A book's running title

Rafe Copeland's picture

We were discussing this at university the other day and noone, the tutor included, knew the answer to this question: why do books have their title at the top of the (often verso) page?

A modern justification might be for photocopying or faxing so the page can be taken out of context, but they were putting the running title of the book at the head of pages centuries before anyone even dreamt of a fax machine.

Any clues?

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

The most basic reason I can think of is to help the reader find his or her place in a book, especially if the title is on the verso and the section or chapter name is on the recto. Another reason would be if a page gets separated from a book, to easily identify it.

But here's an article on running heads, by John D. Berry, which goes into a lot more detail: How to deal with those little scraps of text on a page that tell us what document we're reading, and where we are in it.

Why at the top? Berry writes, "There's a practical advantage to keeping both the running head and the page number at the top of the page. If the text may end at different points on different pages, or if you might need to add a line or cut a line at the bottom of the page to avoid a widow, then a running foot would draw attention to these variations; a running head would not."

Don McCahill's picture

If I recall some of my earlier Dicken's books, the title was not always in the header. In those cases, text that referred to the content of the page appeared in the headers, describing the action on the page.

will powers's picture

The John Berry article noted above pretty much says it all. That's a good place to start.

Keep in mind that each book's needs have to be considered; there's no one-size fits-all way to handle running heads. I'm looking at a recent book done here. On the verso we placed the part-title rather than the chapter title. No folio on the verso. On the recto, only the folio. Why? I'm not sure. Probably as Berry remarked: sometimes we just do these kinds of things to running heads for something "different" or "noticeable," to prove we are designers.

The content of running heads is primarily an editorial decision, rarely a design decision. When an editor hands over a manuscript for design, there should be a separate file with the contents for running heads. The appearance of running heads is primarily a design decision, often done in consultation with the editor.


paragraph's picture

As for the usage, let's not forget encyclopedias and dictionaries or even catalogs and manuals. First entry–last entry rather than book title–chapter title, as is the case with fiction. For the real origin I would even look at the religious texts. 2¢

charles ellertson's picture

I didn't read the Berry article, so if I repeat, forgive me. But I think Will has it about right, it is an editorial prerogative.

BTW, in journals, the article title is often on the verso, author on the recto.

When done best, the running heads often mirror the contents page. There are books where the A-level subheads are listed in the contents. In such cases, the best running head structure would be chapter title on the verso, current A-head on the rightie.

If subheads aren't on the contents, but there are part titles (& they'd be on the contents page), then it would be part title on the verso, CT on the recto.

The contents page and running heads work best as a sort of mini-index, that is, helping the reader find what they are interested in in the book/journal. Seems to me a lot of contemporary editors forget this -- or I'm out-of-date again.

Repeating the book title for 300 pages sort of implies you think the reader is too stupid to be reading the book anyway. But come to think on it, that's how a lot of editors seem to feel, so maybe it is appropriate.


Ricardo Cordoba's picture

For the real origin I would even look at the religious texts.

I found some signs of this, doing several searches on Google, after I posted my first comment. For example, The Cambridge History of the Bible mentions a 1540 folio with running heads "alluding to the content of the page below."

keoxa's picture

Often times many "books" were bound together in a collection. The tradition lives on in anthologies, and it pays to have the name of the book as a running head in such projects. Books bound by themselves really don't need running heads – says Bringhurst, too! – unless of course they are reference books or late editions of classics that might be excerpted or otherwise used academically.

Don McCahill's picture

Keoxa may have it. In the 1600s, books were sold unbound. You had the bookseller do binding according to how much wealth you had, and the amount you wanted to spend. Samuel Pepys mentions this many times in his diary, as he was amassing his eventually large library.

I suspect the very stingy book buyer might have several smaller books bound together to save costs. In such a case a tradition of putting the title on the running heads may have developed.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

Adding to the last comment: in the 1800’s novels were often serialized*, eg published in several instances of a limited number of chapters, to make them more affordable to the masses. Often more affluent readers would have the collected copies bound.
Using running titles would surely have been helpful.

