Untold lives blog

07 January 2016


According to Picasso, a picture can serve as a stepping stone to other worlds.  A picture of a bookbinding, in itself a work of art, can do the same.  The thousands of images of bindings which the British Library released on Wikimedia Commons in August 2015 can take the viewer on unexpected journeys: to discover what Queen Elizabeth I’s books look like or to answer the question when is a binding not a binding? When it comes from Mrs Wordsworth’s wardrobe!  Robert Southey’s female friends were reputed to have covered his library books using dress fabric.

Scholars who appreciate the relevance of bookbindings to their field of study are familiar with websites which can help their research, for example the British Library’s image database of bookbindings but you do not need specialist knowledge to admire a bookbinding. 

  Bookbinding Collage

Serendipity occurs when we happen upon something amazing while seeking something else, and Wikimedia provides an exciting opportunity for bindings to be discovered in this way.  Publishing the Library’s bookbindings images on Wikimedia Commons means that they can be readily accessed and be easy to browse.  Hopefully the creative copyright commons licenced pictures will be available on other sites, guiding people to this fascinating but little considered subject.

At a time of limited resource, institutions can achieve a great deal with existing digital material, if they are prepared to be cooperative and generous. With this aim in mind, Mahendra Mahey and colleagues in BL Labs have explored how the bindings database could be exploited to reach a wider audience.   With the help of knowledgeable volunteers and students, notably Dimitra Charalampidou, who were given the opportunity of working with the Library’s technicians on real data (images and text), existing treasure troves were assessed, and others like Ed King’s research on stunning Victorian trade bindings were added, to expand the resource even further. We particularly thank Ed for his wonderful contribution.

The images are out there. We hope you enjoy them!

PJM Marks
Western Heritage Collections

View the collection British Library Bookbindings



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