Book edges are fascinating parts of books: they provide the first sight of a book’s pages and content, mediating between the finished text block and the bookbinding. They can be straight, slightly wavy, inscribed, gilded, coloured and decorated in a variety of ways, showcasing the book’s content, its authorship, the owner’s wealth and the binder’s skill. Edges can be perfectly smooth and shiny, but also friable, worn and ragged. They are apt to change through the centuries as they may be cut over and over again with each rebinding, perhaps for each new owner. The edges are intriguing witnesses to how books were read: thumbmarks indicate the pages that were often consulted and turned-down corners mark favorite passages. They mirror how the book has been used by readers and owners and how it was kept over the years, affording insights into the organization of early libraries.

On the one hand, the decorated surface of the edges forms a protective layer against light, pollution and dirt particles. On the other hand, the colouring, gilding, gauffering, sprinkling, painting, marbling or paste-painting of edges enhances the aesthetic value of the book.

coloured edges 16th century printed books Maurtis Sabbe Library

Set of coloured edges on 16th century printed books, KU Leuven, Maurits Sabbe Library

Next page 1. Edges and the library shelf