Recycled bindings

The Library is coming up to its fourth annual Recycle A Book competition.  It’s become a popular event with our regular readers, local care homes, schools, staff and children of all ages, and we have many repeat entrants coming back each year.  The inventiveness of the entries always astounds me, and many hours of work go into creating each beautiful object.  But books have been associated with recycling for as long as they have existed. Reuse of old materials that may have taken many hours to create originally can lead to the simplest of uses as a piece of scrap for making notes or rough drafts, to the creation of some beautiful objects.

In our special collections we have a variety of items re-using paper and vellum to good purpose.  One of the most common uses was as waste around a text block to protect the pages before and during the binding process.  Sometimes this waste was incorporated into the binding itself, often along the spine, and then trimmed to be out of sight in the finished product.  It would only become visible as the binding wears and splits revealing the inner workings of the construction.  Sometimes the waste wrapper survives when the book binding was never completed – the gatherings were sewn together to complete the text block and the temporary protection of the recycled piece of rag paper or vellum remains.

almanac wrapper
Part of almanac page


One book is a collection of five pamphlets published in the 1610s and 20s that have been sewn together and a double wrapper placed around them. The inner layer is a page of an almanac dated around 1626. The last item in the block was published in 1624, so the paper layer was probably added shortly after the collection was created.

Inside of vellum
Inside of vellum

To provide more support for the paper layer, and a tougher outer cover, the almanac is pasted to a sheet of reused vellum which gives us tantalising glimpses of writing where the paper has become detached from the vellum.  There is writing on both sides, of different styles, and it appears to have been re-used at least once after its first use. The oldest writing (on the inner surface) could possibly be of 13th century date. The reverse of this vellum seems to have been used for making notes or drafting a document and is about the century or so later. What the documents were hasn’t been identified – there’s still more research to be done, but it is intriguing. This vellum sheet has not been turned into a full binding – there are no boards or spine.

Outside back of vellum wrapper
Outside back of vellum wrapper
Outside front of vellum wrapper
Outside front of vellum wrapper







Sometimes the reused vellum is still a quality piece of material and is reused in a full binding rather than just as a protective, temporary wrapping.  In the case of our book of astrological charts, Comitis de Flisco decas de fato, annisque fatalibus tam hominibus quam regnis mundi, (Frankfurt : 1665), the Jesuits who bought the book in 1666 probably bought the text block only and used a spare piece of vellum they had lying around to create a binding. For us, this creates a beautiful cover of early music notation, although it was borne out of the necessity by original Jesuit owners to save money.

Astrology music binding

At the other end of the scale, necessity can force a book owner to use whatever comes to hand.  If there isn’t much to spare in the first place and the book itself is salvaged from a greater whole, the ‘binding’ helps highlight how precious the item was to the owner.  Using a paper bag from a local shop may not seem the most obvious material, but it is sufficient to the task for the owner who re-used it for one little item.  The book itself is much diminished from its original glory as a miniature book of Bible extracts – the pages still show the remains of gilding on the edges, but now they are dirty and disjointed.  Some engravings remain as well, but the pages are held together roughly by crude overhand sewing to which the folded shopping bag is attached.  It may not look much, but it is intriguing as we don’t know who owned it or how they came by these few pages that they deemed precious enough to attempt to protect with whatever came to hand.

shopping bag wrapper

Our book recycling competition asks the entrants to take a book and make it into a piece of sculpture, but they could just as easily create a new cover for the book, or suggest one for another title. One things remains true, though. Never judge a book by its cover as you never know what it was in a previous life.


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