T is for Title-page

Like so many elements of book design (bindings, bookplates, typography), the appearance of the title-page has been subject to fashions, and the amount of information offered on a title-page has varied over time accordingly. For example, whilst the earliest title-pages were relatively simple, in the 17th century it became standard practice to cram as much information as possible onto the title-page – with extensive sub-titles and detailed author and publisher information, often in multiple types, and within decorative frames. This trend died off in the 18th century, as a tendency for more simply set-out title-pages (often accompanied by half titles) took its place. This pattern repeated; the 19th century saw a return to more elaborate title-pages, whereas the emergence of modernism accompanied a more stripped-back approach in the 20th century.

As engraving came to be used more widely in book illustration from the late 16th century, engraved title-pages emerged. Occasionally books contained additional engraved title-pages alongside a letterpress title-page, as in the example below.

The earliest of printed books do not contain title-pages at all however; nor do most medieval manuscripts. Instead, these texts are generally identified by the “incipit” and “explicit” – the opening and closing words of the text, from the Latin verb incipere (‘to begin’) and explicitus, meaning ‘unrolled’.

An example of an incipit from a work printed in 1481.

Early printed books often closed with a “colophon” – a closing statement, providing, for example, the name of those involved in the book’s production (scribe, printer, publisher), and place and date of publication.

Earlier in this series we met the half-title page: here it is worth noting that the history of the half-title page, as outlined in this earlier post, also helps to reveal how it was that the title-page came to be – “printers would produce the pages of a text – the text-block – which they sold unbound”; a “blank sheet originally intended for protection came to be marked with a short-title in order to help differentiate one text-block from another, and it was this that then developed into the full title-page, with publication details as well as author and title.”

References and further reading:

Smith, Margaret M. “Title-page” in Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H.R. Woudhuysen eds., The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2010.

Smith, Margaret M. The title-page: its early development 1460-1510, 2000.

British Library, Catalogue of illuminated manuscripts, 2018

S is for Subscription

From the 17th to the early 19th century, and occasionally since then, books might be issued ‘on subscription,’ to solicit orders in advance of publication from subscribers attracted by a preliminary proposal. A printed list of subscribers’ names would often appear in the published work. The first known subscription list is that for the second edition (1625) of John Minsheu’s Guide into Tongues (SPEC Knowsley 349/oversize but without the list of subscribers).

Books whose publication was financed by subscription typically included particularly expensive books (for example highly illustrated books), specialist works (for example scientific and musical works), privately printed books, or special copies (for example, ‘large paper’ copies printed on a larger size of paper) making up part of an edition. The response to the subscription helped gauge the market for the work prior to publication and acted as a guarantee for the bookseller’s outlay on publication costs.

Subscription proposal for Milton’s Works (1757). SPEC Knows. pamph. 264
Receipt for the Countess of Derby’s first payment for Milton’s Poetical Works. Signed by Thomas Houlston.

The lists of subscribers in the published work were often arranged hierarchically, giving the most eminent names first, and might include addresses and occupations. William Enfield’s 1773 Essay towards the history of Leverpool included views and a plan separately so subscribers could choose which parts of the work they wanted.

References and further reading:

  • Michael F. Suarez and H. R. Woudhuysen (eds), The Oxford Companion to the Book (Oxford, 2010)
  • John Carter and Nicholas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors. Eighth edition (Oak Knoll and British Library, 2006)
  • P. J. Wallis, Book Subscription Lists: Extended Supplement to the Revised Guide (1996) and ‘Book Subscription Lists,’ Library 5/29 (1974)

R is for Rags

Making paper by hand.

During the hand-press era, the raw material for the production of paper for books was cloth rags – most often linen. Rags were bought in bulk by paper-makers, often sold to them by itinerant rag collectors; rag-and-bone men. The paper-making process began with washing the linen, which was left it in a damp heap to rot. After four or five days, the rotten rags were cut into smaller pieces, and then pounded down to form a pulp, using water-powered hammers. This pounding process was repeated two or three times; with pauses in between to allow for further rotting. By the 18th century the hammers had been replaced by a rotary machine which macerated the rags using knives – a much more efficient method. Invented in Holland, the machine was known as a Hollander.

Once the process of breaking-up and rotting down the rags was complete the pulp that remained was put into a vat and watered down to form a concoction resembling a watery porridge. Further stretching the porridge analogy – this mixture was kept warm and stirred occasionally using a paddle.

