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Bookbindings: “Of Making Many Books There Is No End”

Drawing from the Rare Book Collection, this exhibition on the material culture of book binding examines methods of production, materials, and styles, offering information about the provenance and history of the books.

A book’s binding is a particularly satisfying piece of material culture. Even an unread book has been held by its owner. Like the frame of a painting, a binding can offer up valuable information about provenance and production. Also like a frame, a binding is designed to complement its contents; some do so more elegantly than others. Drawing from the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Books Collection, this exhibit examines some methods of binding books and some of the broader significance of particular materials and styles.

Books have been bound in jewel-encrusted precious metals and in human skin. More commonly, they have been bound in leather affixed to wooden boards, wrappers made from parchment or paper, and decorative paper or cloth over paste-paper boards. The medium may change, but “of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

A binding can serve as a preservation measure, a means of organization, a sign of ownership, a vehicle for conspicuous consumption, or a sales pitch for the text it contains. From the perspective of cultural history, bookbindings can help us observe changes in style and changes in readers’ relationships with books. They are interesting points of entry to a library collection: what can we learn from a closed book?

This exhibit was curated by Sarah Burke Cahalan.


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