HomeBook Terminology

Book Terminology

There is a wealth of descriptive rare book terms available for the rare book cataloger or curator to use when describing parts of a book or aspects of the field of bibliography (the study of books). Some of these terms are used in this exhibit to describe the books photographed when explaining the location of the different types of damage.

Words that are italicized within a definition are themselves defined on this page.

Binding = an term interchangeable with the term cover, but normally referring to the exterior material and any decoration on the covers.

Beveled edges = edges of the board that are cut at an angle with the thinnest portion closest to the textblock.

Black finger smudges = this term is not found in the rare book literature. This is the term used by our Special Collections Librarian to describe fingerprints (complete, partial, visible, or smeared) left by readers of a bygone era.

Board(s) = the cardboard or wooden panel underneath the binding material in hardbound books.

Bookworms = moth larvae

Bumped = this term refers to corners of books that have become wrinkled or bent.

Chipped = usually seen in conjuncture with torn and fraying binding material, if something is chipped, it means a piece of the materials is gone.

Cover(s) = the board and the binding when referred to together. The upper cover is the front cover and the lower cover is the back cover.

Dust jacket = the paper cover wrapped around a book, previously to protect the covers from shelfwear by bookstore owners, but now used as the decorative element of most modern books. Typically found on hardback cloth-bound books.

Edge = can refer to either the portion of the covers that extends beyond the textblock or the outside edges of the textblock.

Embossed = is the opposite of stamped which is the more common design method for decorating book covers and spines. The design in the binding material is a relief, created when a metal plate is pressed onto the binding and board materials, raising the design above the surface.

Endpaper = the sheet of paper that is pasted down onto the inside of the board/cover with one end of the paper hanging loose as the "first" page, though not counted when tabulating the number of pages or leaves in the book.

Ex Libris = a written ownership mark, but more usually a fancy sticker with a place for the owner to write his or her name.

Foredge = the edge of a book that faces to the right when you are looking at the front cover, i.e. the parts of a book you flip when reading.

Foxing = circular brown spots in books caused by contamination from food particles, sneeze/cough particles, or any other microscopic impact that interacts with the paper and causes discoloration.

Frass = insect bowel movement, but we use it exclusively for cockroaches. Their frass has normally been flattened into the cover or the pages of a book, but in rare cases, still mounded.

Frontispiece = the illustration facing the title page, frequently, but not always on glossy paper. Many times a frontis is 'protected' by a thin see-through piece of paper called a tissue.

Gilt = gold leaf applied to the edges of the textblock or within a stamped pattern on the covers.

Gutter = inside spine area of the book.

Half-bound = a half-bound book is one that has the spine, hinge and part of the front and back covers, as well as the outside corners covered in one material and the central part of the covers are covered in another material. Usually this will be seen as leather with cloth or paper, cloth with paper, but also two colors of paper or cloth together.

Head(cap)  = the top of the book; the headcap refers to the piece of fabric or leather that sticks up past the top of the textblock.

Hinge = the dip on the front and back covers at the spine that allows hardcover books to open and close more easily.

Ink bleed = refers to one of three types of damage. 1) natural - refers to the mirror image (ghost image) an illustration creates on its facing page, but sometimes the pressure forcing the ink to bleed to the facing page goes backwards or can bleed down/up through several pages. Tissues are frequently added by the bookbinder to catch the bleeding ink, but not always and sometimes there is so much ink bleeding, that it bleeds right through the tissue. 2) human - when a signature was not allowed to dry and the ink bleeds to the facing page when the book closes or bleeds down through the paper. 3) accidental - when a book has become wet and the dyes of the binding material bleeds onto the paper.

Leaf = a piece of paper. A page is half of a leaf. Large pieces of paper are printed with the text, folded appropriate into quires, which are then cut along all edges except the spine. Each piece of paper in the quire becomes a leaf, or two pages (when numbered).

