Steve Ness, Librarian and Archivist

Are we able to identify Anabaptist books by looking at their bindings? In May I was privileged to share the LMHS Rare Book Collection with three visitors who are traveling around the country, studying “Anabaptist” book bindings—Consuela Metzger from the Library Conservation Center at UCLA, Erin Hammeke from Duke University Libraries, and Alexander Ames from the University of Delaware.

The three are examining binding characteristics of pre-twentieth century books that appear to be uniquely Anabaptist, such as leather straps over the head and tail of the spine and brass adornment on the covers of the books. Indeed, the books with these characteristics in our Rare Book Collection all were either typical Anabaptist publications, such as the Ausbund, or were owned by Anabaptist families.

Very little research has been conducted regarding these “Anabaptist bindings,” sometimes called “Jura bindings,” so the work being done by this trio is fascinating while also raising more questions. Why would Anabaptists—with a reputation for frugal pragmatism—have added ornamentation to their bindings? How were sixteenth to eighteenth-century bindings of Anabaptist books in the Jura region of Switzerland similar to or different from non-Anabaptist books? Are these binding characteristics distinctly Swiss-German or are they found among other Mennonite communities as well?

Hopefully some of these questions will be addressed (if not completely answered) in an upcoming essay by Metzger, Hammeke, and Ames. It is scheduled to be published in volume 6 of the journal, Suave Mechanicals, which is expected to be released in late 2019 or early 2020.

If you would like to examine the rare book collection or take advantage of any of our other resources, visit the library Tuesday through Saturday, 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. Use of the library is free for members, students; there is a $7 fee for nonmembers.