Backwards Books

Qualifying for an obscure facts about books award, is an article in The Daily Telegraph with the title ‘How Book Lovers Turned Things Around’ by Anita Singh.  Appearing on 19/4/17, it said:

“If you want to display books on shelves the traditional way, try turning your books back to front.  Placing books on shelves with the spines facing outwards is a relatively recent phenomenon, according to Mark Purcell, former libraries curator for the National Trust who now oversees the research collections at Cambridge University Library.

Mark Purcell

“‘Until fashions changed in the 18th century, book titles and authors were not printed on the spine but written in ink on the edge of pages.  The turnaround happened when the wealthy decided having titles embossed in gold leaf would add a certain cachet.  If you’d gone to almost any library in England, Wales or Scotland until 300 years ago the books were kept backwards,’ Purcell said at the Hay Festival.  ‘In those days the cultural supposition was that books had the title printed on the edges of the pages in ink.’

“The first known English book with a title gilded on the spine was printed in 1604, he said, and that was considered ‘cutting edge’.  Then followed, in the 17th and 18th centuries, what historians call ‘the great turnaround’, where the method of display was reversed.”

I suspect that a change in binding technology may also have been partially responsible for this change.  It may have simply been more difficult to print the author’s name and the title of the book on spine of the book.  But, judging by the picture above, it is easy to see why book owners preferred to display their possessions with the title and author’s name on the spine.

 

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