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.


Seventeenth-century German book with fore-edge bookmarks
Seventeenth-century German book with fore-edge bookmarks

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.

Rules of the library, Archives of the Centre Culturel Irlandais
Rules of the library, Archives of the Centre Culturel Irlandais

The making of the book: identifying the unknown

Type designed by Claude Garamond in around 1549 with measurements to the tenth of a millimetre
Type designed by Claude Garamond in around 1549 with measurements to the tenth of a millimetre

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. 

Identifying the remains of an incunabulum
Identifying the remains of an incunabulum

This 16th-century book conceals a second book within it. Typographical analysis reveals the remains of 32 pages of a 1479 Basel edition of St Augustine's City of God in the binding. The purchase and decoration of this hand-ornamented incunabulum represented a substantial investment for its purchaser. However, a few decades later, surpassed by later editions, it was ripped apart and used to strengthen the boards of the binding of another book.

Jean Girard, Stichostratia epigrammaton centuriae quinque, Lyon : Macé Bonhomme, 1552

A much handled handbook
A much handled handbook

The library is rich in English books. Some, like this one, have suffered from the repeated interest of successive owners. Recurrent use has sometimes led to damage and loss, but this does not prevent their identification. This book is a treatise on the calculation of distances written by a Renaissance mathematician. A practical handbook, it was intended for outdoor use. This copy bears the traces of this use and is a valuable witness of contemporary scientific curiosity.

William Bourne, The Treasure for the travailers, London: Thomas Woodcocke, 1578

Anonymous imprints
Anonymous imprints

These two editions do not bear the name or mark of their printer. It is possible that he did not wish to be identified in what was a difficult period after the English Reformation: producing books for heretics was highly frowned upon in France. The printer’s identification, proposed here for the first time, is all the more interesting as it is the only known copy of the second edition kept in a public library.

Hore beatissime virginis Marie secundum usum Sarum, et Here begynneth the pystels and gospels of every sonday and holy daye in the yere, Rouen : [Cardin I Hamillon], 1542

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.

Cuthbert Tonstall, Contra impios blasphematores Dei praedestinationis opus, Anvers : Joannes Withagius, 1555
Cuthbert Tonstall, Contra impios blasphematores Dei praedestinationis opus, Anvers : Joannes Withagius, 1555

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.

Correcting blunders
Correcting blunders

Errata sheets were often inserted at the end of an edition to correct mistakes made by the print shop. In this case, however, the error was too great to be corrected in this way: the same table was unfortunately reproduced on two consecutive pages. The blunder was obviously noticed before printing, but it was too late to fix it: it would have changed the layout of several pages. Instead, a note was inserted denouncing the carelessness of the typographer...

Maurice Bressieu, Metrices astronomicae libri quatuor, Paris : Pierre Le Voirrier for Gilles Gourbin, 1581

Cut and paste corrections
Cut and paste corrections

Accuracy was particularly important in scientific editions. In this cosmography, the cardinal points were reversed in a diagram making it unusable. The correct information had to be printed anew on small labels which were then painstakingly cut out and pasted into all the copies of the edition. It is easy to imagine how those who had to carry out this laborious task must have cursed the person responsible for the error.

Francesco Barozzi, Cosmographia in quatuor libros distributa, Venice: Grazioso Percacino, 1585

Book viewer 
A comedy of errors
A comedy of errors

This text builds on the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler and explains that Earth was just one of many planets. The edition is, unfortunately, riddled with errors. The printer forgot to include the engraving that was meant to be inserted on p. 222.

John Wilkins, A discourse concerning a new planet tending to prove that'tis probable our earth is one of the planets, London: Richard Hearne for John Maynard, 1640

The leaf was reprinted with both text and image... but instead of replacing the erroneous leaf, the following one was torn out instead: the copy thus has pages 221-222 twice, but not pages 223-224!

Hidden texts

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.

Unknown verse
Unknown verse

Hidden in the binding of a Parisian edition of Catholic controversy is a fragment of an English imprint. This suggests that the book was originally bound in England at a time when possession of such a work would have been dangerous. However, it is the English printing in the plate that most interests us: the verses do not correspond to any known text and are probably the last trace of a work now lost.

Martin Cromer, De falsa Lutheranorum sive evangelicorum nostri temporis et vera Christi religione libri duo, Paris : Guillaume Guillard and Amaury Warancore, 1560

Printing proofs
Printing proofs

Exceptionally, the binding covers of this volume contain the same text as the book they protect. The parchment is in fact reinforced with pages of the original printing proofs for this edition of Tonstall's book. We can see how, after forgetting a word, the composer had to rearrange the text, introducing numerous abbreviations to keep the final layout. Fragments such as these allow us to understand how typographers worked, the impact of proof reading and subsequent alterations on the final edition.

Cuthbert Tonstall, Contra impios blasphematores Dei praedestinationis opus, Antwerp: Joannes Withagius, 1555

A macabre board
A macabre board

Bookbinders would go to great lengths to find materials to recycle in order to reduce the cost of their bindings. In this case, the reused print is somewhat lugubrious: it is a death notice illustrated with an ornate V that recalls the theme of vanity. The funeral announced was that of a fellow bookseller in Paris, located in the rue de la Barillerie on the Ile de la Cité. No doubt the bookbinder had been invited to the event and kept the announcement carefully for later reuse.

