I Break Books (And Put them Together Again): The Sacred Book and Book Conservation

With some trepidation I laid a ruler on the book, just at the hinge of the spine, took up my scalpel and sliced right through the book cloth. With another quick incision along the back, the spine was loose and I peeled it off the text block. The book lay before me in pieces. Does the thought of it make you cringe? Well, me too, a little bit. When I pictured library school curriculum, this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.

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Spine replacement in 3 steps: spine piece removed, liner added, new spine piece attached (with old one pasted on top)

As librarians we’re all about the inside of books. The information transmitted through paper and online resources is paramount. We’re fighters for freedom of information. But, admittedly, for many of us there’s just something about the physical book, something almost sacred. The way they smell, the way they feel. And I think many of our patrons share it too. Certainly some outliers will damage a book. But overall there’s a sense that librarians and library users respect it as an object. We want to handle it gently, reverently, and keep it in use as long as possible.

As a book lover myself, I’ve always been cautious of hurting a book. The thought of getting rid of one is anxiety inducing. Can you really throw a book away? There must be someone, anyone, who wants this book! Once I started working in libraries I realized I wasn’t alone.

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One book in need of new life

Gifts in kind, in the form of boxes full of outdated and dog eared books, would appear at the library each once attached to an owner  who wanted to do the ethical thing and give the books a chance at a new life.

Different libraries do different things with these books. Friends of the Library groups will have a book sale, or perhaps the books will be sent to a community in need via Better World Books. Rarely, in my experience, have donations made it to the stacks. After all, even the library doesn’t keep books forever. Even books purchased by the library are weeded from the collection. At first this distressed me. Over time, I’ve managed to take a more pragmatic view when it comes to the sacredness of library materials. I don’t want anyone being reckless with books. The community paid for them, after all.  But at the same time, people need to be able to find relevant information quickly. If the library is a well-tended garden, it won’t grow what people don’t like and it won’t be choked with weeds.

Library weeding can provoke an emotional response from patrons. In a way, this is wonderful. It means they love and respect books so much that they can’t stand the thought of removing them. On the other hand, it makes stewardship of a well-tended library more difficult. In my weeding adventures, I’d been advised to offer deaccessioned materials to others first if at all possible or, if books simply must be recycled, wait and do it when no one is watching. I would even keep a “shelf of shame” by my office to help justify the practice and filled it with books that said things like, “one day, man may reach the moon!” (If you’d like to see more books that scream for weeding, you might want to check out Awful Library Books.)

Of course, there are the books that are truly painful to deaccession, books that are so loved that they finally fall apart. Some libraries still repair their much loved volumes, but the practice is becoming rarer. Now that books are so easily replaceable, it makes more financial sense to buy a new copy than to mend a cracked spine.

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Once clean, this book will be ready for a paper liner, which should help with its cracked spine.

My previous experience in library book repair involved book glue, tape, and rubber bands. And no matter how much I wanted the glue to work, usually it wouldn’t. However, there is a corner of the library where book mending occurs. That is in rare book conservation.

Through a quirk of fate (I prioritized in-state tuition) I ended up in an LIS program that lets me focus heavily on the book as an object. After two semesters of bookbinding, I qualified for a course in book conservation. And that takes us right back to the moment when I ripped a spine piece off of a book in the name of library science.

According to the American Institute of Conservation (AIC), “Conservation encompasses actions taken toward the long-term preservation of cultural property. Conservation activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventative care, supported by research and education.” One of the things that means is that as a conservation neophyte, I’m not just being careful with old books, I’m taking action to help them. That can mean repairs.

With the spine piece removed, I was able to add a liner, strengthening the text block, and replace the spine with cloth or paper colored to match the rest of the book that could better withstand use. Each step of the process was documented, so future conservators have a paper trail explaining what I’ve done.  It’s like I’ve written one chapter of the book’s biography. My class started with books that we or our professor found and have since progressed to at least one book owned by the University’s Special Collections.

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Book from c.1761 with its cover re-attached and a spring in its step.

Although midterms have only just passed, I feel that I’ve learned a lot not only in terms of skills, but in the way I think about books. After one evening class, when my classmates and I had re-attached leather covers to their books using paper, paste, and acrylics, I proudly told my friends what I’d been allowed to do to a book from the 1700s. “I would be too afraid to even touch such a treasure,” a friend replied.
Admittedly, it’s a little scary to be working with such an old book. There’s something that seems deviant about taking it apart, changing it from its original form. Books can be special things. Sometimes even beyond the information it carries, a book can be a work of art. It deserves respect. But respect doesn’t always mean no scalpels. By going a little bit outside of my comfort zone, I’m living the librarian’s dream: giving a deserving book a new lease on life.

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