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Book Collecting Basics: The Structure of a Book

By Kristin Masters. Mar 21, 2019. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Rare Books, Book Collecting, Book Care

Before taking to the skies, a pilot learns the inner workings of an airplane. Rare book collectors should do the same with books. It's important to understand how a book is put together so it is easier to recognize the signs of fine craftsmanship, to spot reproductions, and to assess the value of potential additions to your collection. Here are the basics of book assembly.

Modern Book Construction 101

Before a binding or cover is ever added to the book, the individual pages, or leaves, must be attached to one another. There are two methods for leaf attachment: sewn and adhesive.

Sewing the pages together creates the strongest binding, but this method is also more expensive. With this method, multiple gatherings (called signatures) are sewn through the folds of the pages. Books bound this way usually open very well. Oversewing may also be done for certain types of books and books that have a library binding.

On the other hand, if adhesive is used, it is applied directly to the pages, on the side where the binding will be placed. This is called the text block. Adhesive may be applied while the text block is closed, or while the pages are fanned out. If a book's text block or signatures/sections have become loose in its binding, this is described as shaken. In other words, the text block is no longer tightly bound but it has not yet come detached. 

To hold the book to the spine and cover, books have joints and hinges. A joint attaches the spine to the cover on the exterior of the book. A hinge attaches the pages to the inside of the cover. Note that paperback books don't need hinges or joints because the paper cover is attached directly to the pages.

Book Handling

Handling a book properly will extend the life of the joints and hinges. The question then becomes. How do I properly handle my rare books? Can I handle them? The short answer is yes, you can. But when handling them, there are several things to keep in mind.
First, some simple steps that will go a long way in preserving the condition of your books. When you are removing a book from your shelf either to read it or to reorganize your collection, grab the book from the center of the spine. Do not reach for the top of the spine, as pulling from there can significantly (and negatively) affect the strength of the binding. Likewise, if you're opening your rare book, allow the book to tell you how far it is comfortable opening. Now, don't roll your eyes and act like you've never let a book talk to you! What we mean here is, don't push your book to open farther than the binding allows. If necessary, place a pillow or another adequately-sized item beneath the book's cover or boards to prevent strain on the spine and binding.
Other common-sense tips include washing your hands before touching your rare books or donning white gloves. You should avoid folding or altering the pages in anywayuse a bookmark to keep you place if necessary. And strive to protect the dust jackets of your book. After all, an in tact dust jacket (and a book in fine condition as a whole) will go a long way in preserving the worth of the rare book collection.
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Looking for more book collecting basics? Check out our glossary of rare book condition terms below!

New or Used: A Glossary of Book Condition Terms

For those at the beginning of their collecting life, it can seem like sales descriptions are filled with confusing jargon. A whole set of terms exist to identify an item’s condition and features. Taken together with our other glossaries, we hope this list of book condition terms will help you kick-start your book collecting efforts.

foxing_PDAs Issued - A term used to describe an aspect of the book that might be perceived as a flaw but was the original state of the book when published.

Association Copy - Book that in and of itself is of no particular interest except that it was owned by someone important or famous.

Bowed – A condition where the boards of a hardcover book have turned either inwards or outwards in relation to the leaves. This often occurs because of a rapid change in moisture.

Chipped – Used to describe a binding or dust jacket which is missing small pieces along its edges. This should be distinguished from ripped, torn, or intentionally clipped binding edges.

Ex-Library – A book that was once part of an institutional or public library’s collection but has been deaccessioned. Ex-library copies often bear the marks of the library, such as stamps, seals, call numbers, or the increasingly outdated (but memorable) pocket for a check-out card. Collectors should be aware that “ex libris” does not indicate an ex-library copy. 

Foxing - A descriptive term for scattered spots on paper which are commonly reddish-brown in color. The term is derived from the rusty red color of Reynard the fox. Foxing is created by a particular chemical reaction and must be distinguished from the discoloration that can occur from surface colonies of mold growth. 

Ghosting, Shadowing, or Offsetting – A description used for uneven fading on paper. Ghosting is often caused by prolonged contact with other paper materials, such as a bookmark, or old adhesives which have triggered a chemical reaction.

Boyd_Solo_SignatureInscribed - A short note with personalized dedication, written by the author or a previous owner, usually in the beginning of a book, generally accompanied by a signature. 

Shaken – Used to describe a book whose pages have become loose in their binding; no longer tight, but not detached.

Sunning – Materials which are faded from direct and prolonged exposure to sunlight. Light can cause a chemical breakdown in printed ink, but also in cloth and leather bindings. A book’s spine will sometimes show the worst sunning from facing outward on a shelf.

Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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How can I identify a first edition? Where do I learn about caring for books? How should I start collecting? Hear from librarians about amazing collections, learn about historic bindings or printing techniques, get to know other collectors. Whether you are just starting or looking for expert advice, chances are, you'll find something of interest on blogis librorum.

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