Developments In Islamic Binding and Conservation in The Oriental and India Office Collections of The British Library

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David Jacobs and Barbara Rodgers

Article contents:
Comparison of repair methods
The repair method
Backings, linings, and hollows
Boards and coverings
Cover design and decoration
Care and storage
Drop-down box
Islamic book cradle
Box with internal book support


The Islamic book has possibly suffered more harm than any other book from the methods used in conservation, handling, and storage. In order to go some way to redressing the balance, the India Office Library and Records Binding Studio started a project in 1984 to reassess fundamentally the methods of conservation used on Islamic manuscripts.

Considerable parts of the oriental collections housed in the library have been bound or rebound in western bindings. In some cases, this was to conform to the style of the collection. Many of these bindings are now at the end of their useful shelf life, presenting an ideal opportunity for the reassessment of the conservation methods to be used in their restoration.

In general, Islamic books are regarded as having a flat spine, and are sewn without supports such as cords or thongs. The text block is level or almost level with the covering boards and that is often a fore-edge flap. This style of construction was found throughout the Islamic world.

Few original and complete bindings have survived to this day. Civil and international conflicts, accidents, and harsh environments have taken their heavy toll Western libraries and collectors started the practice of binding or rebinding Islamic manuscripts into western books Some attempts to incorporate the original covers in western books were made, often insensitively and occasionally disastrously. The covers of some Islamic books are highly decorative, particularly the bindings of the late 14th-century Herat (in Persia) Sometimes the covers were detached from the books for display they were rarely reunited. These practices caused a great loss of information on book construction.

Rebinding into western styles can also damage the manuscript folio and make texts difficult to read. The script and painted miniatures are often surrounded by coloured lines, and gold and gilt borders. These frames can be weakened, or the paper fibres cut through, by a chemical reaction from some of the colour pigments. A western binding (either hollow or tight back) places great stress on the page in this weak area when it flexes on opening. Rebinding in western forms is also unsympathetic to the culture, history, and religious background of the Islamic book.

The Binding Studio project set out to devise a method of paper conservation and bookbinding that would be sympathetic to the manuscript's origin and function, that would not harm the folio and that would use proven conservation materials. After discussions with curatorial and conservation department colleagues, we decided that Islamic manuscripts would be better if restored to their original format, as far as possible. It has been an evolutionary process and several methods and constructions were tried before arriving at the present solution.

When we started to restore and rebind the books, we realized that some of the damage was caused by the way the books were handled and stored. Not only were the conservation and binding methods in need of revision, but the storage in library stacks and use by readers also needed redefinition.

Comparison of repair methods

The old India Office style of wet repair, which creates a new border around the original folios, was unacceptable as it changes the size of the folios and prevents the use of the original boards in rebinding. In the past, this meant that the original boards were separated and often lost.

We tried a heat set method of repair. It was quite successful with manuscripts that are stored flat and do not need to be flexed. However, it is brittle when folded and too weak when used with the unsupported Islamic sewing, where there are rarely tapes or cords to take the strain of the thread pulling on the sections. On the thinner, harder Islam papers, the Texicryal Paraloid adhesive also caused a build up of repair which created an unacceptable swelling in the spine.

We decided to revert to wet repair methods for spines and areas of mass damage. The wet repair method moulds or blends into the original folio, thus reducing the swelling. To function correctly, the spine of an Islamic book needs to be as free from swell as possible. One of the major benefits of wet repair over the dry repair is that it allows the fibres of the repair and the original to relax at the same time, giving a stronger, more complete, and more flexible bonding. The tissue fibres also retain some degree of movement so that sewing forces the repair fibres to compact around the hole as the thread is pulled through. This gives a strong frame around the sewing holes and makes them less likely to enlarge.

Both types of repair have advantages, and we see no reason why they cannot be in conjunction. Dry repair can continue to be used to reinforce damaged and broken borders, and in small areas of damage, where its transparency is needed. Wet repair can be used in the spine, to give a stronger, more durable repair, and in areas of mass damage, where it is needed to prevent repair build up and distortion.


The adhesive we use is a pure, gluten-free wheat starch paste that can be made up to the required consistency and is flexible when dry. When wet, it seems drier than other water-based adhesives so that it can be used on manuscripts that they would damage or stain. Adding sodium alginate produces an even drier and more flexible paste.

We use mainly Kozo-shi and Tonosawa long fibre tissues which have a hard, smooth surface. They can be dyed to match the folio being repaired.

When selecting materials and adhesives, you must take into account religious sensibilities.

The repair method

A strip of tissue is wet cut to retain the long fibres, and it is placed only where needed, for example on damaged spines, tears, sewing holes and insect holes. The fibres are overlapped on the outside of the folio, where it folds, and then infilled on the inside. The same procedure is followed on the inside folio of each section. This supports and contains the sewing thread.