A close-meshed sieve made of metal wire (the mould) was then dipped into the mixture, before being lifted out with exactly the right amount of pulp in, laid flat, and skillfully manipulated to form a uniform ‘sheet’ of pulp across the mould. The mould was then expertly shaken, first forward and backward, and then side to side, to ensure the fibres crossed in each direction, which helped to strengthen the paper. The sheets were then removed from the mould and sandwiched between layers of felt. The resultant piles of paper interleaved with felt were put under a heavy press to squeeze out excess water before being hung up to dry.

The quality of the paper produced using this method was primarily determined by the quality of the rags used to make it. The best paper was produced from pure white linen; poorer quality paper from materials such as canvas, rope and wool. Linen rags were not readily available in England, where people wore wool rather than linen. This fact, combined with a lack of skilled workmen, meant that most paper used in the English book trade, up until around the middle of the 18th century, was imported from France or Holland.

By the 19th century, the demand for rags to make paper with was outstripping supply, and prices reflected this. This intensified the search for an alternative; which eventually resulted in the majority of paper being made using wood-pulp – and increasingly using machines, rather than by hand – from the middle of the century.

As it happens, a conference, ‘The Paper Trade in Early Modern Europe: Practices, Materials, Networks’ took place in Erlangen, Germany, on the 26th and 27th February. You can read about current research in paper, as presented at the conference, by searching for the Twitter handle #EMpapertrade.

References and further reading:

Gaskell, Philip. A new introduction to bibliography, 1972

Burke, James. From rags to paper, 2013

University of Ilowa. Paper through time: nondestructive analysis of 14th-through-19th century papers (project website).

M is for Marginalia

“Marginalia”, or marginal notes, are marks made in the margins of books. In particular, researchers have become increasingly interested in the marks made by previous owners of a book. Whether these appear as comments, abbreviations, glosses, scribbles, symbols, or doodles, these marks offer an opportunity to better understand the different ways in which individuals have interacted with the book through the course of its life. The passages a reader has chosen to mark can reveal much about the concerns of that individual, and the ways in which they read, as well as about the social, political and religious circumstances in which they lived.

As a leading scholar on Renaissance marginalia, Bill Sherman, has written:
“Readers’ marks are better at providing examples (and still better at providing counterexamples) than general rules; but if we cast our net widely they can reveal both large-scale patterns of use and extraordinary encounters of individuals and their books. The former can correct some of our most deep-seated assumptions about reading and readers…” (Used books, p. xvi).

Pictoral marginalia in one of our incunables – Higden’s “Polychronicon”, printed by Caxton in 1482. This book boasts the ownership marks of five different former owners (SPEC Inc CSJ D3).

Sherman’s own study of over 1000 books from the first two centuries of printing has helped to shed light on the ways in which many Renaissance readers used writing – or even drawing – in the margins as a means to aid the memory. For these readers, reading was very much intended to be purposeful, equipping a reader for success in  work and in society. Today we might feel we can rely upon near constant access to the internet to provide us with information at the point of need, but for previous generations it was important that readers were able to memorise, or quickly access the information learnt through reading. Engaging the hand in note-taking, or drawing, is thought to have helped to help concentrate the mind and strengthen the learning process, enabling readers to commit passages to memory, as well as ensuring the most important passages could be quickly returned to when needed.

Renaissance readers often employed a range of symbols to help categorise and arrange the texts they read. One of the most frequently recurring of these is the pointing hand, or “manicule”.

Marginal notes can also be used to comment upon, criticise or explain the main text, and as such offer a means by which to trace the reception of specific works and ideas. In a recent Bonnier Lecture given at the University of Liverpool, Professor John O’Brien of Durham University showed how attending to the marginalia left by ‘ordinary’ early modern readers of Montaigne’s Essais, led to unexpected deductions about the ways in which they interpreted Montaigne, and the passages they found to be of most interest. As he noted, these findings can, in turn, help to us to see more current perspective (and its attendant biases) in a new light.

This 1687 copy of the works of Lucian of Samosata contains commentary and cross-references in the margins in more than one language, in a rather neat contemporary hand (SPEC Y68.2.44).

