From leather to brass, UChicago Library exhibition judges books by their covers

Book covers can reveal more about text and material history, says rare books curator

A new exhibition at the University of Chicago Library quickly dispels the notion that a book should not be judged by its cover. Walking into the gallery of the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, viewers are greeted by books bound with precious metal, parchment manuscripts, or decorated with detailed illustrations.

On display through April 29, “A Book by its Cover: Decorative Book Bindings from the Medieval Codex to Contemporary Artists’ Books” shows how book bindings evolved from a necessity to a site of artistic innovation, contextualizing bookbinding styles, artistic movements, and historical importance along the way—and overall, how books’ covers can be read as integral to the narrative texts they envelop.

“I hope with this exhibition that I will get people to think about, ‘Why does it make it worthwhile to study the text in the context of its materiality?’” said Elizabeth Frengel, who curated the exhibition. “I do think you can certainly make many observations, and say something more than what is just the text taken in the abstract.”

As UChicago Library’s curator of rare books since 2018, Frengel has acquired new texts, developed specific collections pertinent to faculty and graduate research, and managed gifts of rare books from donors. She also helps challenge commonly held myths about the printed page.

“Whenever I’m meeting students for the first time, we’re kind of interested in dispelling the idea that Gutenberg invented printing,” said Frengel. “People were printing long before Johannes Gutenberg came along.”

While her job title sounds like something Indiana Jones might apply for, Frengel’s position takes her through time rather than ancient pyramids. By examining the book bindings of age-old texts, Frengel is able to decipher clues that reveal the history of the book itself, like who owned it or how it was made. However, this did not make it any easier to narrow down the selection of books she wanted to include in the exhibition: “The University of Chicago Library has a really outstanding, truly world class collection of rare books, manuscripts, and archival materials. It was hard to know when to stop!”

What helped her sift through the collection was the Library’s relatively recent pivot to include details about bindings in catalog descriptions. “For about the past 10 or 15 years, we’ve taken extraordinary effort to record the physical attributes of our materials and what makes our copy unique,” Frengel said. “What is its provenance? Where did it come from? How did it get here?" Including these details in the library record helps give weight to the importance of the books’ context. Presenting these books through the lens of their covers also allows these contextual details to shine, Frengel added; when graduate students use on virtual databases such as Early English Books Online, they only see the digital representation of the works.

“Part of the motivation for this exhibition was to highlight the context of the texts themselves,” Frengel said, “and demonstrate how the relationship between book and binding enhances not just the reading experience, but our historical understanding of the book itself.”

The show includes, for example, a medieval antiphonary—a massive, hardwood-bound song book that was used in a monastery. Scrolling through pages of text via microfilm would tell you what songs the monks sang, but you would miss the visual impact of seeing a book that is too heavy to be lifted by a single person—larger than the average person’s arm span, with massive wood panels covered in tooled leather serving as the binding. These binding elements allow scholars to see how monks live and worked with the antiphonary. The cover is augmented by huge brass bosses. “Based on the weight of the book, monks would store it horizontally to preserve the binding, which you can tell by the sheer size and weight of it,” said Frengel.

More recent historical movements can also be investigated through bookbinding, which provided an avenue for female artisans to excel at a time when women were still shunned from the mainstream economic arts. “Binding also requires a lot of sewing, so in a sense, women would gravitate to this work during this time period,” Frengel said. At the turn of the 20th century, a collective called the Guild of Women Binders created sought-after work using high-quality materials, such as calf and morocco. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in mid-19th century Britain, the Guild made a strong aesthetic contribution to bookbinding that is still seen today.

Contemporary artisans continue to explore the connections between a book’s exterior and interior. The exhibition culminates with Illinois-based bookbinder Karen Hanmer's striking cover of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Long stitches of thread sew pieces of parchment, vellum, and deer hide together like patchwork, mimicking Shelley's striking descriptions of Frankenstein’s creature. “The book becomes the cover,” Frengel said. “The bindings are not just corresponding to the text but add this whole layer of meaning. If it didn’t have that binding, it would be something altogether different.”

Judging a book by its cover, it seems, can actually be a pretty good idea.

—A version of this story was first published on the UChicago Arts blog.