Direction line

A book printed from the handpress-era is very antiquated and looks dissimilar to a modern printed page because many of the common features of the hand-press book are now simply archaic. These now obsolete features at one point in time used to provide directions for folding the pages, setting the text up for printing, assembling the sheets of paper for binding etc. Once books started to be more frequently made by machine, the previous features were deemed no long necessary and eventually disappeared from the entire book printing process. One common feature of the handpress-era was the Direction Line.

Intrinsically, the Direction Line can be defined simply by saying it is ‘used to indicate the line of characters when the abbreviated title of a book, called Designation mark, follows the signature mark, or letter, which is printed at the foot of the first page of each sheet, to guide the binder when gathering’ (Prytherch 216).

Another definition states the Direction Line is ‘the line of type in an old book which bears both the signature and the catchword. It is usually located below the lowest line of the text. If the signature and catchword are on separate lines, the lower is called the Direction Line’ (Etherington and Roberts 156). This definition, while different, is also correct.

Though there are multiple variations of definitions from a range of sources; the fundamental explanations are the same.

Fig. 1

As shown, the Direction Line can be found in the same place at the bottom of the page. It is at the bottom recto of the first leaf or sometimes the first couple leaves of each gathering. The reason it is called the Direction Line is because its sole purpose was to provide a guide for how the set pages should be assembled after they were printed. It helped give better clarity when assembling the book, because it acted as a guide to the process of folding the fully printed sheet of paper into a gathering. The words printed on the Direction Line ensured that the sheet was properly folded after it had been printed.

Fig. 2

The Direction Line serves as reference information, of the catchword and the signature, but sometimes it also may contain the page or volume number, the date, or the press figures. The inclusion of the press figure sometimes occurred after 1690 onward, but only became common in the 1720s.  But almost always, in books that contain them, the Direction Line will have the signature (often near the centre) and the catchword (often to the right).  The catchword is also called the ‘direction word’ as it helped guide in the assembly of the book, since it was the first word of the next page, printed on the bottom of the previous page.

Fig. 3

In an article about the Direction Line being used as Bibliographical evidence, on a problem with sheet ‘K’ in John Crowne’s City Politiques (1683) author B.J. McMullin states,‘It is perhaps unlikely that the direction line will provide crucial evidence in resolving textual problems in more than the occasional instance. But the positive results it affords in the instance of sheet K of City Politiques—when all other tests had proved inconclusive—do at least indicate its potential value’ (McMullin 184). Additionally, the importance of the Direction Line is discussed in another article stating,  ‘the headline and direction-line are especially important, since these will often include the date as well as the volume and issue numbers. Headlines and direction lines are often removed in bound volumes issued by the publisher’ (Ives 61-94).


Prytherch, Raymond John. Harrod’s Librarians’ Glossary and Reference Book: A Directory of Over 10,200 Terms, Organizations, Projects and Acronyms in the Areas of Information Management, Library Science, Publishing and Archive Management. Tenth Edition. Burlington, VT, USA: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005. 216. Print. (Web).
McMullin, B.J. ‘The Direction Line as Bibliographical Evidence: Sheet K in Crowne’s “City Politiques”, 1683.’ JSTOR. 31. (1978): 178-184. Print. (Web).
McDayter, Mark. ‘The Printer’s Devil Project.’ Printer’s Devil Project. (2012): n. page. Web. 17 Oct. 2012.
Etherington, Don, and Matt T. Roberts. Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology . 156. Print. (Web).
Ives, Maura. ‘Descriptive Bibliography and the Victorian Periodical.’ Studies in Bibliography.(Vol 49: 1996) [pp. 61-94]. Web.

Fig. 1: Direction line below the text
Fig. 2: McDayter, 2012.
Fig. 3: First signature in the book proper reading “B” in the direction line of fol.

Contributed by Murphy McVey.


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