A new exhibit this month at the Yale Law School Library showcases the bindings of books, rather than their pages.

“Reflections on Bindings: Using New Imaging Technology to Study Historical Bindings” uses a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging to illuminate certain designs and inscriptions on bookbindings that are difficult to discern due to age and wear. The exhibit is the product of several years of planning and research by Yale Library Chief Conservator Christine McCarthy and a team of conservation assistants.

“It’s hard to see through the wear and tear of centuries,” said Mike Widener, the rare book librarian at the Law School who helped facilitate the exhibit. “With this imaging technology that they’ve used, it literally just jumps out at you.”

The exhibit is divided into four main sections, each featuring four books dated from the 16th to the 18th centuries from the Law Library’s rare book collection. High-resolution images accompany the books to illustrate different facets of RTI technology.

McCarthy said that RTI technology first came to Yale a few years ago after several conservators and photographers received the training necessary to use it. Using software to synthesize the images, she said, the team was able to see the books in enhanced detail and view them from multiple angles on a computer.

Widener said the RTI technology employed in the exhibit illustrates that book conservationists do not merely conduct repairs, but are important assets to research and scholarship. Fionnuala Gerrity, a Yale conservation assistant who worked on the exhibit, said her team was able to find exact matches on two of the bindings’ decorative motifs by searching through Einbanddatenbank, a German database of bookbindings from the 15th and 16th centuries.

One section of the exhibit focuses on blind-stamped binding, as featured on all the books on display.

“Blind-stamped means that no color, gold or gilt was added — it’s simply an impression made with a heated tool,” McCarthy said. “You can trace the use of different symbols, different tools and things that came out of different bookbindery operations in order to set things in their historical context.”

The last section of the exhibit highlights opportunities for applying RTI images to the field of comparative literature, as detailed parallels may be found between holdings at different libraries.

Before RTI, rubbings were used to procure details from the bookbindings, making direct contact with books through friction. McCarthy said that while rubbings are conducted with care, they are difficult to master and do not provide nearly as much detail as RTI.

Several people involved in the exhibit concurred that bookbindings can provide a wealth of information about books’ historical contexts.

“It actually allows us to read these book covers, because they are, in a sense, texts,” Widener said.

Books were typically bound relatively close to of their original owners’ locations prior to the proliferation of publishers’ bindings, Aaron Pratt GRD ’16, a graduate student knowledgeable about book bindings, said in an email. He said that based on their decorations and underlying structures, bindings can be potentially be traced to where they were purchased. Pratt added that bindings can also shed light on how the book trade worked at the time, or how different binders developed a range of bookmaking techniques.

But a binding does not necessarily reveal how a book was perceived, Pratt said, as wealthy owners often had all of their books finely bound regardless of their content.

“For all that bindings can tell us, then, we should always heed the old adage and be careful not to judge a book by its cover,” he said.

The exhibit will close on May 24, 2014.