Marginalia offer a rich resource for researchers then, as well as providing an often touching insight into the life and mind of individuals living hundreds of years ago. Indeed, as an important source of paper – a relatively luxurious commodity for much of the history of printing – margins have been put to a wide range of more quaint uses; for handwriting practice by readers learning to write, for example, or to record familial births, deaths and marriages.

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A previous reader has gone to town on the paper offered by front cover of this 17th century pamphlet. Handwriting practice, perhaps?


References and further reading:

Sherman, William H. Used books: marking readers in Renaissance England. (2008)

Grafton, Anthony and Lisa Jardine. ““Studied for action”: how Gabriel Harvey read his Livy”. Past & Present, 129 (1990).

O’Brien, John. “What Montaigne meant to them: the Essais and their early modern readers”. Annual Bonnier Lecture in French Studies, University of Liverpool (2018).


L is for Leaf

The smallest element in bibliographical descriptions of books: the piece of paper comprising two pages. The front side is called the recto and the back is the verso.

A leaf numbered on the recto may be referred to as a folio – foliation (numbering each leaf) is often seen on manuscript texts and became a common printing practice in the late 15th and 16th centuries. Books from 1600 onwards have more usually been printed with pagination (a separate number for each page, or side of the leaf).

Fraser 567: Nicolas Monardes, Ioyfull newes out of the new-found vvorld (1596) showing foliation

The physical description statement in catalogues gives the make-up of the book in sequences of leaves (if the printed text is foliated) or pages (if the text is paginated). Descriptions by number of pages always give an even total to account for both the recto and verso of the leaf, even if the verso if the final leaf is blank.

Description ix, [1], 533, [1] pages, [1] leaf of plates: illustrations; 20 cm

Illustrations such as woodcuts may be included as part of printing the text, and not separately numbered, but illustrations such as engraved plates printed by a separate process are numbered as leaves, since the illustration is on one side of the leaf only.

Leaf may also be used in terms describing parts of a book: endleaves (or endpapers) are the additional leaves before and after the printed text; flyleaf is sometimes used to refer to a leaf at the beginning of a volume. They are normally mentioned in catalogue descriptions as the location of bookplates, owner’s inscriptions, etc., or for their decorative qualities.

An interleaved copy of a book has additional blank leaves bound in for the owner’s notes, either as an integral part of the publication, or for an individual owner after publication:

2017.b.008 – Liverpool shipping register for 1835 interleaved for corrections and additions.

JUV A727.1 – The illuminated scripture text book with interleaved diary for memoranda and a coloured illustration for every day by Edmund Evans (1875)

H is for Half-title

A half-title is a leaf that directly precedes the title-page proper and contains a title or short title, and perhaps the name of the author, or a volume number.

Half-title page for a pamphlet of 1691.

Given that the details recorded on a half-title are generally repeated, and elaborated upon, on the title-page which follows it, one might well wonder what purpose this extra leaf serves.

The title-page of the same pamphlet, which directly follows the half-title page shown above.

A favoured explanation* takes as its starting point the fact that, in the early printed book trade, the printing of the book and the binding of the book were two quite separate activities. Initially, printers would produce the pages of a text – the text-block – which they sold unbound. The text-block’s new owner would then have these pages bound into a volume according to their tastes and budget (or, in the case of a bookseller, the taste and budget of the customer they hoped to attract). To help protect the first page of the text-block from dirt and dust, it was customary for early printers to put a blank sheet on top of the unbound text-block.

Here it should also be noted that the very earliest printed books did not contain a title-page. The blank sheet, originally intended for protection, came to be marked with a ‘title’, then, in order to help printers to quickly differentiate one text-block from another. From here, this added sheet developed into the full title-page as we have come to know it; with publication details, and perhaps even some illustration, as well as author and title added to it.

But as this page became increasingly important in its own right, it became necessary to protect it from dirt and dust too, and so the process was repeated. A blank page, laid on top of the title-page to protect it from dirt and dust, had a short version of the title added to it to help with identification in increasingly busy printing houses and binderies, during the second half of the 17th century.

It is worth noting that there was arguably little clear impetus for this half-title leaf to be retained in the finished, bound version. Indeed, according to John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors, binders removed these sheets more often than not – not just because they were inessential, but because waste paper of this sort could be sold back to the paper mills, creating an extra mode of income for bookbinders. This helps to explain why half-titles aren’t more common in early printed books.