Marbled paper = is when a colorful design has been manually added to paper by laying it on top of a vat of water covered with a size material (such as gum) that ink/dye has been patterned onto either by dropping it randomly or mixing using a comb. The concept came to the west through Persia from the Orient in the 15th or 16th century. By the 1650s, marbled paper was used across Europe for endpapers or book covers.

Margins = the blank area of a page between the edge of the paper and the writing of the text.

Page = one side of a leaf in a book, normally numbered, though some pages are unnumbered.

Pastedown = the side of the endpaper that is glued flat (or almost flat) to the inside of the cover, covering over the raw edges of the binding material and hiding the board and the sewing structure of the book.

Plates = are the leaves that illustrations are printed on. They are normally unnumbered, and to qualify as a plate is for one side to be blank.

Provenance = the tracing of ownership of a book either by writings in the book (including library marks), bills of sale, shelf-list records, and other means. While some people consider provenance markings to be damage, there are many instances when these increase the value and importance of the book internationally, nationally, regionally, or locally depending on the prominence of the former owner(s).

Quire = basically means a twentieth of a ream or measure of paper. In Medieval times this could mean 8 leaves/sheets of paper, but in modern times, 500 sheets equal a ream of paper, and therefore the current quire measure is 25 sheets of paper. These sheets are then folded so that pages line up numerically to create bundles that are grouped in order to make up the textblock

Rag paper = paper made pre-circ. 1830 from old clothes.

Raised bands = are the sewing structure that held books together in the handmade period. Nowadays books are held into their covers mostly by glue, but in earlier periods, women (primarily) would sew the quires of a book into a textblock. The cords they sewed along the back of the spine to create the textblock became the raised bands we identify with old leather books. Not all leather-bound books have a raised band as sometimes the printer would fill in the spaces with scraps of paper to create a smooth spine in order to create a continuous gilt design. By the mid-19th Century, bookbinders used different techniques to create books, and most books with raised spines since that time are decorative and not functional.

Red rot = the natural deterioration of leather as a result of the chemical reaction between the leather and the chemicals used by tanners when preparing hides for use as book bindings. Red rotting is normally red, but sometimes brown, and shows itself as either dust or flakes. The red rotting can be a problem for people with lung or skin conditions, but is otherwise harmless for humans, although it is a permanent dye and should not be allowed to get on clothes.

Rubbing = refers to scratches, shiny patches on the covers, and an absence of the binding material on the edges of the covers.

Spine = thought of as the back of the book (not to confuse with back cover), because it encases the sewing structure of the textblock to hold the book together (opposite to the foredge, or the side that opens).

Shelfwear = damage to the covers and edges of books from sitting on shelves or being rubbed, bumped, and dented by other books or objects on a shelf, examples include embedded dust in the edges of books, dings, nits, shiny spots on covers, rubbed edges revealing the board under the cloth, paper, or leather, and bumped corners.

Square = the portion of the board that extends beyond the end of the textblock (refers to the inside of the cover rather than the outside of the cover).

Stamped = a type of book design where a heavy metal plate has first impressed a design into the covers or spine and left plain (blind-stamped), or filled in with paint or gold (gilt). This design is the opposite of embossed.

Sun faded = darkening or lightening of the binding material on the spines or covers of a book where excessive sunlight interacted with the chemicals of the material changing the color of the material. Normally, there is an outline where another object was blocking the sun.

Tail(cap) = the bottom of the book; the tailcap refers to the piece of fabric or leather that sticks down past the top of the textblock.

Textblock = the folded leaves of paper that the printed portion of a book are on that normally includes some blank leaves at the beginning and the end.

Tears = cuts in the binding that reveals the board of the covers; commonly seen on the edges of the cover, the spine, or the hinge, though in badly torn bindings, on the upper or lower covers. Leaves can also develop tears, but normally these are identified as torn pages, rather than the word used solo.

Wood pulp paper = paper made from wood pulp.

For more rare book terms, please see our Beautiful Books Handout in the Beautiful Books exhibit.

Berger, Sidney E. The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary for Book Collectors, Booksellers, Librarians, and Others. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Carter, John and Nicolas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. 8th ed. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2006.