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I only wish I had had this amazing work to refer to during my many years in book conservation. I cannot recommend it too highly to my colleagues, to librarians, collectors, book dealers or anyone interested in the history of bindings.  — Deborah Evetts


I devoured Julia Miller’s book and found it wonderfully done and much needed. It is a major piece of work and deserves widespread attention and praise.  — John Townsend


2012 Eric Hoffer Book Awards

Reference: Winner    •    First Horizon (superior work by debut author): Winner    •    Grand Prize: Short listed


Books Will Speak Plain

A Handbook for Identifying and Describing

Historical Bindings


Julia Miller

Jane Squire, On Longitude, 1743.

A case in point: valued for its text, the cover decoration of this book is almost as important because it is a rare example of decoration that relates directly to the content, a practice almost unknown before the nineteenth century.

When Books Will Speak Plain was first published in 2010, many historic bindings were at risk of being ignored, put away, and forgotten. Since then, awareness has grown, research and publishing by numerous authors on a variety of binding types has substantially increased, and the addressing of the “physical book” – its materials, binding structures, and decoration – have all led to the greater understanding and appreciation of many binding types.

Books Will Speak Plain combines an overview of the history of the codex with basic information about many of the materials and structures found on historical bindings. The book also includes description-survey guidelines and is supported by a variety of appendices. The text is illustrated by 390 images, most in full color, and purchasers will have exclusive access to online pdfs that reproduce all of the images printed in the book plus additional ones of those books, as well as a multitude of other examples of bindings that further illustrate the history of binding structures. The book’s focus on non-luxury bindings adds depth to an often-neglected segment of bookbinding history.

Books Will Speak Plain continues to be a call to action to urge custodians of historical book collections – public and private – to assess the physical character of the historical bindings in their care and record the changes that have accrued to those bindings during their passage through time. Preservation was and still is at the heart of this book.

This award-winning book is a resource that has been used to recognize binding variations that have long been overlooked and to document such bindings for future scholars. Since its publication in 2010, librarians, cataloguers, bibliophiles, bookbinders, curators, private collectors, antiquarian booksellers, book-history scholars, and conservators have found Books Will Speak Plain to be an invaluable reference.

Photography by J. Wayne Jones and drawings by Pamela Spitzmueller.


To purchase,

click here.

NEW 3rd edition  •  revised and enlarged


720 pages   •   390 illustrations   •   full color   •   cloth, sewn


10 x 7 in.    •   ISBN 9781940965192   •   $150.00

Reviews of 1st and 2nd editions

Deborah Evetts: “Julia Miller’s desire to make people aware of the many styles and variations in the West’s bookbinding heritage has led her to compile an extraordinary reference book. As promised in its subtitle, her goal was to produce a handbook for identifying and describing historical bindings, but beyond that she provides the information whereby institutions, book conservators and collectors can learn how to recognise, describe and catalogue the bindings that are in their institutional or personal care.

She starts out with a fast-paced review of the early history of the codex, from precursors like papyrus, parchment or leather rolls, through tablets with wax, metal or ivory writing surfaces, to single or multi-quire notebooks of papyrus and vellum. Black and white photographs and line drawings, excellently reproduced on the book’s matt clay-filled paper, help readers understand exactly what she is describing under such headings as ‘The western medieval codex’, ‘Carolingian bindings’, ‘Romanesque bindings’, ‘Fourteenth-century Gothic’, ‘Late sixteenth-century Gothic’, ‘Girdle books’, etc.

In chapter 3, she tackles the radical changes in bookmaking from 1452 to 1800, stating that:


The history of bookbinding practice in the Near [E]ast and the West before 1800 could be viewed in three parts: the earliest history of the codex as a series of structural experiments, the twelfth century as the pinnacle of successful practice in combining structure, materials and proven technique, and the period 1200–1800 as a time of gradual but steady changes in [the] quality and types of structure, materials, and techniques… The changes that took place have elements of decline but also exhibit creative adaptation.


From knowledge she has gained as a practicing book conservator, Julia Miller takes us through each step of the changes in book structures, and then goes on to write about the many materials besides leather that can be used as covers. ‘The book from 1800 to 1900’ introduces us to publishers’ bindings and shows how the original fairly simple embellishments up to 1830 developed, decade by decade, into more sophisticated designs and decorations. The ‘main purpose’ of her book is ‘the presentation of descriptive information and suggestions to help collectors and custodians identify and describe the types of findings that are most likely to show up in American book collections’.

