Skip to Main Content

Teaching Book History in Special Collections

This guide covers resources in Special Collections that can be used to teach about the history of the book, irrespective of date or location.

Bibliographic Format

Bibliographic format is a way of describing the structure of a codex-style book based on the folding of sheets of paper to produce the pages of the book. The documentary included below was produced by the Rare Book School in 1991 and walks the viewer through the process of imposition and folding of papers, with a few observations about papermaking to discuss chain-lines and wire-lines.

N.B.: The promised continuation of the documentary with a video on collation has yet to appear.


The following videos are included below:

  • Writing Cuneiform. This excerpt from the longer film The Cyrus Cylinder features an interview with Dr. Irving Finkel, a specialist in cuneiform inscriptions, during which he demonstrates the writing of cuneiform.
  • Antique Palm leaf Manuscript & Ghantam stylus. This video, made by a private collector, offers a great deal of insight into the production of palm leaf books, a common form of book-making in India and southeast Asia.
  • Pens, Paint-making, and Illumination - NYPL's Three Faiths Scriptorium. This short documentary shows the production of quills and reed pens. It follows it with a brief presentation of illumination and applying gold leaf to a manuscript.


Parchment, sometimes also called vellum, is a term for animal skins, usually sheep- or goatskins, that have been carefully scraped to provide a smooth writing surface. It was the dominant writing surface of choice after the first and second centuries CE and, even after its use as a writing material waned, it was still frequently used for bookbinding.

The following videos are included below:

  • How parchment is made. This is part of a longer 2015 documentary about the Domesday Book and presents the stages of parchment production from raw skin being soaked in lime to dried parchment.
  • Making vellum. This short documentary from the British Library presents how parchment was made, particularly how different areas in the animal’s skin may cause problems due to their greater thickness. The difference between the hair and flesh sides is described.
  • Listening to the Medieval Book. This conversation between two scholars about two medieval books written on different grades of parchment highlights the different costs of producing different medieval books.


Paper was invented in ancient China, probably around 100 BCE. The technology came to the Middle East in the 8th century CE and from there to Europe, arriving with the Moors in Spain in the 12th century. In Europe, the pulp used for paper was usually linen until the 1840s, at which point it began to be replaced by wood pulp, which was cheaper and easier to produce in large quantities but less durable. Medieval paper was made of linen rags and was produced by hand. It was the preferred medium for print, though sometimes a print run would include luxury copies printed on parchment.

The following videos are included below:

  • Chancery Papermaking. A methodical look at the hand production of paper describing the roles of each individual person working in the paper mill and walking the viewer through the production process. This documentary was prepared at the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book and narrated by Tim Barrett, one of the leading paper experts working today.
  • Papermaking by hand at Hayle Mill, England in 1976. A documentary made in 1976 in a paper mill that was still producing paper by hand at the time. (The Hayle Mill closed in 1987.) It includes an explanation of the production of watermarks. Because of the paper mill was still operating in the 20th century, the process includes some modern innovations, particularly in the drying of the paper.
  • Sekishu-Banshi: papermaking in the Iwami region of Shimane Prefecture. A 2008 documentary of the production of washi paper in Japan, beginning with the harvest of mulberry branches and continuing to the drying of the finished paper.
  • The Paper Making Process. A video produced by Sappi Limited, a South African paper making company, that outlines the manufacture of paper from tree to sheet.

Paper Marbling

Paper marbling is a practice of decorating paper by laying it on a bath of sizing with lines of color spread upon it. It was probably invented by the Japanese, with examples of Suminagashi paper dating back to 1118 CE. Marbled paper is particularly popular for fine bindings (especially half bindings) and as endpapers.

The following videos are included below:

  • Learn to Marble Paper. This demonstration by a paper marbling artist includes a nice explanation of each step throughout the process as well as offering the names of the different patterns.
  • Art of the Marbler. This documentary shot in 1970 shows an approach to paper marbling that is less oriented towards producing unique art and more aimed at the batch production of similarly styled marbled papers. Douglas Cockerell and Son was a bookbinding firm with connections to the fine press movement: Douglas Cockerell’s brother Sydney was a private secretary to William Morris. The firm opened in 1924 and closed in 1987 when Sydney Cockerell, the son of Douglas Cockerell, died.

Book Printing

Moveable type was invented in Asia but was not widely used due to the logographic nature of Asian languages, meaning that most Asian printers relied on xylography and other forms of block printing. In Europe, moveable type was invented separately by the goldsmith and merchant Johannes Gutenberg, drawing on processes from numerous extant technologies. Further innovations followed and the specific details of Gutenberg's own press have been lost, but within a few years, the printing press had largely taken the form it would retain throughout the rest of the hand press period. Machine printing was developed in the 1800s and by the 1850s and 1860s, the hand press had been largely supplanted by a variety of fully mechanized presses.

The following videos are included below:

  • The Print Workshop in the Fifteenth Century. This documentary from the Cambridge University Library briefly discusses the history and mechanics of the early hand press.
  • The Making of a Renaissance Book. This documentary was shot in 1969 at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, which maintains a seventeenth-century print shop, and was remastered by the Rare Book School in 2004. Topics covered include: cutting a type punch; making a copper strike and justifying the matrix; casting and dressing the type; composition, imposition, and proof-reading; inking and running off the sheets; and stop-press corrections.
  • At the Acorn Press in Neilson Library. The curator of rare books at Smith College walks the viewer through the use of a cast-iron “acorn press” from the 1830s, explaining each step as he goes along.  The acorn press was developed immediately before the wide-spread use of fully mechanized printing, i.e., it was one of the last fully hand-run presses.
  • Oxford University Press and the Making of a Book. A short silent documentary made in 1925 at the Oxford University Press. The documentary has jaunty music and informative title cards. It shows the hand casting of type, hand composing, Monotype machines, stereotyping, printing, folding the gatherings, trimming gatherings, gilding, casing in, and backing.


Printmaking at the Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has resources describing different printing approaches in detail with short videos of each step.

20th-Century Newspaper Printing

Newspaper printing was initially done by regular printers but would eventually become its own style of printing requiring special machines. Speed was essential and so during the 20th century, newspaper printing was done using Linotype, a late 19th-century invention that permitted a furious rate of typesetting that not even the best hand compositor could hope to match. It also relied on huge, complex printing presses that were generations removed from Gutenberg's humble handpress or even the early machine presses. The videos below grant a sense of the scale and complexity of these operations.

The following videos are included below:

  • Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu. A short documentary filmed on location during the typesetting of the last issue of The New York Times to be set using the hot-metal printing process (i.e., a Linotype machine). The Times transitioned to a digital composing process in July 1978. In addition to its discussion of Linotype, Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu provides an overview of overall operation of a newspaper press in the 20th century.
  • Stopping the Presses: The Globe’s Dorchester printing plant goes dark. This documentary gives an overview of the mechanics of a major newspaper printing press and provides a sense of the scale of the machines involved.