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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Book Printing: What Is Library Binding?

A few days ago when my fiancee and I were at the thrift store looking through print books of paintings and drawings for our art therapy classes, another teacher approached us. After a brief discussion of our respective work, she gave us a number of books she was about to donate. Not only were they a great overview of the history of art (in about fifteen volumes), but they were also very nicely bound.

As a printing broker and a student of commercial printing, I’m always looking at the quality of a print product. These books were case bound in heavy cloth with an acrylic that permeated the fabric. They were also sewn. It looked to me like they had been case bound for serious use over a number of years. Beyond the content of the print books, this is what attracted me to them. And they reminded me of books I had seen in the libraries when I was in elementary school.

So I did some research and came upon the term “library binding.” Here is what I learned:

    1. Library bound books are either bound this way initially (“original,” for use in libraries) or rebound by the libraries (through outside vendors) after many years of use in order to protect them. The latter are called “after market” library bound print books.


    1. After market binding can be used for binding serials (these would include segments of a longer work of fiction or anything else that is published in segments). It can also be used for binding paperbacks and hardback books.


    1. An alternative to library binding for paperbacks is the “stiffening” process. This process involves the adding of fabric or Tyvek tape to the inside joints of the book, and then adding stiff paper board to the inside front and back covers. This process is easier and therefore cheaper than library binding. It does not involve either rebinding or sewing, but it will lengthen the lives of paperback books and allow them to stand up on the library shelves.


    1. Actual library binding includes sewing the pages into place. The technical term is “oversewing.” First the book spines are ground off (milled) or cut off, leaving a collection of loose pages. These are then grouped into signatures and sewn with an overlock stitch. After this, the signatures are sewn together to create a complete book block. To add further support, the binder glues a piece of linen to the spine, and then sets the book block into a heavy, durable case, either rounding the spine and backing it to prevent its caving in or (if the pages are too fragile or the book block is too thick) leaving a flat back. As with other case-bound books, a library bound book is then set into a rigid case, and end papers are added in the front and back of the print book.


    1. The fabric used in library binding is called “buckram.” It is made from thick, 100% cotton cloth. Because of the acrylic added to this cloth, the binding is especially durable. It is also resistant to mold, insects, water, and UV light. So it will last a long time. In addition, because of the oversewing, the books bound in this manner are not only strong but also easy to open, and they can be opened flat to allow for photocopying.


    1. After books have been bound in this manner, they can be hot foil stamped with any necessary identifying information. For ease of identification, serials are usually bound in the same color of buckram.


    1. A lighter-weight option for binding is c-cloth, which may or may not have an acrylic coating.


  1. Due to the kinds of finishing operations needed for library binding, the books are collected and then processed in bulk by a limited number of library binding vendors.

Why You Might Find This Interesting

First of all, the purpose of library binding is to create a printed product that is both durable and easy to open and use. But more than this, the process ensures the longevity of the content of the books: the knowledge itself. Moreover, it is also a conservation process, in that library binding can be used to repair books that otherwise would be in bad enough shape to discard.

Secondly, it reflects a partnership between the libraries and the few bookbinders that do this kind of work. Granted, the bookbinders make money, but in this case they also repair and preserve the books, both for their content and their archival value (since some of them may be quite old).

If the interior text pages have become brittle (which happens over time, particularly if there is a high acidic content in the paper), library binding may not be in order.

In addition, if the book will have value as an artifact (that is, if it will hold more value in the original binding, as a work of art in and of itself), a library may choose not to bind it in this manner. (That is, if it is valued for its physical attributes as well as its content, then library binding may not be in order.)

Finally, a library might not choose this option if the damage to the book is slight and can be repaired quickly and easily in-house by library staff.

When you think about it, a rare book is a work of art. And just as a museum might have an entire department devoted to cleaning and repairing oil paintings on canvas or prints on paper, a library may take a comparable approach to the conservation of its works, in order to ensure their existence for many decades to come.

What I like about this is that it shows respect for a number of things:

    1. The content of the books. A library that chooses to rebind books in this manner is showing a commitment to the availability of the print books and their ease of use.


    1. The historical value of the books (in addition to their content).


  1. And finally the artistic value of the books (in addition to their content).

This is not an inexpensive process, as with any case binding. So in my estimation it reflects a library’s commitment to and respect for the bound volumes on its shelves.

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