From research to practice

I am a chemist by profession and a bookbinder by choice. Since getting my bachelor's degree, I have devoted myself to the study of bookbinding and its history, as well as the constructive techniques and the materials used for the craft. This interest took me to Volos, Greece in 2007, where I took the course Identifying bookbinding structure for conservation and cataloguing organized by Ligatus Research Centre. What caught my attention was, as it said at the website, that "most of the course was directed to the identification of distinctions within the large groups of plain commercial bindings and the possibilities of identifying the work of different countries, cities, even workshops without references to finishing tools."(

As the course advanced, I realized we knew little about Mexican binding and the bookbinding craft in Mexico. Just like in other countries, the few existing studies are about the aesthetic aspect of bindings, the design patterns and decoration techniques.

I also learned that by interpreting the characteristics of binding, it is possible to identify, among other things, the trading routes of the book from the moment of its printing until the place where it is kept. Considering this, and that the bookbinding craft arrived in Mexico with the Spaniards conquerors in the sixteenth century, I thought that through the analysis of the first Mexican printings bindings of that time, the Spanish influence in the patterns of work of Mexican bindings could be identified.

This hypothesis was the base and guide for my doctoral dissertation. The objective was to study the book as an artefact by applying the methodology of archaeology, with the aim of analyzing the materials and techniques used in the manufacture of Mexican bindings on the sixteenth-century printed books in Mexico, in order to determine if the characteristics identified could be considered typical patterns of Mexican work of this period.

In order to define the sample of this study, I analysed three hundred books of which only forty-seven kept the original binding or elements of it. The books bound in limp, laced-case bindings were taken as the main sample, as they formed a clear majority within the total, and allowed a greater possibility of identifying patterns of work.

The main sample was compared with the European sample. Although at the beginning of the research only Spanish editions were to be included in the comparative sample, at the time of the selection of books, the collection of sixteenth-century European printed books in the National Library of Mexico was in process of being catalogued. As a consequence, it was only possible to include twenty-nine books that had been printed in Spain in the comparative sample. To complete the forty-seven European books necessary to make the size equal of both set of sample, it was decided to include books from other European countries. In order to work with a comparative sample as similar as possible to those books in the main sample, the criteria for the selection of the books in the comparative sample were the same as those considered for the books in the main sample.

Two main difficulties were quickly identified in trying to draw conclusions from the analysis of the books in the main sample. The first was to determine when the covers of the books were made. It must be understood that limp-laced parchment covers were in common use in Mexico until the end of the eighteenth century and this practice was therefore in use over a long period. The second one was the lack of any published evidence about traditional bookbinding practices in Spain in the sixteenth century that could help either to identify their influence on Mexican practices or to understand characteristics of Mexican bindings.

With regards to the comparative sample, it is likely to be that some of the books in it arrived from Europe already bound, while others, most probably as a result of trade practices, may have arrived as sewn textblocks without covers. The features of the bindings in the comparative sample are often shared with those shown in the Mexican one, something that makes it difficult to determine whether these books were covered in Mexico or Europe. Firm conclusions could, therefore, not always be drawn from comparisons between the books in the main and the comparative samples.

Although the relative small size of the main sample made it impossible to draw firm conclusions about the frequency of the use of certain materials or techniques that could be defined as typical Mexican practice of the sixteenth century, it was large enough to establish relationships between the different features of the bindings, and compare them with the information reported in published sources about the cultural, social, and economic situation, as well as the book trade and book market in Mexico in that period.

Among the main conclusions of this research it can be mentioned that Mexican bindings from the sixteenth century show a great variety of techniques and material in its construction, which in turn reflect the search for local production methods that implied the adaptation of traditional European techniques to the materials and labour available in Mexico. In addition, it confirms that there were many binders working in Mexico and there was enough work for all of them. The techniques used to bind the Mexican books in the main sample show, as expected, the influence of Spanish bookbinding practices, but bookbinding in Mexico was influenced also by a wider area that includes Italy, France, Germany, Sicily, and the Low Countries .

