These days we tend to shelf books ‘spine out’ and publishers, conveniently, usually reproduce the title, author and other helpful details on the spine so that we can easily run our eyes along a shelf to find a particular book.  But it wasn’t always thus!

This 17th century painting by Guercino shows the Italian lawyer and one time governor of Cento in northern Italy, Francesco Righetti, at home in his library.  Righetti is surrounded by his law books, speaking to his learning and erudition.  But his books are shelved ‘tail end’ out, with the titles written on the base of the text block.

Portrait of Franceso Righetti by Guercino, 1626-8

Look too at this engraving of the poet William Cartwright (printed in 1651 as a frontispiece to his ‘Poems and Plays’).  Again, he’s in his library and his books can be seen – this time with the fore-edges facing out from the shelves and the spines neatly tucked in against the rear walls and hidden.  This was a common practice in the 16th and 17th centuries. Imagine shelving books with gilded page edges in this way – they would have gleamed and glistened, catching the candlelight, in quite a glorious way.  Some medieval manuscripts and early printed books now in rare book collections have the title and other details written on in several different places, reflecting changes in shelving the preferences of owners and book collectors over time.

William Cartwright and his books, frontispiece from his Poems and Plays (1651)

In medieval monasteries codices and manuscripts might be found stored flat on sloping shelves in carrels or armoires.  The picture below, taken from the 8th century Codex Amiatinus (thought to be the oldest surviving example of a near complete Bible in Latin Vuglate), shows Ezra the scribe next to his books which are housed in this way.

The scribe Ezra with his books, from the Codex Amiatinus

To increase accessibility and circulation, monasteries began to chain individual books to sloped desks – giving a greater sense that the book was communal property rather than belonging to a particular monk.  As the number of books increased, they might be piled horizontally on top of each other making it hard to retrieve those books at the bottom, with the chains clanking and tangling against each other. And so, it is said, the transition to storing books vertically began. The image below shows the chained library at Hereford Cathedral – one of the few to survive to modern times.

Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral. Photo credit Chris Killip, 1992.

Sometimes, before ‘spine out’ became ubiquitous, an unique design or cipher might be added to the visible text block to help identify books.  One  Bulluno doctor of law and book collector, Odorico Pillone (1503-94) had Cesare Vecellio (Titian’s nephew) adorn the fore-edges and sometimes the parchment covers of books in his collection with colourful scenes related the contents. Books with fore-edges of this beauty were certainly not intended to be shelved spine out. Pillone’s collection of 172 books was bought in its entirety  by the English book collector Thomas Brooke in 1875 but was sadly broken up by his descendants in the 1950s.

A sample of books with fore-edges decorated by  Vecellio for Odorico Pillone in the 16th century.

The practice of putting title information on spines seems to have begun in northern Italy, perhaps as early as 1535 and there are several examples from France from before 1600 with spine identifiers, strongly suggesting that the practice of shelving ‘spine out’ was  taking hold and spreading.

According to Henry Petroski (The Book on the Bookshelf, 1999) “One of the first large libraries to be arranged with all book spines outward was that of the French politician-historian  Jacques Auguste de Thou” who, at some 8,000 books, had one of the largest and most impressive libraries of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Visit my pinterest board, Shelving Books, for more images of older ways of shelving books.