The folio is left to dry. While a residue of moisture remains in the repair, it is folded to stretch the fibre and then opened out again. It is then placed in a press between blotting paper with boards on either side. At this stage, the repair has enough moisture to keep it relaxed, but not enough to adhere to the blotting paper. The press can be firmed to enable the repair to bond into the original leaf; it should not be pulled down hard. Do not press illuminated or painted manuscripts. Instead, put them under weights.

Sometimes you may need to relax the leaf to avoid stressing the page. To do this, moisten a sheet of blotting paper and interleaf with dry blotting paper, or use an ultrasonic humidifier. You can also use the humidifier to remove some types of stain from manuscript leaves.

When the folio is dry, pare off any surplus repair tissue and rub down with a bone folder to give a smoother surface, if required. Then refold the folios into sections and place under weights. The sections can be tapped down to reduce still further any swell in the repair.


Before breaking down a book, you should note any sewing marks. Even if the book has been rebound, you may be able to see the original sewing holes and sometimes small parts of the original thread. If you find the original thread, note the colours because they may indicate the subject matter of the book (for example, green for the life of the prophet, and red for Islamic law). If the condition of the book allows, you should also note the number of folios in each section. Sections can vary in size even within one book.

Manuscripts were usually sewn on two or four stations. Where possible, use the original sewing stations. We recommend that you use at least four stations for all but the smallest books to alleviate the stress of sewing on the spine of the folios.

Silk is sometimes used to sew books because it can be flattened more easily, but you may also use fine linen or flax thread. Manuscripts were sewn with a basic Islamic link stitch used at the end of sections in western bindings. We often create a link knot inside a section as well as outside. This spreads the strain along the whole length of the sewing and alleviates the stress on weakened or fragile spines. Another advantage is that if the thread breaks, the rest of the sewing will not become loose, as each station is securely knotted.

After sewing, the book is lined and end-banded. Sewing the tic-downs through the lining helps to relieve the stress on the end stations as the linen strengthens the spine. The end band on these manuscripts is usually woven through the sewn tie-downs and the core is paper, linen or leather. Tie-downs occur every section, coming down the centre to the end sewing station to create a continuous line of thread in each section. The first and last sections are sewn twice to give added strength. After the whole width of the book has been sewn, the different colours of end band can be woven through the tie-downs to create the different patterns. The most common pattern is the distinctive chevron, using only two colours. We usually use the two needle method, as it gives a slightly more consistent pattern.


It was difficult to find a compatible paper for endpapers. At the start of the project the only suitable paper we could find was Edinburgh paper made by Hayle Mill in Kent. It was a reasonable colour match, but was, of course, a laid and not a wove paper. We then approached the Moulin de Verger in France and asked them to make a true Islamic paper. After many attempts this proved to be unsuccessful and only a few usable sheets were produced.

In 1993, we heard, at a conference, that the Griffin Mill in Somerset would make paper to our specification. Christine Laver-Gibbs of the mill undertook research into the historical and technical aspects of Islamic paper manufacture. She produced a paper that met most of our requirements: it has a very high fold endurance and tensile strength with some of the characteristic appearance of Islamic paper. It can be made in most weights and colour matched.

Backings, linings, and hollows

Once all the elements of paper repair and sewing structures were brought together, we could produce a book of uniform thickness from fore-edge to spine.

Binders would originally have beaten the text block to reduce any swell created when the book was sewn. There is evidence that backing would have consisted merely of rounding the spine, for they feared that in time the fore-edge flap would protrude. We only occasionally find it necessary to round the spine of newly repaired manuscripts.

We line the spine with Kozo-shi tissue using a tacky wheat starch paste. This creates a release layer which will help if the book has to be broken down again and reduces the penetration of paste between the section folds. The next lining is pure, unstarched (areo) linen or cotton which is well washed and pasted to the spine. It overlaps the text block by about 8cm on each side. The final lining is a light-weight archival paper which is pasted over the linen. Linings must be as flexible and light as possible, and use a minimum of adhesive, to retain a flexible spine.

Originally, we intended to produce a book that could be used flat on a desk or on a western bookstand. This meant that we had to form a hollow spine from a hard board or layers of paper. However, we feel that the addition of the hollow dramatically alters the appearance of the book and the way it functions and so we have given up on that idea.

Boards and coverings

The first Arabic codices were bound in wooden or paste boards. If we have no original boards, or they are in too poor a condition to use, we use archival mill board of the appropriate thickness.

We line the boards with 85gsm archival paper using wheat starch paste. They are dried flat and then cut slightly larger than the text block to protect the pages. You can bevel the inside back edge of the board to compensate for any small swell in the spine.

We then attach the boards to the overlapped spine lining. Alternatively, you can make the cover separately from the text block and attach it in the final stages.

You must take care when reusing original boards as old manuscripts were often reused to make up complete boards, or to line wooden or paste boards. You may be requested to remove these hidden manuscript pages from the covers for analysis.

