Bookbinding Facet - Squared Spines

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

Squared spines are common in publishing, often found on large books (think coffee-table books). Publishers use squared spines as a place to title the book and add decoration. For the bookbinder, however, squared spines are a troublesome structure to engage in. The 'square' is a rigid material placed in the spine, creating a boxy feel to the book. The rigid structure is difficult to work-around: firstly, the covers need to hinge open around the spine and, secondly, the pages need to follow that movement. When square-spined books are opened, it's anyone's guess on whether the cover will bash into the spine. That sort of mechanical action can put the book into an incredibly stressed position, which is felt severely at the end papers.

The book pictured below is in it's resting position. Clearly, the covers are not positioned to work around the spine. If they covers ever do open fully they will need to lever around the square of the spine, with detrimental effect to the end papers.

The problem can be solved by careful construction, such that all the pieces of the book are fitted together in a precise, moving jig-saw. Books are in-motion pieces of engineering: wherever there is a piece, it must fit in with the motion of it's counterparts. This shouldn't be a problem with the industrial precision of machines in publishing houses. It is surprising how often simple design considerations like this are overlooked.

Here is a book that has better measurements in it's construction:

Notice in the above book that there is loose section of fabric that forms quite a sharp hinge between the squared spine and the cover boards. That is a feature of square-spined books. A decent material is needed to withstand the stress of that hinge point for a long time. Leather can do a good job of it, as can quality fabric. Very good paper will do better than some of the standard binding materials I have seen. Over time, though, the main concern is which materials degrade and become brittle in the presence of UV light. Also notice that the page block is distinct from the spine. The page block is only supported and shifted by the end-papers, because the shape of the book is rigid, inflexible, and incapable of lending support to the page-block. I have seen many publications like this with no reinforcing of the end-papers. They are doomed to break easily.

If so many things can go wrong with a binding, how does one make it right? The above examples are simple publication bindings, done for fast distribution and sale. Bookbinders that work on more long-lived bindings or bind books for libraries can draw on a suite of long-studied techniques. The Library Binding - developed as an easy but durable binding to fill the shelves of explanding libraries in the 19th and 20th centuries - uses the fabric hinge as well, but it hinges around a spine formed from the pages themselves. The structural messiness of sqaured spines is done away with, and the end papers are also better molded to work around the hinge. The end papers are also reinforced with a fabric joint in most library bindings. The final result is is a book which experiences less stress and is tougher.

What about notebooks, which need to be both flexible and strong? Well, they shouldn't have squared spines, and in my opinion they should not even have decoration on the spine, because this tempts the designer to sacrifice structure for aesthetic. So many problems in bookbinding techniques have arisen from trying to fit a particular aesthetic without putting in the work.

In craft, it is difficult to conceive of - and harder to justify - processes which do not wholistcally add to the object; decoration is either to match a well-made book, or it is actually a part of the books structural design (such as sewn silk headbands, pictured below). This is a world view where knowledge and creativity are honoured through a wholisitc craft, as well as through aesthetic and symbolic meaning.

~ This post is related to The Book is a Box: Divergent Evolution in The East and The West.

For background on end papers, see the end-paper section in the Cover to Cover exhibition archive, curated by Lee Hayes from the Rare Books and Special Collections department of the Barr-Smith Library.

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