When Books Were Shelved Backwards

Trinity Coll book

“The earliest books in the Library had their shelf‐marks written on their fore‐edges. These volumes were shelved with their fore-edges, rather than their spines, facing outwards, with the shelf‐mark, written in black ink, on view.”

It may seem counterintuitive to us, but books were not always shelved to show the spine.

Until the last century, books were a luxury that even most scholars could not afford, and before Gutenberg gave us the printing press in the 15th century, they were entirely hand-made. A single book was the product of countless hours of work by artisans and scribes (most of them monks). These manuscripts cost many times the average yearly wage of the typical worker.  Therefore, few titles other than religious texts were created, and most of those were stored in monasteries or perhaps a wealthy citizen’s private collection.

To protect their investment, libraries (which were only accessible to a few; they were not open to the public) chained their books to the shelves or the lecterns, the medieval equivalent to the electronic security devices our libraries use today. The chains were connected to clasps which kept the books shut. It made sense to organize them with the clasps facing out so they could be pulled from the shelf.

Bookcase in Hereford Cathedral (1894)

Bookcase in Hereford Cathedral (1894 print)

 

Libraries_in_the_Medieval_and_Renaissance_Periods_Figure_5

Bookcases with books shelved edge-out in the library of the University of Leiden: J. C. Woudanus print (1610)

 

Even this was a new development, though. Prior to this somewhat familiar placement, books were set horizontally on shelves or stacked out of sight, a natural progression from the days when the written word was recorded on scrolls.

"A French scholar works on a manuscript in a monastery, in a painting from about 1480."  (Encyclopedia Britannica Kids)

“A French scholar works on a manuscript in a monastery, in a painting from about 1480.” (Encyclopedia Britannica Kids)

 

The advent of “fore-edges out” shelving meant great attention was sometimes spent on aesthetics, like Odorico Pillone’s gorgeous (and extremely valuable) collection, commissioned in the 16th century. This type of artwork wasn’t the norm though. Most only had the title, perhaps the year, written onto the edge, if anything.

Painted books from Odorico Pillone collection.

Painted books from Odorico Pillone collection. (Paris Review, “Shelf Conscious”, Francesca Mari)

 

The practice of fore-edge painting continued, albeit rarely, into the 19th and 20th centuries.

"Life on the Mississippi" by Mark Twain (1883; from AbeBooks)

“Life on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain (1883; from AbeBooks)

 

Debrett's Book of the Royal Wedding (1981; from AbeBooks)

Debrett’s Book of the Royal Wedding (1981; from AbeBooks)

 

More commonly, there was a lot of gilt and sometimes colored edging, even long after books and bookcases were designed to showcase decorative spines. Probably because, well, it just looks beautiful. And was not nearly as time consuming as intricate paintings.

gilt edge

gilt edge circa c19th (from IOBA.org)

golemjinni

Helene Wecker’s “The Golem and the Jinni” (2013) with midnight blue edging

 

The days of clasps and fore-edge shelving are long behind us. But of course we are still fascinated by the lure of these mysterious chained tomes of long ago, as evidenced by their appearance in modern folklore.

MonsterBookofMonsters

Harry Potter’s “Monster Book of Monsters”

Lit lover, history aficionado, baked goods enthusiast, INTP, writer of many things, mom to three.

9 thoughts on “When Books Were Shelved Backwards

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  4. Until the last century, books were a luxury that even most scholars could not afford,
    Are you sure about that? My own understanding is that it was partly Gutenberg’s application of the development of moveable type that played a major role in the reformation and to a lesser extent, the renaissance.
    In the seventeenth century (IIRC) one wag quipped “what frenzy hath of late possess’d the brain! Though few can write, yet fewer can refrain!”

  5. I did phrase that badly. Gutenberg definitely made them more accessible, but most “regular” people still could not afford the earliest printed books. (Education became more accessible to a certain extent as well but the books were quite pricey and valuable.) It just meant that more wealthy people had their own private libraries and a far wider range of reading material was available in print.

    Books were quite expensive into the 1800s and 1900s. It wasn’t until books became cheaper in the 20th century (especially with the introduction of paperbacks) that owning lots of books became common.

    “The country only had about 500 bookstores, all clustered in the biggest 12 cities, and hardcovers cost $2.50 (about $40 in today’s currency).

    De Graff revolutionized that market when he got backing from Simon & Schuster to launch Pocket Books in May 1939. A petite 4 by 6 inches and priced at a mere 25 cents, the Pocket Book changed everything about who could read and where. Suddenly people read all the time, much as we now peek at e-mail and Twitter on our phones. And by working with the often gangster-riddled magazine-distribution industry, De Graff sold books where they had never been available before—grocery stores, drugstores and airport terminals. Within two years he’d sold 17 million.

    ‘They literally couldn’t keep up with demand,” says historian Kenneth C. Davis, who documented De Graff’s triumph in his book Two-Bit Culture. “They tapped into a huge reservoir of Americans who nobody realized wanted to read.’”

    Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/The-Revolutionary-Effect-of-the-Paperback-Book-204113211.html#ixzz2f40lcZHN

    And also: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/How-the-Paperback-Novel-Changed-Popular-Literature.html

    The book “Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books” by Margaret Willes is a really good source on this topic; also “The Book: The Life Story of a Technology” by Nicole Howard.

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  7. @kittybriton: Movable type certainly reduced the costs of book production, but it took the replacement of vellum with paper in the 16th century, and especially the development of industrial mills that could make paper from wood pulp in the 19th, to make books genuinely affordable. And paper was also heavily taxed, as a luxury item, in many Western countries.

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  9. A recent issue of Architectural Digest showed bookshelves arranged with open edge out…can anyone tell me which issue that was in?

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