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)

I is for Incunable

Incunables are books printed with moveable type before 1501. Incunable comes from the Latin incunabula – a fake plural Latin noun derived from in cunabulis (in the swaddling clothes). According to S. H. Steinberg’s Five hundred years of printing, the term incunabula was first used in the context of printing at the celebrations of the second centenary of Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable metal type printing press. A tract printed in Cologne in 1639 described the later fifteenth century – from Gutenberg to 1500 – as ‘prima typographiae incunabula’, the time when typography was in its swaddling clothes.

SPEC Inc CSJ.D12.OS: Pliny, Historia naturale (Venice: Nicolas Jenson, 1476)

Incunables have many features in common with manuscript books of the same period, and even more with the books printed in the first half of the sixteenth century, but owning incunables retains a particular cachet and many libraries have separately catalogued collections of incunables.

The British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) is an international database of European fifteenth century printing listing more than 30,500 editions and library catalogues of incunables will often cite the ISTC number.

SPEC Inc CSJ.D14.OS: Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) ISTC is00307000 ; Bod-inc. S-108

Other major online catalogues include Germany’s Bavarian State Library Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Inkunabelkatalog and Oxford’s Bodleian Library Bod-Inc Online. The ongoing Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) project links ISTC records with details of individual copies to uncover the journeys they have made over the centuries.

Liverpool University Library has more than 250 incunable volumes, thanks chiefly to the fortunate coincidence of a revived interest in the medieval period in the late nineteenth century, when the University of Liverpool was founded with the support of many Liverpool benefactors.

Incunables given to the University of Liverpool by Sir Charles Sydney Jones

Further reading: S. H. Steinberg, Five hundred years of printing first edition 1955, 1996 British Library.

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

E is for Edition

Printing in the hand-press period was time-consuming, involving the setting-up or composition of sheets to be printed from individual pieces of type. As a printer’s stock of type and printing presses was limited, the type would be redistributed once the sheets had been printed. Watch a demonstration of the printing process on the website of the Victoria & Albert Museum (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

The copies of books printed at any time from substantially the same setting of type constitute a single edition; if more than half the type is reset, there is a new edition (citing Philip Gaskell  A New Introduction to Bibliography, Oak Knoll Press 2012).

Subsequent editions might follow in rapid succession in the case of popular works, such as Byron’s The Giaour (1813) which appeared in eight editions in its first year.

7th edition in 1813 of Byron’s The Giaour. SPEC J28.26(2)

A long run of editions over a long period indicates the enduring usefulness of a work, for example John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors (first edition 1952, eighth edition with corrections 2006), to which our ABC of Books pays homage. Successive editions may not be numbered second, third, etc but will often be described as new, improved, corrected, with additions or other inducements. From the later 19th century onwards, the title page may state how many thousands have been printed in place of or in addition to an edition statement:

Ninth thousand ‘edition’ statement
SPEC Y83.3.1442

Parts of an edition might be printed more cheaply, or more expensively, using different paper, to produce a subset for a particular market such as cheap copies for export or copies on higher quality paper (with a price to match) to appeal to collectors. Books produced in a limited edition will have a statement declaring how many copies have been printed and each copy will usually be numbered, often as part of a subset of greater of lesser rarity. The Ashendene Press edition of Thomas More’s Utopia (1906), for example, included 20 copies printed on vellum. Special Collection’s copy collected by William Noble (SPEC Noble A.20.1) is printed on vellum but unnumbered.

Editio princeps, the Latin for first edition (‘princeps’ also conveys the sense of a distinguished leader in the field) is often used to refer to the first printed edition (as opposed to manuscript) of a classical text, for example the edition of Cicero printed in Mainz in 1465.

Editio princeps (Mainz 1465) SPEC Inc.CSJ.F10

D is for Device

A ‘printer’s device’ (also known as a printer’s mark or emblem) is a form of trademark, used widely by early printers from the 15th to the end of the 17th century. Devices were initially employed primarily as a means of differentiating a printer’s work from forgeries and imitations. However, they soon came to be seen, in addition, as a marker of quality, familiarity, and style. In effect then, they represented an early form of logo; a marketing tool and security device.

One of the most instantly recognisable printer’s devices is the dolphin and anchor of the important, innovative Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (this book (EP.B08) was printed in 1523).

Devices are most often found directly above or below the imprint (publication details such as name of printer, and place and date of printing). As very early books were printed without a title-page, it is not uncommon to find these details at the end of the main text, in what is called a colophon, particularly in books printed before 1500.

This is the device of the famous printing partnership of Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, printed beneath the colophon in a book of 1473 (Inc.JWH.7/OS). Fust and Schoeffer, who were responsible for printing the Mainz Psalter of 1457, are credited with being the first printers to use a device.

The imagery used in a device can be armorial, or might involve an allegorical vignette, or a pun on the printer’s name or character. Jacques and Estienne Maillet’s device includes a picture of a mallet, for example, whilst Gaillot de Pré used an image of a ship’s galley and both Sebastian and Antonius Gryphius a griffin:

Sometimes devices also includes the printer’s name and/or motto, as in this more modern exmple from the Kelmscott Press:

For more information on printer’s devices see “Printer’s marks” by W. Roberts.





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.

A is for Alphabet

Early printed books – from the start of printing in the fifteenth century up to the early nineteenth century – were produced very differently from modern, machine-printed books. They were printed by hand on large sheets of paper, with several pages on each side, as shown by this sermon preached to the House of Commons in 1707.

Unfolded sheet of printing: SPEC LGP 167 1st copy

The sheets were folded into gatherings – quires – and sewn together by the binder to make the book ready for binding, as in our second copy of the same sermon in the form of a stitched pamphlet.

SPEC LGP 167 2nd copy showing stitching








Before being folded into quires, as the individual sheets were being printed, the first page on each sheet was marked (‘signed’) with a letter of the alphabet. That way, when the quires came to be sewn together to make up the full book, the binder had a guide to help him retain the correct order – putting quire A, before B and so on.

A register of all the letters used by the printers was often included, as shown in an edition of Euclid printed in Paris in 1516.  Only 23 letters were used – leaving out I or J, U or V, and W. This printer’s alphabet – like many aspects of the earliest printed books – used the system developed by manuscript scribes, in this case to avoid confusion between similar looking letterforms in the Latin alphabet.

Almost an alphabet

Over the two 12-week semesters of this academic year, SC&A will be putting up a weekly blog post, working through from A to Z, to demystify some of the specialist words we use in cataloguing our printed books. Each term will be illustrated and explained using examples from our medieval to 21st century collections.

24 weeks for the whole alphabet? Don’t worry about our maths – or that there’s a secret week 13 – the printer’s alphabet is made up of only 23 letters. Find out why in week 1 at Manuscripts and more. And if there’s a word that puzzles you that you’d like explained, let us know – ask us when you’re in classes taught in Special Collections & Archives, when you come to the SC&A reading room, or by emailing us at scastaff@liverpool.ac.uk and we’ll try to include it in the series.