For covering, we use archival goat or calf skin which is usually just edge-pared. We again use wheat starch paste as the main adhesive. On very large books you may need to use two skins where a fore-edge flap is required. The fore-edge flap is placed under the cover on the text block and is half the width of the board.

Once covered, the endpapers or just the joints can be laid down. The joints tend to be leather, if doublures are to be added.

After covering and laying down the endpapers, the book is placed under pressing boards and blotting paper, lightly weighted, and left to dry.

Before the use of a single fore-edge flap, codices may have been enclosed on all four sides and fastened with ties and thongs. Some books may also have had flaps placed over the cover, but then they would have had thongs or ties through them to hold the flap down.

Various leathers have been used for covering, for example, goat, calf, sheep, deerskin, and exotic skins such as tiger (B.L. ADD 26539). Other cover materials include velvet, brocade, silk, or cotton.

Cover design and decoration

Hand tools, stamps and painted designs were used to decorate covers. The designs can be divided broadly into three categories: animals, plants, and geometrical. Gold would have been applied as a liquid, as gold leaf, or tooled in small points, and burnished with an oyster shell. The patterns would have been built up by combining individual tools and stamps. Leather and paper filigrees with coloured silk grounds were also a prevalent decorative feature.

As a rule, we do not add designs to the manuscripts we rebind with new covers.

Leather dressings of waxes or oils were also applied to finished tooled covers to enhance the appearance of the finishing. We also apply SC6000 wax, as recommended by the Leather Conservation Centre, to new bindings, as a barrier to airborne pollution.

Care and storage

As the manuscripts are rebound as closely to their original style as practicable, it follows that it is also important that the books are stored and used in the most appropriate way to prevent damage and prolong their lives.

The traditional method of protection was to wrap the manuscripts in large, square, cotton cloths (juzdān) which were dyed yellow with arsenic trisulphide (orpiment). The books also had special boxes as well as sleeve cases.

Space limitations in most libraries mean that it is not possible to shelve the books flat as they were originally. The books are now shelved standing upright, which can be quite harmful to near flush bindings, or books with weak structures, or damaged covers or spines.

Drop-down box

Our first solution was to make an acid-free, drop-down box which is padded to support the text block. If ideal storage conditions are not available, boxes can also help as they create their own micro-climate which protects the binding from damage by light and dust.

Islamic book cradle

If Islamic manuscripts are rebound in a tight-back style, they must be supported on a book cradle when read or displayed. The conventional library bookstand is not suitable, for it does not offer sufficient support to the book in the correct areas and may encourage readers to force the spine flat, damaging new bindings and breaking the spines of old or fragile books. The same problems occur when books are used flat on reading desks.

Our first thought was that the manuscripts could be read or displayed in the traditional eastern book cradle, a rahl, which is cut from one piece of wood, with a carved hinge. This cradle holds the book open at approximately 100° for reading. However, we found that the rahl is impractical for someone sitting at a reading desk; it was intended to be used by someone sitting cross-legged on the floor. Its carved construction would also not survive heavy use in a library reading room.

There does not seem to be a suitable, commercially available, book cradle so we have designed and made a new type. The prototype is made from perspex which makes it light, but strong and impervious to insect attack. The V-shaped part of the cradle is angled towards the reader for ease of use. The inner sides of the V are lined with an undyed goatskin to protect the book from damage to its cover. There is a book stop at the base of the V to prevent the book slipping off the stand.

This cradle greatly reduces the stress on Islamic bindings, old and new, for it supports the book in such a way that it is difficult to break the spine or detach the boards.

Box with internal book support

Not every library or collector of Islamic manuscripts would want, or be able to afford, to obtain new Islamic book cradles. A solution to this problem is to construct a box with a built-in book cradle. A drop-down back box is made from inert material. It is padded to support the book in storage. Internally, a simple system of hinged boards lift up, to support the book at a predetermined angle for reading or display.


There are still many developments and studies to be undertaken on the construction of Islamic manuscripts and bindings. In particular, we need more research on relating decorative styles to particular manuscripts. It may be possible to date manuscripts from the type of designs used on their covers. We would then be able to suggest sympathetic patterns and colours for each manuscript.

 We cannot emphasise strongly enough the need for extensive records to be kept for all books that undergo conservation treatments. Curators and librarians could help by supplying background information on manuscripts to the conservators.

 Conservation and use of a book should be seen as a whole, and not as unrelated parts. The pages should be repaired as a volume, and not as single folios, and the book bound in Islamic format. It should then be used and stored in the appropriate manner.


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Source note:

This article was published in the following book:

The Conservation and Preservation of Islamic Manuscripts, Proceedings of the third conference of Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 18th-19th November 1995 - English version, 1995, Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 81-91.

Please note that some of the images used in this online version of this article might not be part of the published version of this article within the respective book.
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