Decrypting the secrets of rare books
An archaeological approach to investigating books
Decrypting the secrets of rare books
The book is generally considered simply as the case in which texts or images can be collected and shared. This is how it appears in catalogues and how it is digitised... but each volume, like any object, can also be seen as an archaeological artefact.
This is particularly true as the book is not an immutable object: over the centuries, it changed in both form and nature. The workshops that printed editions and the bookbinders who shaped the volumes used techniques and tools that evolved over time. It was decorated and appropriated differently according to each period and according to individual tastes.
Each element can be studied to help us understand how, when and by whom it was made... but also how it has been read, preserved and enjoyed by successive generations of owners and readers.
Paradoxically, these aspects have often been obscured by the book’s contents and it is high time we learn to read the clues and discover the secrets of each volume.
The life of the book
Each book has its own existence, an adventure on which it has embarked during which it must escape the ravages of time and careless readers. The tumultuous life of the volumes can be reconstructed by interpreting the clues that tell us about their creation, their multiple transformations and the way they have been used and read.
The texts they contain tell us about the authors who wrote them, the printers who produced them and the booksellers who published them. The annotations, the handwritten provenances and the bookplates give us information about their owners.
Let's go beyond the words and texts. Let's look at the typography, the decorations and illustrations, the habits of the workshops that provide us with precious information about their birth. Let's see how the underlining, the soiling, the bookmarks, but also the bindings of each copy allow us to reconstitute how generations of women and men used them.
These details that may initially seem anodyne quickly become telling. By identifying and resituating each layer of new information, we can, like an archaeologist during an excavation, analyse the successive layers of interactions and shed new light on this extraordinary object.
The library of the Irish
The library of the Centre Culturel Irlandais is full of volumes that not only contain fascinating texts published over five centuries, but also much subtle evidence that tells us of how centuries of readers and owners appreciated and preserved their books.
The archives document the strict rules that governed the library in the nineteenth century, that protected the books from theft and have enabled this extraordinary collection to survive. In 1861, it was stipulated that no book could be removed from the library on pain of perpetual exclusion...
In such circumstances, the volumes have been impeccably preserved. The library is the perfect place to search for the hidden secrets of old books.
The making of the book: identifying the unknown
After the invention of the printing press, the shape and design of letters underwent major changes. Initially, type copied Gothic handwriting, but during the second half of the fifteenth century printers sought to innovate. Type designers imitated the letters of Roman epigraphy and the Carolingian minuscule. Over the centuries, typography continued to evolve, in particular to make texts more legible and to adapt to contemporary tastes.
By measuring type and determining its shape and characteristics, it is often possible to identify the workshop responsible for printing an edition. Its deterioration over time is a particularly useful clue: individual pieces of type were damaged and thus became unique.
The layout of the texts also changed. Workshops and booksellers modified the way they set up pages according to the use of the book, but also to respond to constantly changing graphic and visual codes.
The use of running titles, marginal notes and other layout choices were often specific to a workshop or town and thus betray the origins of a book. Their analysis is a particularly useful tool in a political and religious context where the production of anonymous editions or issues with false addresses became commonplace.
Like any library with rare books, the Centre's collection contains works that have lost their title pages. Combined with an identification of the work, such material analysis makes it possible to find the edition and its year of production. While it is sometimes possible to proceed by elimination for texts that have not been printed much, this archaeological approach is essential when dealing with works that have been printed many times, or in the case of fragments.
In praise of errors
The compositors who worked in the printers’ workshops are generally unknown. They did not include their names in their books, unlike the master printers for whom they worked. Their role was nonetheless fundamental: they were the ones who converted manuscript texts into forms ready to go to press, and it was their habits as much as the equipment they used that made editions identifiable.
Their work was often of excellent quality, but they were subject to time and workshop constraints, and mistakes regularly crept into their pages. These mistakes are very valuable today: they provide a glimpse into the workings of the shop. The best editions were read and corrected before the entire print run was launched - and surviving proofs show the intellectual work of the proofreader, looking for omissions, inversions, and misreadings.
Most of the time these initial pre-proof versions are lost, but sometimes they were recycled and used to reinforce bindings which, when they are identified, bear witness to the process of correction.
Sometimes, rather than waiting for the corrections to be completed, the printing process was started and the errors are to be found in some extant copies. Where possible, corrections were made discreetly by intervening directly on the already printed sheets by means of labels that were cut out and pasted onto the printed page. If the error was too great, it was left as it was, as rectifying the mistake could compromise the entire layout.
Such choices allow us to appreciate the difficult decisions that had to be made within each workshop. They also emphasise the importance of economic issues that often made it preferable to publish an imperfect edition, rather than one that had been conscientiously corrected.
The recycling of proofs to strengthen bindings highlights a traditional practice in the book world that can be the source of many discoveries. The high cost of paper and parchment and their material qualities encouraged the reuse of sheets that were no longer useful. This reuse could be done in a destructive manner: printed sheets could become for tobacco or spice holders.
