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

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!

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.