Thanks to this study, it was possible to identify some recurring characteristics that could be considered as Mexican patterns of work. For example, to sew the bookblock from left to right, the use of animal-based adhesive on the spine of the bookblock, linings that fill approximately the entire of the high of the panel and to work the endbands with back beads, with tiedowns worked below the kettle stitches, through the lining and secure the first and last tiedowns of the endbands with a knot at the bottom of the tiedowns, at the exit hole of the spine, among others.

However, in order to determine precisely the features of Mexican bookbinding practice in this period, it was necessary to continue with the analysis of a larger number of books, starting with those which arrived from Europe and were bound in Mexico.

After I got the degree in 2013, I was hired as a full time researcher at the Institute of Bibliographic Research at the National University of Mexico [Instituto de Investigaciones Bibliogáficas, Univsersidad Nacional Autónoma de México], to study the Collections keep at the National Library. My main line of research is the history of Mexican bookbinding craft, and following my own recommendation, my first research project at the Institute was Limp, laced-case binding in parchment on sixteenth-century European printed books hold at the National Library of Mexico, in order to confirm if the identified characteristics in the bindings of Mexican printed books form the sixteenth century could be considered as typical Mexican patterns.

For the selection of the bindings to be consider in the sample for this study, I used Yhmoff Cabrera’s work from 1996, [Catalogue of European printed books of the sixteenth century held at the National Library of Mexico], because the author recorded, in a very simple way, the type of binding of the works at the time of making the catalogue. The sample was formed by two hundred and twenty-two books in limp, laced-case binding of parchment, following the same selection criteria used for the Mexican printings studied in the dissertation.

For the interpretation of the results from this research, I faced the same difficulty I had in my dissertation: the characteristics of the analyzed European bindings were pretty similar to those identified in the Mexican printings from the sixteenth century studied in the dissertation, specially the characteristics of the covers. This fact made it difficult to determine if the covers were made in Europe or Mexico.

However, the study allowed to confirm that some books arrived already bound, as the features of their bindings are particular of the country where they were printed. Other books arrived as sewn textblocks and were covered in Mexico. This last view can be supported by the fact that the book trade during the sixteenth century was well established across Europe and the Spaniards expanded it to the American Continent. In order to avoid the payment of the high taxes levies on books imported in Mexico, based on the weight and size of the shipment, booksellers may have preferred to ship books as sewn bookblocks without covers, to reduce the weight of the book, and thus an increased cost of shipping, as well as avoiding the cost of making the cover.

Following these same ideas, among the European books studied in the dissertation and the ones studied in this last research, I found a total of twenty-one books, specially Spanish and French with fibres of tanned leather that can be seen adhered to the spine of the textblock, which are clear evidence of an earlier leather cover, it is therefore, possible that the textblocks, with or without their earlier leather cover, arrived from Europe already sewn and the present replacement limp, laced-case covers were made in Mexico. Given the fact that anyone who travelled or sent goods to Mexico, even if not for commercial purposes, had to pay the transportation fees, the characteristics of these books raise the possibility that it was chosen to remove the heavy covers of the bindings, transport them without cover and, once in Mexico, asked to the bookbinder to put a new cover, but this time a less expensive one made of parchment.

Another fact that confirms the books arrived in Mexico as sewn textblocks is that books from Germany were identified sewn on cord sewing-supports and from France sewn on alum-tawed sewing-supports, both characteristics are distinctive of each country. Although the parchment covers share features with the Mexican ones, and sometimes makes it difficult to determine the origin of the cover, as I mentioned before, I realized that the parchment used to make the cover of the European binding is thinner and softer than that used in Mexican covers. This difference made by feeling opened a new research path that could be useful to distinguish between European and Mexican parchment.

