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Book Arts: Resources for Artists' Books & Bookmaking: Bookmaking

This LibGuide will explore Book Arts from two perspectives: the history of the book and artists' book as innovations upon the traditional book.


Bookmaking is not only about choosing what goes inside of a book: it's making educated, deliberate choices about every single element of the book in order for each of its parts to have artistic meaning. On this page, you can explore four of the main elements of bookmaking -- bookbinding, papermaking, illustration, and typography -- as well as the history of the craft from a Western point of view in order to see just how today's artists' books have evolved from these traditional arts.

Please note, this page isn't meant to be an exhaustive investigation into book history, but rather an introduction to some of the most important parts of bookmaking and the main historical events that influenced them. If you require more information on book history and the history of bookmaking, you can refer to the History of the Book timeline at the bottom of this page as well as the Resources tab for this LibGuide.


The Basics

The most basic form of a book is the codex. Though "codex" usually refers to a manuscript, it generally describes the format in which books are traditionally bound today. The formal parts of the binding are the boards (made of wood, paste, pulp, or paper scraps and covered with pigskin, goatskin, calfskin, vellum, or cloth), sheets of paper folded into turnable pages (called quires), and the thread used to hold everything together. Before the Industrial Era, paper was folded into quires, sewn together, and then sewn to the binding. Today, glue is used to help keep the book together instead. (Parker and Barker, 2006)

Historical Practices to Know

As you can see in the video above and on the website of the Special Collections in the Princeton University Library, bookbinders often take artistic license with their work. They use techniques like embroidering, tooling (using tools to create designs), bevelling (rounding edges), dying, and stamping to decorate the covers a book. (Husby, 2004) Today, this may not be as common, but it constitutes an art form all its own and inspires artists who want to adorn the outsides of their books, as well as the insides. 


William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience

Blake, William (n.d.) Songs of Innocence and of Experience [Title page]. Retrieved from

The Basics

Today, intricate illustrations can be printed directly onto the page of a book by the printer, but historically, this wasn't the case. Aside from painting and otherwise adorning books by hand as medieval monks did when making illuminated manuscripts, one of the earliest forms of illustration involved using woodcuts. Woodcuts were essentially stamps that were carved and placed in the printing press alongside the text. After the page was printed, color could be added by hand. During the Industrial Revolution, lithographs became popular. These were etchings on metal plates that were used to create pictures on separate sheets of paper that were later tipped, or added, into a book. They could also be painted by hand and were never used for in-text illustration. Finally, after the invention of photography, photographs could be printed for illustration with the help of lithography and eventually the electric printers we use today. (Smith et al, 2003)

Historical Influences to Know

Some of the famous precursors to artists' books were the works of William Blake, an English poet who also had a small printing business. Blake printed his own poetry and that of others and he often adorned the books with complex images that he created with a variety of techniques. He notably used large amounts of color and symbolic imagery in his work, which can be found online here. ("About Blake," n.d.) Another important forerunner to today's artists' books was the livre d'artiste, developed by French art dealer Ambroise Vallard. Vallard took original prints by famous artists and bound them in expensive books that, though not quite like today's artists' books, set a precedent for featuring art and illustration just as prominently as text. (Doston, 2018)


Burke, James (Writer), & Jackson, Mick (Director). (n.d.) (n.t.), [Television Series Episode]. In Connections [YouTube]. Available from


The Basics

We all know that the Egyptians used to use papyrus to make paper, but do you know any more recent paper-making methods? Europeans used to use vellum and parchment, both derived from animal skins, until they moved to linen rag paper in the 18th and early 19th centuries. This paper was made using recycled rags, which were soaked in water and gum, hammered, and molded using wire frames like in the video above. During the Industrial Revolution, paper-making moved to wood pulp-based processes, which were faster, easier, and cheaper to execute. The downside of pulp-based paper, however, is that the acids from the wood will undergo a reaction over time and eventually cause the paper to yellow. (Walsh et al, 2003)

Historical Practices to Know
Even paper can part of the artistic process -- not just the choice of paper itself, but decoration of it. Often, bookbinders would paint the fore-edges, or outer edge of a block of paper, when they put books together. They could use red paint, as the Dutch traditionally did, gilding, or paste to give the paper a particular hue or design. Examples can be found here. Another popular process was to marble the paper, which involved swirling dyes and colors to produce an abstract design. (Husby, 2004)



Johnston, Edward. Johnson's Railway Type [Typeface]. Retrieved from

The Basics

Typography isn't just about picking out the right font: it's about design, typesetting, kerning (spacing out the letters), and so much more. Before printing press were in standard use, books were handwritten. Blackletter was one of the most popular "fonts" for these manuscripts. The thick, black letters were calligraphic in nature and are hard to read by today's standards. After the invention of movable type, blackletter was deposed as king by Roman fonts and other innovations. The advent of techniques like italic script were monumental. Art was incorporated not only into the search for clean, aesthetically pleasing fonts, but also into the decoration thereof. The first letter of a chapter, called a dropcap, would be set alongside the first line of text in such a way that it was still readable but could be decorated and, perhaps, turned into a picture that illustrated the book's content. (McClean, 2003)

Historical Influences to Know

Typography's greatest moment was perhaps the invention of movable print itself. Johannes Gutenberg, improving upon work done by other Europeans and in China, created movable type that separated each letter so that different combinations of small metal pieces bearing letters could be arranged in any fashion to print any text. Upper case letters are actually called so today because they were kept on an upper shelf in type foundries and printers' shops, while lower case letters were stored separately on a lower shelf. In the 19th Century, the British Arts and Crafts movement and the German Bauhaus movement, the latter of which promoted asymmetry and sans serif fonts, innovated upon existing typefaces using modern technology and made them part of their artwork. More about the history of typography can be found here. (McClean, 2003)

Evolution of the Book Format as a Whole

Still curious about the historical evolution of the book? Check out this timeline from the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh!

Lerner, Ariel (2015). The History of the Book [Prezi]. Retrieved from