This is a big book, of 510 pages, but readers should persist to its last page, because its concluding chapters are full of information that is hard to find anywhere else. For instance, if you need to design a bindings survey, there are lists of headings to suit almost any collection. And don’t miss the author’s advice about the tools you will need and keeping your hands clean. As a fellow conservator, I applaud her view that turning the pages of rare books with clean hands is far better than using cotton gloves insisted on by many rare book librarians. And the reasons she cites are surely valid—gloves blunt our tactile senses and make it difficult to turn brittle pages safely.

The last 200 pages provide three appendices, a glossary, bibliography and an index. Tucked into the front cover is a CD with all the illustrations shown in colour and with many extra close-ups, which greatly enhance the book’s value.

Julia Miller has studied bookbinding since 1978 and joined the Book Conservation Department of the University of Michigan in 1984. Since leaving that position in 1994 she has concentrated on research, writing and lecturing and for the last ten years has been compiling the material for this book. I only wish I had had this amazing work to refer to during my many years in book conservation. I cannot recommend it too highly to my colleagues, to librarians, collectors, book dealers or anyone interested in the history of bindings.” Parenthesis 28 (Spring 2015): 50–51.


Chela Metzger: “‘The book is dead’ is a phrase that seems to have generated a cottage industry of keynote speakers and opinion pieces over the years. Julia Miller, conservator, binder and book historian, has undertaken an enormous task in her Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. She has championed the miles of shelves holding historic bindings in America’s research collections. She has tapped into the unique perspectives of book conservators and librarians, as well as book historians. She has placed today’s book artists alongside the anonymous binders of years past, and she has drawn all these different groups into a continuum. She builds from this synergy, and the synergy lends her book force and weight.…As we move toward a screen-based world, we may indeed know books ‘for the first time.’ The book seen deeply and lovingly described for the future is brought alive. The book described and made accessible in new ways is given new possibilities—it is not dead.” “Bonefolder Extras”


Jennifer K. Sheehan: “Part of what makes Books Will Speak Plain unique in the field of bookbinding history is that it approaches the topic from a conservation standpoint rather than a curatorial one. Julia Miller has worked in the field of book conservation for more than 30 years, including ten at the University of Michigan Library, and her experience as a conservator is evident in this work. Miller offers a history of the handmade book and its distinguishing characteristics, but her stated objective is ultimately preservation of, and access to, these items in library collections. In the introduction, she states that the purpose of her book is training the custodians of collections to look at books and make judgments about what to record and why—whether it is an element common to a type of book or an unusual feature. She sees this as fundamentally a preservation issue. Furthermore, in the process of assessment and documentation, greater access to ‘hidden’ collections is provided, which Miller believes will ultimately advance the work of binding scholars in the future.…The glossary is an excellent resource for someone not familiar with binding terminology, and even someone more experienced can benefit from this comprehensive set of binding description terms. Miller provides bibliographic sources for the definitions where appropriate. For those without citations, one must assume that the definitions have been created by Miller herself. Finally, Miller has assembled an extensive bibliography and has divided it topically. As well as providing full citations for the sources referenced in the book, it also includes additional information about sources for study of bookbinding and book history. Assembling a list of this kind was clearly a significant undertaking and enhances the value of the book as are source. Perhaps the most notable feature of Books Will Speak Plain is the supplemental material. The book is accompanied by a DVD containing color images of all of the bindings cited in the printed volume. Clearly, the organization of the DVD was given significant thought. Not only does Miller divide the images into a series of manageable files, with each image containing a descriptive caption, but she provides an additional PDF document to make the images searchable. In this document, she lists all of the captions for the images she has included, allowing the reader to do a keyword search for specific styles of characteristics. Part I of the DVD offers color images for black-and-white photos within the text, while Part II contains supplementary images divided into 13 groups, based on distinguishing characteristics. The variety of images provided attests to the depth of research Miller has conducted and the richness of the collections that she has accessed in their compilation. Books Will Speak Plain, with its supplemental DVD, is an important resource for any staff member or volunteer faced with the description or identification of historic bindings. Although it is somewhat unlikely that an inexperienced volunteer would be prepared to take on the necessary level of description based on a reading of this book alone, Miller presents a strong foundation for institutions contemplating the use of volunteers in such a capacity or simply training their existing workforce to take on these new responsibilities. What sets Books Will Speak Plain apart from other binding texts is not only the preservation-oriented approach that Miller takes but also that she does not focus her efforts on the presumption that every reader will be working with collections of luxury bindings. In doing so, she makes this book relevant for a much wider audience than those that simply focus on the loveliest examples binding history has to offer.” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 12, no. 2 (Fall 2011): 135–138.


