The University of Kansas

Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Books on a shelf

Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

Even More Simplified Binding workshop with Karen Hanmer

June 4th, 2024

Bookbinding models are something of a theme for us this spring; in February, we installed our exhibit Object Lessons: Selections from the Conservation Services Historic Bookbinding Models Collection in Spencer Research Library’s main gallery. Creating and studying bookbinding models helps us to hone our hand skills and to better understand how books are made, which in turn improves the level of care we can provide for materials in KU Libraries’ collections

Four finished Even More Simplified bindings created in our workshop with Karen Hanmer.
Four finished Even More Simplified bindings created in our workshop with Karen Hanmer.

Then in March, Conservation Services hosted book artist, fine binder, and bookbinding teacher Karen Hanmer for a two-day workshop to learn a new (to us) binding structure. Karen’s “Even More Simplified Binding” offered us – that is, Whitney, Angela, and Kaitlin, the three book and paper conservators here at KU – an opportunity to brush up on techniques and to learn some new approaches to bookbinding that we can apply to our work.

Conservators watch as Karen Hanmer demonstrates backing - shaping the spine of a book - on a job backer.
Conservators watch as Karen Hanmer demonstrates backing – shaping the spine of a book – on a job backer.
Checking sewn text blocks to see how well they open.
Checking sewn text blocks to see how well they open.

Karen describes the Even More Simplified Binding as “stripped down to only the essential elements;” it is elegant and minimal in appearance. But because the structure of the binding is easily discernible, great care must be taken at each step to ensure a pleasing result. This structure was a good choice for our group of conservators with a range of bookbinding experience; we all found something to hold our interest, and we all came away with new skills. Karen came prepared with lots of examples of other bindings, so in addition to the fun we had making our books, we also had lots of great discussions and digressions along the way.

Conservators gather around to watch as Karen shows how to mark the spine wrapper before attaching it to the book.
Conservators gather around to watch as Karen shows how to mark the spine wrapper before attaching it to the book.
Detail view of the Even More Simplified binding with spine wrapper laced on, before attaching boards.
Detail of the Even More Simplified binding with spine wrapper laced on, before attaching boards.

Speaking for myself, I know that my approach to re-binding a book – on the rare occasions that it happens – has become much more conservative over the years. I’m interested in doing the most possible good for a book with the least possible intervention, and studying this binding has got me thinking about how I can apply its bare-bones-yet-structurally-sound engineering to projects that may come my way in the future.

Four people stand in the lobby of Spencer Research Library displaying books completed during a workshop.
Kaitlin, Karen, Whitney, and Angela with their finished books.

Angela Andres, special collections conservator

Working from home: Making a girdle book model

September 14th, 2020

During the summer of quarantine, I constructed quite a few bookbinding models to try out structures I was reading about or hadn’t made before. I decided to finally pursue my dream of constructing a medieval girdle book. This style of bookbinding is most easily identified by an extension of the covering material, which often ends in a knot. The extension and knot allow for the book to be attached to a belt and carried on the person.

Only twenty-three girdle books are known to exist today, but if we judge by their presence in medieval art, they were a popular commodity at the time. Manuscript books were luxury items, so their representation in art signifies wealth and prestige. Because these books were meant to be carried on the body, they are usually quite small.

Girdle books have a lot of components, many of which were difficult to acquire early in the pandemic. So I reached out to bookbinder and teacher Karen Hanmer to see if she would sell me the raw materials. She enthusiastically agreed, sending me every last component to make the book, as well as an in-depth instruction manual. Because I have bound books for many years, the manual was sufficient for completing the project. However, for someone new to bookbinding, I recommend taking her class in person.

The first step was to construct the text block. I folded papers into groups of four sheets each (called a section or quire). A piece of parchment, a type of animal skin, was hooked as an endsheet around the outer sheets of the first and last section. The sixteen sections were pressed under a board and heavy weight. After a few days, I sewed the sections on sets of linen cords, using a device called a sewing frame that holds the cords taut. The sewing structure used on this book is called “packed” sewing, which requires sewing around the double cords and looping around a few times in between each quire to add strength along the spine.

Book being sewn on a sewing frame.
Textblock sewn on double linen cords, with linen thread, on sewing frame.

The sewing creates a natural round at the spine. In order to hold that shape, I placed the textblock in a press, further shaped the spine with my fingers, then attached parchment strips between the middle sewing supports with wheat starch paste. The parchment extended beyond the edge of the spine, to be attached to the inside of the boards.

Sewn book in finishing press.
Sewn book in finishing press, with rounded spine shape.

The next step was to sew endbands at the top and bottom (head and tail) of the book. During the medieval era, the endband was sewn on a core (in this case, linen cord) that extended beyond the spine and was laced through the boards to add stability to the book. I chose to sew a primary endband using linen thread wrapped around a linen cord core. This style of endband has the bead (or thread pass-over) on the back. Then I sewed a secondary, decorative endband over it using blue and yellow silk thread, with a bead on the front.

Silk endband sewn on book.
Secondary endband sewn in blue and yellow silk, over a linen cord core.

The boards on medieval books were almost always made of wood. I’m not an experienced woodworker, so the wood shaping steps took a lot of time. I shaped the wood at the spine edge to accommodate the round of the textblock spine, on both the inside and outside of the wood piece. The other edges were beveled. Next I marked and drilled holes for the sewing and endband cords to lace through the wood, and chiseled channels between the two sets of holes. A channel was also cut and chiseled to accommodate a strap at the fore-edge

Book laced into wooden boards.
Front board, with linen cords laced through holes and channels cut in the wood.

Once the cords were laced through and wedged in place, the book was ready to be covered. Karen offered me a few options, and I chose grey pigskin. I have repaired many books covered in pigskin but hadn’t bound any new ones in the material. As expected, pigskin was tougher and less pliable than calf or goatskin. Once dry, the vellum spine lining extensions would typically be adhered to the inside of the wooden boards. I decided to leave them unattached at the front and adhered at the back, since I will use this model as a teaching tool and I wanted to show steps in the bookbinding process.

Girdle book model, open. Made by Whitney Baker.
Completed girdle book, open, with parchment spine linings adhered to the back board.

To close the book, Karen suggested making a simple clasp from brass rod, with a brass escutcheon pin on the center edge of the top board. The strap is a laminate of pigskin and airplane linen. I laced the strap through the back board and adhered it on the inside in the channel cut into the wood. Medieval books were often written on animal skin, which has a spring to it, so clasps were necessary to keep the book closed.

Karen’s kit was so complete that she even included some finishing embellishments. A contrasting gray leather was used to create the traditional Turk’s head knot that is often found at the end of the leather extension. I decided to create a simple design on the outer covers with a bone folder, and added upholstery tacks as bosses (traditionally used to protect the leather when the book was placed on a surface). Karen thoughtfully even included tiny scraps of parchment to create markers on the edges of the book’s pages.

Girdle book model, closed. Made by Whitney Baker.
Completed girdle book, closed, showing cover decoration, clasp, Turk’s head knot.

While this project took many evenings and weekends over a few months, I am very pleased with the results. I will add this model to our bookbinding model collection in Conservation Services, to teach bookbinding history to classes and public visitors.

Whitney Baker
Head, Conservation Services