Binding, Binders and Buckram

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Each year around 4,500 books pass through the binding division of the Library’s Collection Care department.  Around half of these are new acquisitions – paperbacks and journals – in need of brand new bindings, while the others have been pulled out of our existing stock because their dilapidated bindings are due some TLC or an entire overhaul. When commissioning new bindings for a book already in the collection, we take care to preserve as many of its original features as we can: evidences of provenance such as bookplates; illustrated, or simply distinctive, cloth covers. Even when dealing with brand new books, we are conscious that we are working within a tradition of binding commissioning at the Library that stretches back 175 years.

Binding tradition

The majority of our books are sent to small binding companies with expert craftspeople, who have all the hand-sewing and letter-blocking skills to turn out new bindings with flair. We have long-standing relationships with our binders, and have developed a good understanding of the way they work. This allows us to match the binding needs of our book stock to the strengths and skills of each binding company.

You might have thought that the advent of telephone and email would have completely transformed the way we communicate with our binding contractors, but in one respect this has hardly changed at all. Our staff still issue each of our books with a handwritten binding instruction slip – completed with details of the covering colour, spine lettering and any repairs we might require – before packing and despatching the volumes to the binding firms.

The Library’s handwritten binding instruction slips have changed little with the passing of time. We chanced upon one from 1909 a few years ago, and were amazed to find that the layout and content were almost exactly the same as those we use today. There have been a few minor tweaks along the way. One small change relates to the placement of lettering on books that are too thin for title information to be blocked across the spine.  Up until the early 1980s British Standards recommended the lettering to run up the spine in the belief that this would help readers when scanning the shelves; a suggestion that The London Library dutifully adopted.  Since then new thinking has prevailed and as a general rule we now ask for the print to run down the spine. It’s a relatively rare example of the Library breaking with decades of in-house binding tradition.

The birth of buckram

Another area of continuity is our use of buckram. Virtually all the rebinding work commissioned by the Library is done in buckram, a linen cloth made tough and washable through chemical strengthening.  Buckram was adopted by British binders in the mid-nineteenth century as a replacement for traditional cover materials that had been most popular until then: cloth, which could be prone to fraying, fading and tears, and leather, which was expensive.

Cost wasn’t the only problem with leather. As the Industrial Revolution continued to transform the nation’s towns, libraries, museums and private collectors in urban areas discovered that their leather bindings were being degraded by the acidic pollution of gas lighting and factory fumes. Victorian librarians in the metropolis sought an alternative that would prove durable under these changing conditions, and the result of their investigations was buckram. Though 25% dearer than ordinary book-cloth, buckram was still considerably cheaper than leather and could be procured in several different colours.  These included a brilliant yellow and a dirty white, but also, black, brown, green, red, purple, slate and dark blue.

Applying colour with care

Today’s binders offer us a rich array of colour options. We consult swatch books of cloth samples to help us choose the best matches for our collections. When we’re dealing with a replacement binding, we’ll usually be guided by the colour of its previous binding. In the case of badly faded cloths, this can require a bit of detective work, checking the turned-in areas on the inside of the boards or other volumes in the series for the true hue. For new additions to the collection we select a cloth that corresponds with the dominant colour of the publisher’s paper covers. There’s only one collection where we consistently bind in one colour, and that’s Religion. The London Library’s Religion collection is bound in black, and has been for generations. As with so many things, the reason for this has long been forgotten. Perhaps it was a reflection of how bibles and prayer books were commonly produced in black cloth or leather?

Respect for history and respect for books

As we’ve seen, the way we commission binding work today is based on principles and customs established during the rapid evolution of libraries from the mid- to late Nineteenth Century, and at The London Library we continue to recognise the value of a good quality binding. Sir Redmond Barry, head of Victoria Public Library, Melbourne, summed up the importance of a good binding when addressing the Conference of Librarians at the London Institution in 1877:

“The individual reader in a spacious, well-proportioned, amply ventilated apartment, with the temperature regulated according to the season, takes more care of a book and feels more interest in the subject of his study if the volume be handsomely bound, than if in boards which soon break up or in a common cloth cover, which imbibes damp, retains dust, warps and shrinks, or if enveloped in a paper wrapper which – especially with those of large size – makes the book unsightly to the eye and unwieldy to the hand.

The idea that a well-bound book will be a better-loved book still inspires us today. Our binding work not only affords vital protection to many millions of pages within the London Library’s collections, but also enhances readers’ enjoyment of our books. Respect for binding traditions, from lettering conventions to the choice of book-cloths, lends our bookstacks their distinctive appearance and transforms a book into a London Library book.


The number of damaged books that can be rebound every year is limited by the Library’s rebinding budget. Donations from individuals or trusts & foundations can enable the rebinding of damaged books that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. If you are interested in making a donation, or to find out more, please contact the Development Office (, tel. 020 7766 4734).

Books with their instruction slips queued up for rebinding

Books with their instruction slips queued up for rebinding


Filling in a binder's instruction slip

Filling in a binder’s instruction slip


Binders' swatch books offer a wide range of buckram colours

Binders’ swatch books offer a wide range of buckram colours


The Library's Religion collection has traditionally been bound in black buckram

The Library’s Religion collection has traditionally been bound in black buckram


Books with their new buckram bindings and London Library labels

Books with their new buckram bindings and London Library labels


Finished books get ready to go back out onto The Library's shelves

Finished books get ready to go back out onto The Library’s shelves


Good binding on the agenda at this conference 140 years ago

Good binding on the agenda at this conference 140 years ago