In the example above, however, the printer has found a use for the extra paper, putting the verso of the half-title to good use as a space for advertising his wares:

*This is the explanation provided by Philip Gaskell, in his renowned A new introduction to bibliography, for instance.

G is for Gilt and Gold

Gilt and gold-tooled (or tooled in gold) are terms used to describe the techniques of applying gold decoration to a book’s page edges and its binding.

In gold-tooling, individual engraved metal hand tools are heated and applied through gold leaf to impress the design on the book’s spine and covers. Larger designs use an engraved metal block in a blocking or arming press, for example a centrepiece block or corner blocks.The design is then described as blocked in gold rather than tooled in gold.

If the binder’s tools or blocks are used straight onto the bookbinding material the decoration is described as blind-tooled (tooled in blind), or blocked in blind. A panel-stamp is a single large block used to impress a design onto the book cover; the term is used particularly of ‘blind-stamped’ 16th-century bindings, but the pretty cover designs of 19th-century literary annuals or gift books use essentially the same technique.

Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrapbook for 1852
SPEC Annuals 1c.F333

Whether the material is leather, vellum, or cloth, and the design is tooled or blocked, these techniques have produced some of the most stunning bookbindings from all periods.

Two 18th centiry religious works in a red morocco binding of ‘cottage’ design, inlaid with black, with the leather book-label of Ann Aingel, 1769.

SPEC H85.9 booklabel

Design blocked in gold on cover of Moore’s Irish melodies, 1851

W. B. Yeats, Poems 1895
SPEC J18.15











Gilding describes the process of applying gold leaf or gold powder to the trimmed edges of the pages of a book. As well as giving the volume a more luxurious appearance, the smooth shiny surface serves the practical function of resisting dust. Gilt edges may be made more ornate by tooling a design onto the gilded surface, to produce gauffered edges.

Bible ( 1831). In a very elaborate Victorian leather binding; all edges gilt and gauffered.

Resources and further reading:

The Language of Bindings glossary at Ligatus.

The British Library Database of Bookbindings

The British Armorial Bindings database at the University of Toronto

F is for Format

Anyone who has carefully studied one of our catalogue records may have spotted that the “Description” field contains a symbol that looks something like this – 2°, 4°, 8°, 12°. This number indicates what is called the “format” of the book – a term which refers to the manner in which the sheets of paper (or vellum) of which the book is comprised have been printed and folded.

As indicated in the first post in this series, books produced during the hand-press era (roughly up until early in the ninteenth century) were formed from large sheets of paper, on which several pages were printed in one go. The page would then be turned, and the corresponding pages printed on the other side of the sheet.

Unfolded sheet of printing

Books produced of sheets printed as in the example above, and folded and cut so as to give gatherings of eight leaves, sixteen pages which are then sewn together to create the full text, are called “octavo”, which is represented in the catalogue as 8° (or sometimes 8vo).

When just two pages are printed side-by-side on both sides of a sheet which is later folded once, and then cut, resulting is two leaves, four pages, the book comprised of gatherings of these leaves is called a “folio” (which is written as 2° for short, or sometimes as “fo”). In this instance, each page of the book will be half the size of the sheets used in printing. And where sheets have been printed with the text of four pages per side, and then folded twice, a book has the format “quarto”, 4to or 4°. This sheet, folded one extra time, results in four leaves a quarter of the size of the original sheet.

These are the most common book formats you are likely to encounter; but occasionally you might come across a book composed of leaves made from sheets that have been folded four or more times (duodecimo, 12°, 12mo,16°, 24°, 32°, up to 128°!).

Evidently a folio book is likely to be larger than a quarto, which is likely to be bigger than an octavo, and so on – but beware, the size of the finished product will depend upon the size of the original sheet. During the hand-press period this varied, and there can be quite a bit of variation in size within any single format as a result (we normally say folio books range between about 30.5 cm and 48 cm, for example).

From left to right, a folio, quarto, octavo and sextodecimo.

The format – and therefore size – of a book can provide a clue as to whether the printer was treating the book as a luxury good, or a commercial venture for less-wealthy readers. Smaller format books can be printed more quickly and use less paper and less binding material, so they can be sold more cheaply.

