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Senate House Library

Unbound possibilities: Introducing the Spineless Wonders Project


Written by
Tansy Barton & Leila Kassir, Academic Librarians, Senate House Library

Discover the Spineless Wonders project & network celebrating the variety, creativity, history and relevance of ephemeral printed forms... 

The ‘Spineless Wonders’ Project: An Introduction

150 years ago, Senate House Library (SHL) received its first print collections containing over 4,000 items which we are celebrating with our SHL150 online exhibition and campaign. These collections were the foundations of the library, which today contains circa two million printed works, primarily books and journals, on the humanities, arts and social sciences. What may not be immediately apparent is that nestling amongst the books and journals are numerous works of a more ephemeral nature: pamphlets, flyers, posters, booklets, broadsides, leaflets, manuscripts, and scrolls. These ephemeral works were often published without the stabilising and visible structure of a spine, and are instead folded, stapled, stab-stitched, rolled, single leaf (for adhering to walls or folding into pockets), or formed into alternative book structures. Many of these works were also created outside academia or today’s mainstream publishing structures and have their roots instead in more fluid and unregulated spheres such as community and political activism, protest, subcultures, countercultures, early print cultures, and artistic practice. These works may be ‘spineless’ in format but their content is often forthright, urgent, direct, and informed by a passionate desire for expression.

Throughout 2021-2022, SHL is collaborating with the Institute of English Studies (IES) at SAS and other universities and institutions in the Spineless Wonders network to celebrate the variety, creativity, history and relevance of these ephemeral printed forms. Activity includes three online events, each consisting of three discursive panels with a wide range of spineless publications explored. 

Black Eye Perceptions

The Value of the Spineless

Spineless Wonders interprets ‘spinelessness’ in a very broad sense. The spineless often exists outside the mainstream of established publishing and book production, and of book history, crossing grey areas of DIY and small-scale printing and ephemeral material produced to be disposable. These types of productions haven’t always been collected and preserved by archives and libraries. However, they can be found in many collections, although not always catalogued and described in an accessible way.  The spineless format has often provided an outlet and platform for marginalised voices, documenting alternative and radical views and perspectives. There is also the idea of what the format of spinelessness means.  It lends itself to experimental content and forms of printing, page layout and typography - important aspects of print history which spineless collections provide rich resources for exploring.

Spineless Wonders covers both materials produced without a spine and objects that have been removed from bindings. Items that were often viewed as disposable such as fragments of manuscripts, newsprint cuttings, or letters illuminate the past in unexpected ways and can give glimpses of what has been lost.

Gay Liberation Front Manifesto, 1971 from the Heisler Collection

Discover More about Senate House Library’s Spineless Collections

As part of the Spineless Wonders project, a knowledge base introduces spineless material from the collections of the participating libraries. You can already explore a range of material from Senate House Library’s collections; the content will grow over the course of the project’s first year. Currently, among other items, there are examples of artists’ books produced by Theresa Easton for the Library’s Queer Between the Covers exhibition that use different spineless formats to tell LGBTQ+ history; a selection of pamphlets produced by London community presses, selected from the Ron Heisler Collection of left-wing politics and radical movements; and an example of medieval ‘recycling’ with a manuscript that re-uses fragments of other manuscript material in the construction of its binding. These items reflect different aspects and approaches to spineless material and how content and textual objects are produced, used and presented.

Spineless Wonders: First Event, November 2021
The first event took place in November 2021, during which the spineless productions covered across the sessions ranged from ancient Egyptian ostraca (pot shards used as a writing surface) and fragments of medieval manuscript to spineless books in boxes produced by artists and the use and reuse of korsan kitap (pirated publications) by students in Turkey.

SHL and the IES convened the first panel of the day, which was chaired by Gustavo Grandal Montero, the Tate’s Library Collections and Engagement Manager, and focussed on artists’ books with a particular emphasis on how these textual creations, which so often play and experiment with the form of the book, either enable or disrupt the act of reading. The discussion was wide-ranging and provocative. Sarah Bodman highlighted how we might interact with books through non-linear reading and participatory projects that explore books, reading and memory; Karen Sandhu focussed on Susan Hillier’s After the Freud Museum (which added objects to the spineless mix) and considered its role as both archive and installation; Gill Partington presented a range of ‘books in boxes’ and questioned the relationship between a book’s inside and outside; and Egidija Ciricaite discussed her artistic practice and explored the role of the ‘spine’ in relation to her poetic book works. 

Spineless Wonders: Forthcoming Events, February and May 2022
There are two online Spineless Wonders events this year, with broad themes as follows: 
•    February 18th: Community presses; Multilingualism and translation; Ephemera and the environment
•    May 13th: Queer publishing; Digital forms of the book and the archive; Roundtable and making a global book. 

SHL and the IES are again convening the first panels of each event, on Community Presses and Queer Publishing. Details of speakers and booking information will be available shortly before each event so keep an eye on the Spineless Wonders website and the SHL and IES Twitter feeds. 

Dell O'Dell: on both sides of the footlights by Dell O’Dell, c.1946