultism and Common-Sense (1908) numerous marginalia can be identified. Pencils and two types of pens were used.

In the image below, a reader added a note regarding the author of the Sherlock Holmes quote.




Belanger, Terry (1977). Descriptive bibliography. In Jean Peters (ed), Book Collecting: A Modern Guide. R.R. Bowker, 97-101. Available:

Chamberlain, Daven Christopher (2013). Paper. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press.

Cockerell, Douglas (1901). Bookbinding and the Care of Books: A Textbook for Bookbinders and Librarians. London. Available:

Cormack, Bradin & Mazzio, Carla (2005). Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700. Available:

Darnton, Robert (1979). The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie 1775-1800. Harvard University Press. Preview Available: and full-text is available at

De Vinne, Theodore Low (1902). A Treatise on Title Pages. The Century Co. Available:

Foot, Mirjam J. (1998). The History of Bookbinding as a Mirror of Society. British Library.

Gaskell, Philip (1972). A New Introduction to Bibliography. Oxford University Press.

Howell, Jordan (2014). Eighteenth-century abridgements of Robinson Crusoe. The Library, 15(3), 292-342.

Jenisch, Jared (April 2003). The history of the book: introduction, overview, apologia. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 229-239.

Lock, Margaret (2003). Bookbinding Materials and Techniques, 1700-1920. The Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guide.

Lommen, Mathieu (ed.) (2012). The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation. Thames & Hudson.

Mak, Bonnie (2011). How the Page Matters. University of Toronto Press. Available:

McKenzie, D.F., McDonald, Peter D. & Suarez, Michael Felix (2002). Making Meaning: 'Printers of the Mind' and Other Essays. University of Massachusetts Press. Preview Available:

Morison, Stanley & Jackson, Holbrook (1923). A Brief Survey of Printing: History and Practice. Alfred A. Knopf. Available:

Pankow, Davis (2005). The Printer's Manual: An Illustrated History. RIT Cary Graphic Arts.

Pearson, David (2013). Bookbinding. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press.

Piper, Andrew (2015). Turning the page (roaming, zooming, streaming). In M. Levy & T. Mole, The Broadview Reader in Book History. Broadview Press, 511-524.

Pollard, Alfred (1891). Last Words On the History of the Title Page. J.C. Nimmo. Available:

Smith, Margaret McFadden (2000). The Title-Page, It's Early Development, 1460-1510. British Library.

Spadoni, Carl (2007). How to make a souffle; or, what historians of the book need to know about bibliography. History of Intellectual Culture, 7(1). IUPUI students can view the article online.

Stevenson, Allan H. (1951/1952). Watermarks are twins. Studies in Bibliography, 4, 57-91, 235. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Tanselle, Thomas G. (1995). Printing history and other history. Studies in Bibliography, 48, 269-289.

Tanselle, Thomas G. (2000). The concept of format. Studies in Bibliography, 53, 67-115.

Tanselle, Thomas G. (2003/2004). Dust-jackets, dealers, and documentation. Studies in Bibliography, 56, 45-140.

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