The consistency in the results of both investigations proves that for Mexican binding the sixteenth century was the time of searching and adaptation of the European techniques and must probably the characteristics identified as possible Mexican patterns of work might be clearer and better defined in the limp, laced-case bindings of parchment on seventeenth-century Mexican printed books. This is my following research project.

Another shared characteristic I identified in the European books of both studies were the techniques used to repair the structure elements of bookbinding, some of them were also identified in Mexican printings during the sixteenth century. Considering that the books studied arrived in Mexico in that century, when shipment was slow and bureaucracy process was complicated and expensive, it is not hard to think that it was cheaper and convenient to repair a damaged book than replace it with a new one. Based on this hypothesis, Ma. Fernanda Martínez, a student from the National School of Conservation in Mexico [Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restuarción y Museografía] wrote the dissertation Early Repairs in Parchment bindings from the Sixteenth Century: Registration, Analysis, and Interpretation [Las reparaciones antiguas en las encuadernaciones en pergamino flojo del siglo XVI: registro, análisis e interpretación], to obtain her bachelor’s degree in conservation. The objective of this work was to make an archaeological study of early repairs of these bindings, by recording the techniques and materials used to relate them with their historical, social, and economical context, in order to appreciate and preserve them as historical evidence for the book’s use, commerce, and market of a society in a specific moment.

In addition, to show the value of these repairs as precedents of book conservation treatments, it was concluded that some repairs are certainly Mexican, such as working the tiedowns of the endbands under the sewing supports in order to provide slips with which to attach the cover. While others were identified only in European printings, like adding an endband-core slips of alum-tawed skin at each end stabbed through the spine toward the head- and tail-edges respectively, and laced through the cover and turn-ins. In these cases, the characteristics of the covers in parchment are very similar to Mexican covers, which make it complicated to determine if the repair is European or Mexican.

It is necessary to continue working on this subject, both in Mexico and Europe, to know the repair techniques used in the different countries with the purpose of having more information to trace the trading routes of the printings that arrived in Mexico during the Colonial period.

These research works have inspired other students of conservation to write their bachelor’s dissertations about topics related to the archaeological study of Mexican bindings or about bindings of different origins kept in Mexican libraries. Such is the case of the bachelor’s dissertation Conservation Proposal for the Choral Book of 1715 Copied by Miguel de Aguilar in the Eighteenth Century [Propuesta de conservación para el libro de coro de 1715 copiado por Miguel de Aguilar en el siglo XVIII]. In the colophon of this choral book, the credit as scribe of the book is given to Miguel de Aguilar. With this information, four choral books copied by Miguel de Aguilar were located to define a comparative sample. Once the selection of the books was made, the characteristics of the structural elements of two bindings were registered and interpreted to support the proposal and treatment for its conservation. It was not possible to access the other two books located because their depository was on maintenance.

According to the information analysis, it was determined that the book from 1715 studied in this work is the only survivor with the first binding, without modifications or interventions, so for now, it can be considered a primary source of information to study the binding of Mexican choral books from the eighteenth century. Based on this, the proposal for its conservation was limited to making a container for its conservation in order to avoid altering the historical evidence of the copy, and it has been preserved in this way until today. This dissertation received an honourable mention in the awards given by the National Institute of Anthropology and History [Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia], in Mexico, to the best bachelor’s dissertations.

Another thesis, based in the history of Mexican bookbinding, but this time of a master degree in information studies, is Catalogue of Bookbinder’s Labels from the Nineteenth Century in Mexican Libraries [Catálogo de etiquetas de encuadernador del siglo XIX en bibliotecas mexicanas]. The general objective of this work was to start a catalogue of labels used by bookbinders of the nineteenth century that included the formal description of the label, as well as the bindings where they were found. This would allow determining the active binders and workshops and try to identify the structural and decorative elements that could be recognized as patterns of Mexican work of that century. The contribution of this work to the history of Mexican bookbinding is the record of forty-four establishments, workshops, and binders that were active in Mexico during the nineteenth century, and the knowledge of some characteristics of their binding work.

