3/24/2010

You can’t Judge a Book by its Cover but how about by its Book Jacket?

If you weren’t paying attention last year, you missed it!

In April, 2009; the world’s oldest book jacket was discovered in the Oxford University’s Bodleim Library. The jacket covered Friendship Offering a book published in 1830.

Book jackets in the 19th century were protection for the book until it reached the bookshop or the customer. Lighting by candles and heat by coal or wood meant soot and ash in 19th century homes and shops were constantly present.  Book jackets sole function in the 19th century was to keep books clean until sold.  The book jacket was wrapped around the entire book much like the shrink wrap today.  The book jacket was discarded by the book seller to display the book or by the book buyer after purchase.

Book jackets remained plain and functional until the 1920’s when the dust jackets took their current promotional role.   In the 1920’s, color printing of a dust jacket became cheaper than producing decorative covers on books.  During this period, the dust jacket changed into the current format:  large color illustration on the front cover, the front flap with a description of the book, the rear flap with a short biography of the author and the rear dust jacket with promotional quotes about author and short excerpts of reviews of the author’s previous books.

In the antiquarian book trade, a book with a dust jacket is worth considerably more than one without.  According to the book bot at ABE.com, a first edition of The Great Gatsby in original dust jacket is available for sale for $500,000 while several copies of the first edition without dust jacket are offered from $3000 to $5000.    This large price spread has lead to a deceptive practice of marrying book jackets.  A book jacket from a subsequent edition or printing is used the first edition copy to increase its value.  This practice is difficult to detect because the characteristics of first editions such as color of binding cloth, type graphical errors and other marks are widely recorded and known but details of first edition dust jackets are not well documentated. Sometimes the dust jacket was changed only slightly between editions and printings.1

Until the 1950’s, libraries discarded most book jackets. Some public libraries started preserving dust jackets on their books for the jacket’s promotional benefits.  Early plastic materials cracked or yellowed. Mylar resisted cracking and yellowing becoming the standard material for preserving dust jackets.  Langsdale Library discarded dust jackets until 1995.  Now, all books with dust jackets are preserved in Mylar sleeves that are taped to the books.

Yes, you can judge a book by its dust jacket in Langsdale Library.  A dust jacket means the book was acquired after 1995.
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1 Bartlett., Allison. Man Who Loved Books Too Much. Riverhead Books, 2009.  P.153-54. Note, this book has a dust jacket protected by a Mylar sleeve in Langsdale Library.

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