Anon: “Julia Miller has created, in our opinion, the best and a most complete resource on book binding published in English. Being a binding scholar and preserver of books, having a years-long  record of service, and as a true practitioner and specialist in her field, she compiled an aid. The goal of her work was to give librarians and collectors accessible and authentic information about the sources and peculiarities of the individual book binding.…

Particular respect is evoked by the studied apparatus of the book. Let us note, in particular, the sizable dictionary of binding terms and the complete bibliographic list of literature in English. Also included are separate references to French sources. Concerning Russian authors, J. Miller introduces only one reference to the works of S.A. Klepikov, which were published in translation into English. One should yet one more time especially note that the book contains a great number of illustrations, the majority of which are of the highest quality and in most cases, colored. Supplementing the book is a dvd, on which are contained hundreds of illustrations of the author’s bindings from various epochs.  An acquaintance with best quality examples  of the binding art provides readers with genuine pleasure.

The book of J. Miller came out in a small private press ‘The Legacy Press,’ situated  in the state of Michigan. The publisher produces small-circulation highly artistic books. Its owner Cathleen Baker herself writes on book bindings and paper of ancient books.

The quality of the printing of the book by J. Miller is more than praiseworthy, and its price is fully acceptable—80 dollars. We are certain that the book will become an irreplaceable aid for serious bibliophiles.” Pro Knigi [About Books, a Journal for Bibliophiles] 21, no. 1 (2012): 136–137; in Russian, translated for The Legacy Press.


John Townsend: “I devoured Julia Miller’s book and found it wonderfully done and much needed. It is a major piece of work and deserves widespread attention and praise. I’ve been casually working on a database for some time to record things that come into my shop, so was especially pleased to find so much in common with Julia’s efforts in this direction. Even so, she is far ahead of most of us who have been talking and thinking—and not writing—about these things for a long time. Like any librarian/conservator, I may quibble with some details, but this in no way diminished my pleasure and satisfaction in reading it. How often do we even get the opportunity to quibble!? I truly appreciate the discipline and fortitude such a work required and hope Julia has received all the praise the book deserves.”


Amanda Flynn: “Arguing passionately for historical bookbindings as rich repositories of our cultural and intellectual development, Julia Miller starts with a call to action: ‘if custodians are able to make the time and turn their efforts to understanding the structural and stylistic elements of their collections, sharpening their eyes and their knowledge so historical artefact bindings can be identified, described, and preserved, books will indeed ‘speak plain’ to future scholars of the book’ (p. xiii). Miller’s appeal is certainly topical. The importance of bringing bindings into the heart of bibliographical studies, and the increasingly urgent need to make this possible by including useful bindings descriptions in catalogue records were key themes at the recent conference The Place of Bindings (June 2011), held at Merton College Oxford and supported by the Ligatus Research Centre, CERL and the Bodleian Library’s Centre for the Study of the Book. What Miller’s handbook does which is really welcome, is to give curators a set of carefully crafted tools to carry out such bookbinding documentation.

Beginning with an overview of the history of the codex (and a special focus on colonial and post-revolutionary American bindings), Miller then provides a basic introduction to identifying binding materials and applications, and sets out a template for describing historical bindings (based on her own work surveying library collections) that is packed with advice on what to look for (and how to look) when inspecting a book. The real treasure, however, is to be found in the appendices and generous glossary. Miller’s concern is not only to capture decorative and structural information about bindings, but also to strive for a consistent and thorough terminology for online cataloguing. Her ‘Historical Bindings – Structure and Style Hierarchy’ (Appendix 1) is a thesaurus designed to help readers fill out her survey template, which contains vastly more binding terms than either the RBMS Binding Terms thesaurus or Getty’s Art and Architecture (ATT), including such useful additions as ‘visible structure through damage’. All of her terms are defined clearly in the glossary, and many are backed up by photographic examples. Appendix 2 offers several case studies, demonstrating Miller’s template and thesaurus in action. The accompanying DVD extends the usefulness of the black and white illustrations in the book by providing them in (fully zoomable) colour, and augments them with further images of bindings, arranged in useful categories such as ‘paper bindings’.

Conscious of how budgetary constraints impact on library workflows, Miller is reassuringly aware that her readers will have to make choices about the level of detail to include in their own records; indeed, she assumes that most are intent on creating basic bindings descriptions that could be expanded with further research.

 Aimed very much at library professionals, Books Will Speak Plain complements more specialist handbooks such as David Pearson’s English Bookbinding Styles 1450–1800 (2005) and Stuart Bennett’s Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles 1660–1800 (2004), and should be of great use to rare book cataloguers.” Rare Books Newsletter 91 (January 2012): 8–9 [CILIP/RBSCG: Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals/Rare Books and Special Collections Group, UK]