Bound or unbound: what’s the difference?

February 17, 2009 by  
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Many of our listings include a comment “never bound nor trimmed” and you may have wondered what that meant, or what the alternative might be. The alternative is what is mostly found in the market of early newspapers today: issues which have been “disbound” with trimmed margins.

For hundreds of years it was common practice for institutions, typically libraries and historical societies, to maintain a complete set of newspapers which were within their scope of interest, commonly the locally published newspaper. And to make such storage easy so patrons could easily access issues of a specific year, newspapers were gathered together and bound into what was essentially a large book, typically 3, 6 or possibly 12 months to the volume depending on the number of pages per issue. The New York Times and other dailies of the mid-20th century bound just 15 issues per volume.

When microfilming became popular in the 1950’s institutions found this alternative a dramatic improvement over the “hard copy”, as microfilm took considerably less space, was much easier to handle, and easier to access the specific date or article needed. As a result, institutions “deaccessioned”, or got rid of the heavy, dusty volumes in favor of microfilm causing huge quantities of newspapers to come on the market. I would guess 98% of the early newspapers available today came from such bound volumes, as they can be carefully disbound, returning the newspapers once again to single-issue status. But with most institutions having already gone through this deaccessioning process, volumes of newspapers are getting increasingly difficult to find.

In the binding process, much like the book binding process, the edges of the newspapers were trimmed with a guillotine cutter causing all 3 exposed edges to be neat & uniform. If a few of the newspapers were not neatly bound into their proper location some of the text might be lost when the volume was trimmed. You may have a few such issues in your collection.

This process explains why so many newspapers 100+ years old might look in near mint condition without a fold & with straight, even edges. They have been protected within the volume and likely sat on a shelf for over 100 years without being touched by human hands. Such issues are nice additions to newspaper collections.

But lucky is the person who is able to find a newspaper purchased off the street so many years ago and put away until being discovered, avoiding the binding and trimming process. The margins will be wider and most 8 page issues fold out to be one huge sheet of newspaper. Typically the downside to such issues is they are more heavily worn not having been protected within a bound volume, exposed to the elements, and typically handled much more frequently through the years.

In my opinion a never-bound, untrimmed issue would be preferable to a bound & trimmed issue as they are definitely more rare and exhibit their natural state as sold on the the date of issue. Finding such an issue in nice, clean condition is the best of both worlds, but condition is usually the trade-off: if you want your issues to be beautiful and clean, you’ll have more luck with disbound issues; if you want your issues to be “as issued” you’ll likely have to accept wear, soiling and ruffled margins.

How do you deal with the disbound or never-bound dilemma for issues going into your collection?

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3 Responses to “Bound or unbound: what’s the difference?”

  1. Todd And on February 17th, 2009 8:57 am

    Great post, Tim! I remember hearing that a previously bound newspaper also proves authenticity since institutions wouldn’t have reprints bound into volumes. That may be an important litmus test for common reproductions. Would you agree with that?

    Also, what is the best way to go about breaking up bound volumes into single issues? I have a heavily worn 20th century volume that contains one or two issues of interest. Rather than let the whole volume sit with all the torn issues around it, I’d rather break it up and preserve the one issue of interest in a mylar sleeve or something. I’d love to know the appropriate to process so I don’t harm or devalue the good issues. Thanks!

  2. TimHughes on February 17th, 2009 9:19 am

    Todd– Yes, a very good point about once-bound issues being almost a guarantee of authenticity. Only once in 33 years have I seen reprint issues come from a bound volume & they were the Pennsylvania Gazette issues of the 1700’s which I am discussing in my March 26 post–be on the lookout for it. Otherwise if you find evidence of an issue having once been bound, such as remnants of glue at the spine or tiny binding holes at the left margin, you can feel comfortable in knowing you have a genuine newspaper.

    As for breaking up bound volumes, this is a great topic for a separate post which we’ll get up on our blog very soon–stay tuned everyone!

  3. Todd And on February 17th, 2009 10:03 am

    Terrific! Thanks for the quick response, Tim. I look forward to your upcoming posts.

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