. . .
Bert Vanderveen BNO

*) Those of Charles Dickens for instance.

Don McCahill's picture

True Bert. But the serialization was not normally in book sections, but in magazines of the day, where one episode of the Dickens tale would be a portion of the content of the magazine. Initially Dickens worked for other publishers, and eventually he published magazines in which his own works would appear. I doubt that the magazine sections would be suitable to binding, but never having seen any, I cannot attest to this.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

I may be wrong, but I recall that at least some of D’s novels were published in mutiple volumes. Maybe that’s where I got confused.

. . .
Bert Vanderveen BNO

Nick Shinn's picture

I would suggest that it is for reasons to do with the aesthetics (i.e. ergonomics) of reading, that at the beginning of each page the reader needs a semantic marker which visually acts as a buffer zone.

Why does a door (window/picture) need a frame?

Bert Vanderveen's picture

Nick, would that not be like labeling every door in your home with the full address?

. . .
Bert Vanderveen BNO

Nick Shinn's picture

Not really.
Usually the front entrance is more elaborate than those inside.
Like the title page.

Chiba Chiba's picture

Is there any study that indicates if people tend to be more attracted to folios – and running titles – on verso or recto? I wonder if this is connected to how one usually holds the book ( left or right hand).
I am currently designing a book, and been thinking on using only the chapter's title together with the folio on the bottom – aligned to outer margins. I'm using the chapter's title only on the recto, and only the folio on the verso as it appears to be less distractive.

Chris Rugen's picture

A practical reason for keeping these running head conventions would be the situation where you're at a desk or in a library with multiple volumes open. This would help you identify a given book without having to pick it up. You're also more likely to lay the top of one book on the bottom of another, to angle it toward you.

Chiba Chiba's picture

That is a good point Chris. But for me it would make more sense in technical books; when your doing research or studying. In novels or poetry, the person is more likely to be focused in one volume at a time.

What I don't know, is what percentage or users might flip a book with a right hand – keeping sight of verso folios – or with a left hand – keeping sight or recto folios. And if that's connected with being right or left-handed; or not.

paragraph's picture

What about reading left-to-right and top-to-bottom, which is culturally dependent, rather than left- or righ-handed?

Chiba Chiba's picture

Suppose that for any editorial reason you decide to go with only one folio per spread. Would it be more functional to have it on the right or left page? I know that while reading your eye always ends at the bottom right corner. But if your flipping it and searching for an specific page or chapter I don't find that 100% true. Thank you all anyway.

will powers's picture

@ Chiba:

If you have decided to use only one folio per spread, you should just decide where you want that folio for design reasons. In a few pages readers will be accustomed to its placement, and when they need folios they'll find them with no problem. Don't make too much of a scientific quest out of this question.

I have seen single-folio spreads with folios in just about every conceivable position. I doubt readers had trouble finding them. With the exception of the following:

One always wants to be wary of placing folios too close into the bind gutter. Depending on how the book is bound, you risk losing folios in the bind. & if the book is ever re-bound, good-bye folios.


Don McCahill's picture


I find your sample feels unbalanced. I keep getting the idea that the recto folio isn't finished. I have seen some folio arrangements where a single title is split, half on each side of the folio, and omitted when a verso chapter end means the second half will not appear on the recto.

As was said before, there are no rules.

Chiba Chiba's picture

@ Will: I totally agree with you. I know there is no answer to my question. I just wanted to hear different points of view.

@Don: I think it feels unbalanced as well. That's not final. I was just trying different approaches. I have some more traditional versions as well.


bowerbird's picture

> Suppose that for any editorial reason
> you decide to go with only one folio per spread.
> Would it be more functional to have it on the right or left page?

most pictures are put on the recto. why do you think that's so?

when chapter-headers are intentionally placed only on one side,
it's the recto side: why do you think that's so?

however, if by "folio", you mean page-number,
then if you made an "editorial" decision to only
place it on the recto or the verso, then i think
the functional thing to do is to kill the "editor"
who made that "editorial decision", and the _most_
functional thing is to do it as quickly as possible...

("painfully" too, if possible, but most importantly,


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