Bound together by books

Although the Kindle may be a snazzy techno-device for reading, it does not measure up to a 2,000 year history of bookbinding.

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A new exhibition at the UK's Bodleian Library in the university city of Oxford aims to enlighten visitors about the 2,000-year-old art of bookbinding. Entitled An Artful Craft, it combines the Albert Ehrman and Sir Paul Getty collections of fine and historic texts. The exhibition is a reminder of the joys of the book and it suggests the scope and significance of book binding. In preserving the integrity of the text, bookbinding serves a functional purpose. It also tells us about the culture and politics of the periods in which the books were produced.

It's a timely exhibition considering the recent surge in the popularity of e-books and electronic readers such as the Sony Reader and Amazon's Kindle. "Electronic information will get more popular as time goes on," says the exhibition's curator, Richard Ovenden, who is also the keeper of the special collections and Bodleian's associate director. "It is an extremely convenient way to access information and to search through vast bodies of knowledge.

"The book as technology, however, has survived for over 2,000 years," he says. "It is still the way that most people prefer to absorb information and the traditional book format is going to coexist with electronic information - with books and e-journals - for many centuries to come." As digital and online advancements gain ground in the global book market, An Artful Craft offers an education on the history of the traditional book. In recent years, the number of people in the academic world studying the transmission of books has grown enormously. There is an ever increasing body of work that focuses on how books have been produced and received. The exhibition opens many of these ideas to a new audience.

"The exhibition explores the way in which texts were transmitted in the past using technology such as printing or handwriting and the way in which texts were protected by the use of bookbinding," Ovenden says. "Owners identified the importance of texts by using special and unique decorations on the book covers and these have become more interesting today because of the ubiquity of digital information.

"Our exhibition will draw in members of the public who want to learn more about books, knowledge and information and are inspired by seeing the work of the great craftsmen from Egypt and Syria who used their skills to make extraordinarily beautiful books," he says. The collections illustrate how images and idioms used by Islamic bookbinders and other craftsmen influenced western European bindings. Complex, interlaced patterns in centrepieces and corner pieces were important features of Islamic binding design that affected the appearance of both luxury and more commonplace books for more than five centuries. Other features, such as the use of lacquer, paint, and sunken panels, also originated in the East.

"Many of the physical attributes in the West - tooling and fine leather, for example - were techniques that were developed in the Middle East by Islamic craftsmen," Ovenden says. "They were the first people to decorate their coverings in gold and to use particular styles and these in turn were adopted by western craftsmen in order to make books beautiful and desirable objects." The exhibition is a reminder that for all the promise and potential of electronic books, there are attributes that a digital file will never have. The bookbindings on display at the Bodleian are valuable artefacts historically, politically and culturally.

In a similar way, the books we take with us on holiday, read in dim lighting, fall asleep holding or pass onto friends can be seen as personal and shared treasures. The traces of life we discover in family volumes, in handwritten annotations, pencilled price marks, creased spines, turned-down pages and forgotten bookmarks connect us with past readers. In the process, they become bound up in our appreciation of the book.

"Digital technology has created an awareness that we have a very rich, interesting and compelling past tradition," Ovenden says. "We hope that people will enjoy exploring it."