Louis de Grenade, Le memorial de la vie chrestienne, Paris: C. de Bresche, 1631

Evolution of the way books were placed on shelves
Evolution of the way books were placed on 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.

Two in one
Two in one

This volume actually contains two separate books that were sewn together, although the copies had originally been bound separately. The owner must have wanted to keep the editions together, undoubtedly because they dealt with the same subject. This stratagem allowed for easier use. It also had the advantage of better preserving the bindings contents: the smaller of the two books is today the only known extant copy of this edition.

J.-C. Boulenger, Examen des lieux alleguez par le sieur du Plessis Mornay en l'epistre liminaire du livre contre la messe, Paris: Claude Morel, 1598

Book viewer 
Discreet luxury
Discreet luxury

Despite the apparent simplicity of the external decoration of this book, the binding of this edition of the Psalms emphasises the extent to which the owner cherished his copy. It is carefully bound with five raised bands, the inside covers are adorned with red cloth, and additional marbled paper endpapers have also been inserted. Furthermore, the text is ornamented with red ink and the edges decorated with gold leaf to reinforce the impression of discreet luxury.

François Paris, Les Pseaumes en forme de prières, paraphrase, Paris: Denys Thierry for the widow of Daniel Hortemels, 1706

A binding for intensive use
A binding for intensive use

This large volume was intended to be used by several choir members simultaneously during mass. To facilitate its use, a large typeface was selected, but the book also had to be protected with a suitable binding. When placed on a table or desk and used intensively, the corners and sides of the volume were in danger of being damaged. Therefore, the book was fitted with bosses, large corner protectors and clasps...

Graduale parisiense, [Paris: Joannes-Baptista Coignard, s. d.]

Book viewer 

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. 

Creating a unique volume
Creating a unique volume

This volume consists of a series of tracts and manuscripts dealing with events surrounding the union of Scotland and England. Its owner seems to have been fascinated by the issue and brought together in a single binding various editions and manuscript copies, creating a unique collection that bears witness to the momentousness of the occasion. Several texts contain the terrible story of the Glencoe Massacre, in which Scottish soldiers turned on their hosts and murdered them in the middle of the night.

The massacre of Glenco being a true narrative of the barbarous murther of the Glenco-men... on the 13th of Feb. 1692, London: B. Bragg, 1703

An efficient system
An efficient system

One of the great advantages of the codex over other book forms is that it gives direct access to particular pages. But finding one's way through very large reference volumes is far from easy. In order to facilitate the use of this legal work, fore-edge bookmarks were added to indicate the beginning of each chapter. For this purpose, small tabs were printed and glued onto the pages, making it easier for readers to find the right page.

Corpus juris canonici academicum emendatum, Basel: Emanuel Thurneysen, 1773

A telling absence
A telling absence

This book, which covers a wide range of subjects from philology to mathematics, is a little-known treatise and, in the view of a nineteenth-century commentator, it should remain that way. One section, however, caught the interest of a reader who, not satisfied with just reading the pages, tore them out. The section devoted to the calendar and the cycles of the moon and the sun clearly had a practical use, which the large volume in which it was inserted prevented.

Nicolas Forest-Duchesne, Florilegium universale liberalium artium et scientiarum, Paris: Alexandre Lesselin, 1650

Print and manuscript
Print and manuscript

The owner of this reference work of commonplaces bought this edition with the idea of expanding it with his own material. He had his book bound with extra blank sheets, which meant that each printed leaf was followed by a blank one which he could fill. He was thus able to add additional references at the right place in the text, so that he could consult them later and compare them with those collected by the author of the book.

Henri Culens, Thesaurus locorum communium de quo nova et vetera proferuntur, Antwerp: Balthasar Moretus, the widow of Jan Moretus and Johannes van Meurs, 1622

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"!

"Xeux ou selle qui le trouveront oront la bonté de le renbdre", Le Mastre de Sacy, L’histoire du vieux et du nouveau Testament, Paris: Lesclapart, 1738
"Xeux ou selle qui le trouveront oront la bonté de le renbdre", Le Mastre de Sacy, L’histoire du vieux et du nouveau Testament, Paris: Lesclapart, 1738
An Authentic Narrative of Four Years' Residence at Tongataboo, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees et Orme, 1810
An Authentic Narrative of Four Years' Residence at Tongataboo, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees et Orme, 1810

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

Find out more

Les secrets du livre ancien révélés - talk by Malcolm Walsby
Les secrets du livre ancien révélés - talk by Malcolm Walsby

Listen to the introductory lecture: Les secrets du livre ancien révélés. By examining the typography and bookmarks, the binding and marks left by readers, Malcolm Walsby explains how as an academic and specialist in the History of the Book, he can interpret clues hidden in a volume to reconstitute how generations of woman and men used them.