The Language of Bindings

I was recently lucky enough to attend a workshop on the language of bindings given by Nicholas Pickwoad and his colleagues. At his Ligatus Research Centre, they have developed a glossary (‘Language of Bindings’) which was initially used on a conservation project on Greek/Byzantine bindings but which they hope will have further use more generally in bookbinding descriptions. The thesaurus is likely to be of use to cataloguers of rare books, particularly here in Oxford where we try to maintain common standards in our union catalogue (many libraries contribute to the one catalogue, SOLO).

As part of the workshop Nicholas encouraged us to bring along some examples of the sorts of bindings cataloguers of antiquarian books come across in college and faculty libraries in Oxford. I took along a couple of items from Brasenose and it was very interesting to learn what could be discovered by looking at the bindings in detail.

The first item was a – at first glance – not particularly interesting pamphlet. Nicholas was able to glean all kinds of information from this little tract. For example, that it had come from a larger set of pamphlets, long since disbanded; that it had been the first item in a bound volume (this can be discerned from the position of the stitching); and that the alum-tawed supports are unusual for an English binding of this period.

Sophie 1

First pamphlet

Another pamphlet from the same period has actually remained in the same state as the day it left the printer’s workshop – the 3 hole stitching and uncut edges being clearly visible.

Sophie 2

Second pamphlet

Sophie 3

Second pamphlet with 3 hole stitching

The third item was a most peculiar one – in fact Nicholas said he had never seen anything like it before! It is thought to be a crude attempt at a ‘dos-a-dos’ binding, which the Language of Bindings thesaurus describes as:

“Bindings in which two bookblocks with the same vertical orientation share a central board attached to each bookblock, so that the spine of each bookblock lies alongside the fore-edge of the other. The binding is so designed that the two boards on the outside of the binding will open at the first page of each textblock, allowing both bookblocks to be opened at their titlepages. These bindings are also known as back-to-back bindings.”

Sophie 4

Third item: back-to-back binding open


Sophie 5

Third item: back-to-back binding closed

However this item, with mid 17th century English pulp boards, has been bound the wrong way round, back to front and with two crude rivets holding the covers together. The text is a liturgical work of the Orthodox Eastern Church, printed in 1632. There is an inscription at the front of the book stating that the item was bequeathed to Brasenose by Thomas Allen who matriculated in 1589 (later going on to become a Fellow at Merton and Eton).

The thesaurus is freely available online ( and Ligatus hope to publish a hard copy later this year.

Sophie Floate

Antiquarian Cataloguer

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