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Plain and Simple to Grand and Glorious

Opera Cologne, 1540. Textblock spine.

A new exhibition at Princeton University’s Firestone Library on Eight Centuries of Hand Bookbinding           [Now online]

Exhibition Dates: November 10,2002 through 20 April, 2003.

The craft and art of binding books by hand is vividly chronicled in a new exhibition at Princeton University's Firestone Library. Entitled "Hand Bookbindings: Plain and Simple to Grand and Glorious," the exhibition runs from November 10, 2002 to April 20, 2003 in the Library's main gallery. While conventional wisdom states that books cannot be judged by their covers, visitors will have a chance to do just that - 160 chances, in fact - from the most humble of volumes to the most luxurious; from the monastic manuscripts of the twelfth century to the special editions of the twentieth.

Curator Scott Husby, the Library's rare books conservator, will inaugurate the exhibition with a lecture entitled "Bookbinding: Craft and Art" at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 10 in Betts Auditorium in Princeton University's School of Architecture

The exhibition draws on the Library's rich collection of rare books to illustrate both the continuity and the evolution of European bookbinding, especially the work of English, German, French, and Italian binderies. National differences are also demonstrated, such as England's partiality for calfskin versus Italy's widespread use of goatskin.

While many exhibitions focus on the decorative aspects of bookbinding, known as finishing, Husby's is careful to explore the process of putting books together, known as forwarding. The way books are forwarded and finished reveals a great deal about the value attached to them and the status of their owners, but, as Husby points out, "there are highly decorated bindings that have been forwarded cheaply and sometimes shoddily. And conversely, there are quite plain and simple bindings that have been forwarded with great skill and sophistication."

The juxtaposition of "plain and simple" and "grand and glorious" is one of the hallmarks of this exhibition. In Husby's words, "The bindings on books owned by the student or scholar of modest means here take their place alongside bindings intended for the shelves of wealthy patrons and collectors."

The goal of this exhibition is not to dazzle visitors, though it certainly has the power to do so, but to educate them in the techniques of bookbinding: from the skillful use of thread and board to bind a volume's leaves together, to the remarkable variety of decorative tooling that bookbinders have employed across the centuries, including flowers, animals, and Biblical and mythological figures.

Another lesson of the exhibition is the enduring character of hand bookbinding, which dates from the first century of the Christian era and flourished until the rise of mechanical bookbinding in the nineteenth century. According to Husby, "A monk from the Middle Ages who bound books coming out of the scriptorium could walk into a hand bindery today, see familiar tools and equipment, and know how to set about using them to assemble a book." In an age of mass production, this exhibition is a powerful reminder of the strength and beauty of human handiwork, both now and in the past.

Scott Husby will offer tours of the exhibition at 3:00 p.m. on the following Sundays: December 8, February 2, and April 6. "Hand Bookbindings" is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., until 8:00 p.m. on Wednesdays, and from noon to 5:00 p.m. on weekends. For further information about these tours or the exhibition itself, please call (609) 258-5049.

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