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The Collation

“To re-back, or not to re-back”

Two photos of a spine of a book laid on top of each other. Both have an exposed spine but the bottom image has a endcap at the top of the spine and thin paper has been laid over the exposed edges of the paper.
Two photos of a spine of a book laid on top of each other. Both have an exposed spine but the bottom image has a endcap at the top of the spine and thin paper has been laid over the exposed edges of the paper.

This is a question that a book conservator may ask themselves when performing a treatment on a book that is missing its spine covering. I was faced with one such book, STC 1390.

While the collection was off-site during the renovation, a few fragile books stayed behind for treatment by the Folger Conservation Team.

STC 1390, titled Ioannis Barclaii Argenis, written by John Barclay and published in 1622, has a binding comprised of full leather drummed over laminated boards. STC 1390 stayed behind for treatment because almost its entire leather spine was missing, except for the endcap at the tail of the book, which was tenuously attached.

A photo of a book with three labels. The first label points at the exposed binding of the book, the second label indicates the base of the book as an endcap, and the third label indicates the base of the binding as an endband.
Three-quarter view of STC 1390 before treatment with labeled parts of the binding anatomy.

At first glance, this volume seemed like the perfect candidate for re-backing because nearly all the spine covering material was absent. A re-back is where new material, such as leather, paper, textile, or a composite, is used to replace the missing material on the spine. The choice of material is important because the spine covering affects the opening of the book and protects the sewing. This is a procedure we often perform as part of conservation treatment because it is a tried-and-true method of stabilizing the binding; however, to insert new covering material is an invasive procedure that will forever alter the structure of the book and should not be performed without careful consideration.

Upon assessing this book, all the conservators were delighted by the intact exposed sewing. Usually, the sewing structure is obscured by the spine covering material, but luckily for us, we could study the sewing on raised bands used to bind this book. Sewing is of special interest to book scholars because it reveals an integral step of how the book was assembled, so I was now faced with the question: “to re-back, or not to re-back.” I could prioritize restoring the book to a semblance of its original appearance, or I could prioritize access to the exposed sewing structure, which could prove useful for future scholars.

I decided on the latter and began to focus on steps I could perform to stabilize the spine without obscuring the sewing. Before I got carried away, I assessed the strength of the board attachment. Another reason a conservator might choose to perform a re-back would be to help reattach or reinforce damaged boards.

STC 1390’s boards were still securely attached by its sewing supports. The original sewing thread had been wrapped around supports made of alum tawed leather.

A wooden frame constructed of two pillars with overhanging arms and a beam between them and a wooden base. From the beam hang metal hooks, some of which have string tied to them.
A typical sewing frame used to sew books.

In the Western European and American bookbinding traditions, books were sewn on frames. After printing, the sheets of paper would be folded to form gatherings and these gatherings would form the textblock. A frame was used to tension the sewing supports vertical to the spine of the textblock, then thread would pass through each gathering and wrap around the supports. Before adding layers of linings and covering material, a handsewn book’s spine would look similar to the exposed spine of STC 1390.

A photo of a book propped up on foam supports, open to the final pages and the end board. A piece of the end board is circled and labeled as
The interior of the lower board of STC 1390 shows the exposed lace-on supports due to the missing pastedown.

The sewing supports also play an important role in attaching the boards of the book to the textblock. For a “laced-on” book, the supports are wider than the width of the spine and are fed through channels in the boards to form the board to textblock attachment. STC 1390 also showcases this aspect of bookbinding. On the lower board, the pastedown is missing, therefore, it is possible to see the channels in laminated paper boards that the sewing supports were laced through. Due to the damage at the hinges of STC 1390, only the supports were keeping the boards connected to the textblock. This is dangerous because over time, continued opening of the book would put stress on this attachment and would likely cause the boards to fall off.

A photo of the spine of a book with the binding exposed. Very thin pieces of paper stick out on either end of the spine.
STC 1390 during treatment with layers of East Asian paper adhered to the spine folds of the textblock between the sewing supports.

I decided the best approach to stabilize the binding would be to reinforce the hinges and dissipate the tension from the sewing supports. First, I lined the spine between the sewing supports with thin East Asian paper. This tissue protects the round of the book without obscuring the spine folds. The intact endcap at the tail inspired me to create a new endcap for the head of the binding. The endcap refers to the covering material at the head and tail of the spine of a book, formed by turning the covering material onto the spine. This portion of the book’s anatomy is also comprised of the endband. An endband is an ornamental and/or functional band at the head and tail of a book, highlighted in the image showing STC 1390’s endcap. The original endband was made using multiple colors of silk threads wrapped around a core and attached to the book by means of loops of thread, called tie-downs, going into the gatherings of the textblock.

Endbands not only provide ornamentation, but they protect the head and tail of the textblock, which receives a lot of wear and tear during use. Due to the ornamental and functional role of the endband, I decided to make a new one for the headcap. Instead of sewing it on the book like the extant original, I made my new one off the book. I wrapped a piece of cord with linen fabric then wound silk threads around the core to match the pattern of the original endband.

After attaching my new endband, I prepared new leather to mimic the extant leather at the tail. These new materials were not only adhered to the spine, but also attached to the boards under the covering leather. This reinforced the board-to-textblock attachment and ensured the tension of opening was relieved from the sewing supports.

Two photos of a spine of a book laid on top of each other. Both have an exposed spine but the bottom image has a endcap at the top of the spine and thin paper has been laid over the exposed edges of the paper.
The exposed spine of STC 1390 before (top image) and after (bottom image) treatment.

Ultimately, I was very satisfied with the aesthetic and functional balance of my completed treatment.

A photo of a book with a partially exposed spine in a gray box with a clear side.
STC 1390 housed in its new protective enclosure after treatment and ready to be returned to the stacks.

One of the tenants of conservation is the ability to reverse or re-treat an object. It is not always possible to perform treatment that is completely reversible, but we use materials and techniques to make it possible for future caretakers to intervene again if necessary. Documenting our process is important for future intervention efforts, as well. The next conservator may come along and examine my treatment and deem it inappropriate. If that happens, they can follow my notes and remove my headcap repair and opt to perform a more traditional re-back or do nothing at all. Conservation is never static, each book is unique, and there is not a prescribed “right way” to treat a book. As conservators, we must continually seek out new and specialized solutions for the books in our care.


A wonderful and worthy post – how very exceptional. And, how interesting to enlarge the bindings – horizontal and vertical, and to see clearly the images and faces of 1622 affiliates of Shakespeare. A fine piece of primary evidence worth notice in its own abilities and merits.

James Constable — January 30, 2024


Thanks–fascinating. Having been a reader at the Folger for 22 years, I admire its book conservators. And I feel this post introduces to me to a new vocabulary and new uses of familiar words, including re-back, spine, drummed over, endcap, tail, sewing structure, board attachment, alum tawed, frames, text block, gathering, pastedown, and hinges.

Richard Waugaman, M.D. — January 30, 2024


What an excellent exposition of the art and philosophy of book preservation! The care and the thought put into each step in the process is beautifully explained and illustrated. As a book-lover, I stand in awe of your sort of patience and expertise – well done!

Wayne Eaton — January 30, 2024


Neat, thanks for sharing this! Very interesting for bookbinders.

Elissa K. — February 16, 2024


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