Similarly, the format of a book can provide an indication of its use – a book intended to be shown-off, or read by many people at once, is more likely to be produced in a large format; whereas a book intended to be carried on one’s person would need to be small and portable. To take two examples from SC&A: Inc.CSJ.D13/OS is a two-volume Bible printed in Nuremberg in 1475, which stands nearly half a metre tall, whereas 2017.a.028 is a copy of John Barnes’  The new London chemical pocket-book (1844) “adapted to the daily use of the student” is 17 cm.

Our smallest book, “The Bible in Miniature, or A Concise History of the Old and New Testaments” is a 64mo.

Cataloguers use marks within the paper to help determine how many times a single sheet has been folded, a process we’ll cover in greater detail in later posts – so watch this space!

C is for Cancel


Robin Hood, 1820: Oldham 177

A cancel, as the name suggests, is part of a printed book (often a single leaf, or double-sided page) that cancels and replaces what has already been printed, to correct an error in the printing.

A cancel leaf (or cancellans, Latin for the thing that cancels) can often be detected from the stub of the original leaf, the cancelland (or cancellandum, Latin for the thing to be cancelled), which is left in place when the offending leaf is cut away from its partner, or  conjugate, leaf (as illustrated in A is for Alphabet). The corrected single leaf is pasted onto this stub.

Finding a stub, and therefore a cancel, brings out the detective in cataloguers: what was there before, and why did it have to be removed? If the collection contains two copies – before and after – that certainly helps answer the question, as shown in these images.

Dedication leaf: Oldham 177

Dedication leaf: SPEC Y82.3.1056

Spot the difference? The clue – apart from the stub – is in the signature a3 (see A is for Alphabet) and the number of lines, which have been increased from 12 to 13 to accommodate the full splendour of the aristocratic dedicatee’s name.

One of the commonest reasons for printing a cancel leaf was to make a change to the title page: to update unsold copies of a book, or for a new publisher to put their imprint on copies of a title taken over from its previous publisher.

Binding of the Brontës’ first published work


A famous example of the latter is the first publication of the Brontës’ poems in 1846. Despite the ruse of disguising their gender to counter anti-female prejudice, the first edition sold only two copies. In 1848, following the success of Jane Eyre, and Anne and Emily’s novels, the publisher Smith, Elder & Co. republished the poems with a new title page (but with the original date). The newly issued books had a leaf added before the new title page advertising ‘Prose fictions by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell’ and Smith, Elder, & Co’s May 1848 ‘List of new books by popular authors’ is bound in at the end of the volume.

First edition of the Brontës’ poems 1846


Second edition of the Brontës’ poems 1848


B is for Bookplate

For almost as long as there have been printed books, there has existed a practice of marking ownership of those books through the use of an engraved or printed paper label. Bookplates typically contain an engraved or etched armorial or pictorial design, with the owner’s name or initials and perhaps a motto, address, occupation or degree. The term ‘book label’ has tended to be used for smaller and simpler labels, with a characteristic design comprised of an owner’s name within a relatively plain decorative border.

Liverpool Library bookplate

Liverpool Library bookplate.


Book label of Hannah Mary Reynolds.

It is not uncommon to find more than one bookplate or book label within a book, helping to build a picture of the life of an object by revealing the various individuals that have come into contact with it, and the various locations to which it has travelled. Often a later owner may have pasted a bookplate over the top of a previous owner’s bookplate, or made some attempt to erase a previous bookplate, presumably to ensure the avoidance of doubt as to who is the righful owner of the book now!

The name of the owner of this bookplate has been removed by a later owner of the book.


Here, Thomas Glazebrook Rylands has inserted his bookplate beneath the armorial bookplate of the book’s previous owner, John Lee. Both bookplates are from the 19th cnetury.

The design of bookplates has been subject to different fashions over time, and it is often possible to date a bookplate according to a recognisable trend in style. Some great artists – including Hans Holbein, Albrecht Durer, Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane – have designed bookplates. They offer interest not just to those concerned with the history of books and book ownership, then, but also from an art-historical viewpoint.

Bookplate of John. T. Beer.

On the front paste-down, the bookplate of antiquary Richard Duncan Radcliffe (1844-1925). On the first free endpaper, the bookplate of the physician Sir Robert Alexander Chermside (1792-1860).

Bookplate of the 10th Earl of Derby.

Bookplate of the 10th Earl of Derby.

If you are interested in learning more about the history and study of bookplates and book labels, a good place to start is with David Pearson’s Provenance research in book history: a handbook which is available to consult in the Special Collections and Archives reading room.