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Cover to Cover: Exposing the Bookbinder's Ancient Craft

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The University of Adelaide

Rare Books & Special Collections

Level 1, Barr Smith Library

Adelaide, SA 5000

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Bookbinding is a humble pursuit. Rarely does it receive the attention and glamour afforded to other ancient crafts. Unlike the silversmith or the glassblower, whose talents are immediately obvious, the binder’s craft of construction is largely concealed. Durability and function are foremost in the bookbinder’s mind; theirs is a role of guardianship – they serve to protect the book’s contents, guaranteeing its access for generations of readers.

But what if a book’s binding was a story in itself? Could we appreciate and value the intricacy and complexity of its sewing system, its control centre in many ways, if we knew why it was sewn in a particular style? Hidden from view, we hardly spare a thought for its purpose, and yet, the bookbinder does. In fact, there are always reasons why these skilled craftsmen and women choose to bind a book in a certain way.

A binding tells us as much, if not more, about a book’s provenance than an owner’s signature or bookplate. It assists librarians and historians to date and place a work. It provides insight into an owner’s economic and social standing. It imparts information about the spread of ideas, customs, technologies and artistic tastes of the time. It reflects the perceived significance of the book’s content and, importantly, it tells us exactly how a book was intended to be used and how it was actually used.

From forwarding to finishing, and all of the steps in between, this exhibition celebrates the bookbinder, and the unique combination of utility, dexterity and artistry required to excel at this ancient craft. On display will be a variety of exposed bindings; old, rare and fine bindings; bookbinding supplies, and tools and equipment from Rare Books & Special Collections and the curator’s personal collection.

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The University of Adelaide

Rare Books & Special Collections

Level 1, Barr Smith Library

Adelaide, SA 5000

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