Each of these names represents a line of research to follow with the purpose of knowing more about these binders and their work. In this work, the value of binder's labels as document is shown, as well as the social, economical, technical, and aesthetic information they provide, which will help the conservation, not only of the labels itself, but also of the bindings where they are found.

The glossary developed by Ligatus Research Centre was used to register and describe the bindings in these works, according with its hierarchical structure which follows the process of the construction of the book starting by the textblock. For the research in Spanish it has been necessary to translate the Litagus Glossary to Spanish. Although at the beginning we translated the terms according to the needs of each case, we are now a work group based in the Institute of Bibliographical Studies collaborating with Ligatus for the translation of the Glossary to Spanish. This group includes two book conservators, two binders, two professional translators, and a specialist in discourse analysis who helps us with the Spanish syntax. To find the best term to refer to certain structural element or its characteristic, we go to a philologist who also collaborates in developing terms when there is non in Spanish.

In December last year, we started to work with a group in Spain, based in the Complutense University of Madrid [Universidad Complutense de Madrid], with the coordination of Dr. Antonio Carpallo. The translated terms are sent to Spain in the delivery form requested by Dr. Velios, so it can be included in the corresponding column the most used term by the Spanish. The Spanish group is also the advisor panel, to whom we go to in case we need help to choose a term. The delivery form returns to Mexico for its last revision and then is sent to Dr. Velios for its inclusion in the database of the Ligatus Glossary. We planed the delivery of the next twenty terms for April this year.

The inclusion to the Ligatus Glossary of the most used terms in each Spanish-speaking country to refer to the structural elements of bookbinding is a medium term project. In addition to Spain, we are now doing some exercises with a group in Argentina, coordinated by Marian Silveti, conservator at the National University of General San Martin [Universidad Nacional de San Martín]. With this Argentinean group of specialists, we are working on the project Material Study of Bookbinding in the Seventeenth Century According to the Dirk de Bary Treaty [Estudio de la materialidad de la encuadernación del siglo diecisiete, con base en el tratado de Dirk Bary], in which the terms that will be in the Glossary are being to be used.

In addition to the academic studies mentioned above, another field of study has been the dissemination, for which I have given talks and courses in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. I have been the curator of exhibitions in different libraries and museums in Mexico using the books of their own collections. As these exhibitions are address to a general audience, I choose books with ordinary bindings, everyday ones, of different times in different types of binding. I prefer those which are damaged but stable to show the elements that are normally hidden by the endleaves and the covers. In this way, it can be seen the complexity of their structures, the changes it has gone through, and how bookbinding changed through time, depending on the demand of bound books. It can be also evident the value of the bindings as an integral part of the work they protect. I usually guide some visits to the exhibitions during the time they are open. This has been an interesting experience because our work now is known in other contexts. The visitors know and enjoy their documentary heritage and its conservation is encouraged.

I could say, these have been years of intense and gratifying work. Internationally, I am glad to be collaborating with the translation to Spanish of the Ligatus Glossary, which also gave me the opportunity of working with Spanish and Argentinean colleagues. To understand each other better and standardize the work criteria, I have given courses in Spain and Argentina about registration and description of bookbindings, based on the construction hierarchical order presented on the Ligatus Glossary and applying the methodology I used for the books studied in my thesis.

Locally, my doctoral dissertation not only worked to obtain the degree and become the fifth graduate from the PhD of the Ligatus Research Centre, but has also encouraged and inspired young students of conservation and information studies bachelor and master degrees. In addition, it has been taken as a base for other studies used for the assessment and decision making for the conservation and preservation of Mexican bookbindings.

In addition to the research projects I mentioned, and the translation of the Glossary, what follows is to keep on working on the dissemination, organizing exhibitions and curses, and to keep on working with young students, from Mexico and other Latin-American countries, in order to encourage them to do research work as their dissertations, in the subject of bookbinding history in their own countries, and try to increase the number of graduates from the Ligatus Research Centre.
Thank you very much.

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