The volumes sometimes reveal the remains of these jettisoned copies in their bindings, either cut into shreds to reinforce the spine, or glued in larger fragments to reinforce or replace the cardboard used to make the boards. Depending on the amount of text preserved in this way, it is sometimes possible to identify old editions that had been replaced by newer versions often thought to be of better quality.
In such cases, even an approximate dating of the binding makes it possible to understand when an edition was considered obsolete and thus evaluate its useful life. This practice also underlines that the book did not have a sacred status: it was readily replaced without much thought.
The texts of these fragments are sometimes valuable witnesses to editions that are now very rare, or even remnants of works that have not survived elsewhere. In one of the volumes in the exhibition, for example, there are snippets of sixteenth-century verse whose author and original work have not been identified.
These last witnesses to works that have circulated and were perhaps at one time read with interest, have a certain wistful quality. Such fragments are only visible when bindings are damaged - otherwise they are covered by the covers and endpapers. When one considers the large number of volumes in perfect condition in the library, one wonders how many texts remain unseen, lurking in the shelves.
Reading the binding
While the insides of bindings hold many secrets, examining their outer appearance can also reveal valuable clues about the creation and life of the book. Until the nineteenth century, most bindings were not mass-produced for commercial publishers, but were made by bookbinders and booksellers who sold the books retail.
Often it was up to the first owner to decide what type of binding he wanted. He could choose how much he wished to invest in a solid structure with numerous supports or quality stitching. He also had to select the skin of the cover and the binding’s decorations.
The result was a great variety of bindings of different types and qualities. They show us the financial means of the owners but also their attachment to the text. They also give us clues as to the use they wished to make of the book. Regional particularities and changing tastes make them also geographical and chronological indicators of where the book was purchased.
The transformation over time of the owners' libraries has also left its mark on the bindings. At the beginning of the print era, books were laid upright with the board facing out, then laid horizontally, then stood upright with the edge exposed, and then turned over to be stored as they are now. In the course of time, the volumes had to be adapted to these changes, by writing the title in different places and by cutting out any elements that hindered storage.
More than the decorations, which attracted so much scholarly attention because of their aesthetic qualities, it is details such as the way in which the gatherings were sewn together to form the book, that must be analysed.
The book, a unique object
The choice and manufacture of bindings are not the only ways in which volumes are unique. The life of a book involves considerable interaction with successive owners and readers that leave marks that we can try to understand.
A possessor might well wish to alter a volume and not be satisfied with just having the text of an edition as conceived by the commercial publisher and sold by the retail bookseller. During the binding process, one could ask, for example, that additional sheets be inserted to allow for notes to be taken, comments to be inserted or additional handwritten texts to be added at the end of the volume.
A particularly common practice in the early centuries of printing was to compile a volume from several different editions. Various works were purchased and put together in a single binding. This made it possible to reduce costs, but also to create volumes that protected the texts for their own and future use. A unique object was thus created, made up of texts that one wished to preserve, and perhaps read, together.
Texts could also be removed either to comply with local censorship rules or so that the passages could be used in other volumes or independently.
Finally, looking at the condition of a book helps to assess its use. The most-read passages can be identified by the dirt on the pages, where the readers' fingers have touched the paper the most. The most used volumes have more tired bindings. Worn leather and dents in the corners betray both enthusiasm for a book’s content and sometimes also the conditions under which these works were avidly devoured.
Elementary, my dear Watson
The marks left by the creators and users of books over the centuries allow us to recreate a part of their history, which has been hitherto forgotten and whose richness has been ignored. Like a detective, we can use the marks and other clues left behind inadvertently or out of indifference to reconstruct a book world that is not mentioned in the texts. Whether through the discovery of copies, editions or texts revealed by fragmentary remains, or through the reconstruction of the interaction of readers and owners with their books, a hidden side of these objects emerges.
An archaeological approach to the volumes thus makes it possible to deepen and give a new context to the texts of the books. In the face of the already well-documented riches of the library, other, unsuspected riches can be revealed, which make these works even more precious and interesting.
Beyond the new discoveries, this way of looking at the collection emphasises the particularities of each volume, and the profound impact of the appropriation of the books by their owners. It underlines the interest and affection of the readers for their volumes, as shown by the bookplates accompanied by requests for their return in case of loss. Better still, this warning on the title page of an early nineteenth-century edition: "Pawn broakers, this book has been stolen from the Chevalier Dillon"!
Scientific direction: Malcolm Walsby
Professor of Book History at Enssib,
Director of the Gabriel Naudé Centre,
Research Fellow at the Centre Culturel Irlandais
Photographs by Damien Boisson-Berçu
Summary glossary of the exhibition
- Board: parts often made of cardboard inserted inside the cover to give rigidity to the binding and to protect the book
- Compositor: person who arranges the different pieces of type so that the text can be printed
- Edges: outer-edges of the leaves still apparent when the book in bound
- Ex-libris: inscription or label affixed to the inside of a book, indicating the name of its owner
- Exemplar: each copy of a book from a given edition
- Gathering: group of folded leaves placed inside each other and attached together by the passage of a sewing thread through their centre