Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover(s)

By Storm Stoker

Did you know that book makers were BIG into recycling? With the invention of the printing press in 1440, manuscripts were soon viewed as unfashionable and were cut up and used to reinforce the spines and covers of new-fangled books.

At the UH Mānoa School of Law Library we have a few examples of books that used discarded pages of other books or discarded misprints of the same book in their bindings.  You would not even know this interesting secret exists unless the book got damaged, revealing what was under the spine or inside the book’s cover.  Here are two examples we found in our collection:

Parts of a book displayed
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What else has been found this way? Medieval illuminated manuscripts (painted using gold leaf illustrated with small paintings), in particular sheets of music, have been cut up and used to bind books in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Some bookbinders would use these illuminated manuscript pieces in decorative ways as the paste downs, or inside covers of books.  A 15th century Irish translation of Ibn Sīna (an ancient physician’s medical manuscript) was trimmed and folded and used to cover a Latin book printed in London in 1530.  Before this discovery, no one knew that his work had been translated into Irish.[1] A fragment of the Arthurian legend from the 13th century was recently found, revealing new details about how this story evolved over time.[2]

The Smithsonian is working on a technique to X-Ray old books so they can see the fragments of other texts without actually taking the bindings apart. The X-Rays pick up the metals in medieval iron gall ink and can read the text, even on several different layers within the cover or spine.[3]  The discoveries that could be made with this new technology is exciting.  Perhaps there is an additional, hidden library of information within your library.

Further reading

Al-Samarrai, N. (2019, February 01). Found: A 13th-Century Tale of Merlin and Arthur, Reused as Bookbinding. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/rare-merlin-manuscript-found (Accessed 4/24/19).

Daley, J. (2016, June 06). X-Rays Reveal “Hidden Library” on the Spines of Early Books. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/x-rays-reveal-hidden-library-spines-early-books-180959317/ (Accessed 4/24/19).

Flood, A. (2019, March 07). Surprise as unknown Irish translation of Ibn Sīna discovered in spine of book. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/07/surprise-as-unknown-irish-translation-of-ibn-sina-discovered-in-spine-of-book (Accessed 4/24/19).

Geggel, L. (2017, July 25). Imaging Reveals Medieval Manuscript Hidden in Book Binding. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/59925-imaging-reveals-medieval-text.html (Accessed 4/24/19).


Got a broken book that isn’t hiding any secrets, other than that mysterious tear? Bring it to the Book Doctors and we will fix it for you! 

4 female book doctors in surgical masks

[1] Flood, A. (2019, March 07). Surprise as unknown Irish translation of Ibn Sīna discovered in spine of book. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/07/surprise-as-unknown-irish-translation-of-ibn-sina-discovered-in-spine-of-book (Accessed 4/24/19).

[2] Al-Samarrai, N. (2019, February 01). Found: A 13th-Century Tale of Merlin and Arthur, Reused as Bookbinding. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/rare-merlin-manuscript-found (Accessed 4/24/19).

[3] Daley, J. (2016, June 06). X-Rays Reveal “Hidden Library” on the Spines of Early Books. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/x-rays-reveal-hidden-library-spines-early-books-180959317/ (Accessed 4/24/19).

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