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Storage and Handling
4.7 The Book Shoe: Description and Uses

Books of all sorts need protection and support. Books may be damaged and need to be held together while awaiting repair or as an alternative to repair; they may be made of particularly vulnerable materials; or they may be of special value. In most libraries these needs can be met by a variety of boxes, folders, and shelf envelopes. Complete enclosure that protects books from light and airborne pollution is by far the best solution. But where books also play a part in the appearance of a fine library room, whether in a historic library or in any other venue where the books themselves should be open to view, the extensive use of boxes is unacceptable. As a result, these books have largely gone without the protection and support so easily procured for books in closed stacks or in reading rooms that are more functional than elegant. This does not mean, of course, that such books are in any less need of protection and support. The book shoe was developed to supply an almost invisible container to carry out at least some of the functions of a conventional box. It is also inexpensive and simple to make.

Many western bookbinders have never mastered the stress factors set up in the vertically stored book (Figure 1): the drag of the text block within the boards (A) causes that characteristic flattening at the head of the spine (B) and increased rounding at its tail (C), and leads to breakup at the head of the joints (D). Such stresses are exacerbated when the closed book is left unsupported and free to expand and partially open (E). To avoid this, concerned library personnel try to pack their book shelves tightly. But this encourages damage to head caps and abrasion to side boards during removal. If a book with tail squares (the part of the board that extends beyond the bottom of the text block) must be stood vertically, the best method is to encase it entirely in a tailor-made, well-constructed book box that includes a text-block support to halt the downward drag of the closed text block. If this is not possible because the book must be regarded as a decorative feature, one should at least keep the fore edge tightly closed and provide a tailored text-block support piece (F). Slipcases, which have a closed top, have sometimes been used for this purpose. But, they are now thought of as harmful to bookbindings, particularly ones with fragile or friable exterior surfaces, because of the abrasion caused by the design.

The book shoe is in essence a slipcase without a top that is fitted with a text-block support. The shoe holds the book closed and the support removes much of the strain on the text block of a vertically shelved book.

Book shoes do the following:

  • supply a simple means of text-block support
  • protect the sides of decorated or fragile bindings, such as those covered in textiles, from their neighbors
  • isolate books with metal furniture such as clasps or bosses, and prevent the metalwork from damaging the books on either side (although it is strongly recommended to house such bindings in custom-made book boxes)
  • prevent textile or leather ties from being caught under neighboring books
  • reduce wear to the tail edges of binding boards as books are drawn in and out of shelves
  • allow books to be moved without the binding being touched.

To minimize abrasion, splay open the top of the shoe slightly as the book is inserted at an angle and is slid down over the text-block support. When all the books on the shelf are in shoes, the temptation may be to leave the shoe in place on the shelf and remove the book from it, but this defeats the purpose, encouraging clawing and abrasion damage—the same in fact as objected to in extracting books from tightly packed shelving or from slipcases. Always extract (and insert) the book and its shoe together from a bookshelf.

One can make elaborately constructed book shoes and cover them in cloth, but the time required will increase the cost, and if too thick, the book shoe may be noticeable on the bookshelf. The following specifications are for the production of simple and economic book shoes to house books by the thousands.

The book shoe should be made of an acid-free, lignin-free board that has good folding quality and mechanical strength for wall stability. One millimeter thickness of board works best, except for books under seven inches high when a slightly thinner board may be substituted. The board should have a smooth surface, minimizing abrasion to delicate book surfaces. A homogeneous hard-rolled board, such as a nonlayer millboard, works best because it creates minimum piping (G) on the fold (Figure 2). Board fewer than one to two millimeters thick can be folded in on the creased side (opposite to traditional box creasing) so that "piping" does not occur on the inside of the shoe. The machine direction of the board in the finished book shoe should run vertically with the book. (The machine direction is the direction in which most of the fibers run. The board flexes and creases more easily parallel to the machine direction than against it.) The color of the board's exterior should blend with the books when shelved. The text-block support should also be made of an acid-free, lignin-free material and should be obtained in different thicknesses. The adhesive to fix together the two sides of the shoe should meet conservation standards of chemical stability and have the requisite strength to do the job.

If means of handling large sheets of board are not available, one can cut the sheets into standard-format sizes and have the creases formed commercially. The standard-format sizes required relate to the diversity of dimensions of books in the collection. A sample of format sizes is shown below; these are useful for general mixed collections. They are a compromise between the sizes required and the board size.

Sample Standard Sizes

  Height x Width x Depth
S1 270 mm x 210 mm x 100 mm
S2 320 mm x 245 mm x 100 mm
S3 370 mm x 285 mm x 100 mm
S4 500 mm x 385 mm x 100 mm
S5 680 mm x 525 mm x 100 mm


The book shoe is made in two parts, each forming one side of the shoe and overlapping on the fore edge and the bottom (Figure 3). These sides can be cut down to fit the book and then fixed together with a combination of brass staples (placed so they do not catch any part of the book) and/or adhesive. The shoe should be used with a text-block support. The support is cut from a separate board with a thickness equal to the tail square of the volume. Each side of the shoe is creased twice, with the second crease at a right angle to the first. Tthe corner can be cut out of the board by hand or a template can be made to cut out the corner by machine.

Shoes are made with a left and right side as you look at them from the front (open side), with flaps that overlap each other at the back (where the fore edge of the book goes) and at the tail edge (bottom). The width and height measurements of the left side must be smaller than those on the right side; the amount smaller should be about one and one-half times the thickness of the board from which the shoe is made. The left side should be smaller and fit into the right side so that when stuck together, the head and front edges are exactly level. The board should be creased where the flaps are to be folded. This can be done with any one of several commercially available creasing devices or be stamped out by a boxing firm if this is more economical. Top-front corners are rounded.

With a well-organized setup and proper equipment, exactly fitting book shoes can be made in ten to 15 minutes. Although book shoes do not offer ideal protection and support for volumes, they fulfill many of the functions of a custom-made box and are a cost-effective, aesthetically acceptable option for books that must be preserved while being displayed.

The book shoe was developed by Nicholas Pickwoad while consultant at the National Trust in England. The commercial design was developed by Christopher Clarkson, then at West Dean College, Chichester, England, and Anthony Cains, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.


This preservation leaflet is an update of the 1999 leaflet written by Christopher Clarkson, Conservator in Private Practice, Oxford, England, and Sherelyn Ogden, Head of Conservation, Minnesota Historical Society. NEDCC gratefully acknowledges Margaret R. Brown, upon whose 1999 drawings the current illustrations were based.


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