When Books Were Shelved Backwards 9

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)



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)


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.


Harry Potter’s “Monster Book of Monsters”

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

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