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Recase, Reback, Fan Glue...

The books come in, the books go out.

Every Monday, book conservator Lena Warren ventures out to the Circulation Department of the Eisenhower Library and returns to the preservation lab in Krieger Hall pushing a cart laden with dozens of tattered, ripped, and damaged books. There are books without covers and books with ripped spines, books with missing pages and books with tiny tears, and books that look like they spent the semester under a bus.

"You have to get the books in and out as quickly as possible," says Warren, whose department repairs some 2,000 books each year.

Freshman Thomas Harvey rebacks books from General Collections whose spines have split from their bindings. Most of the damage she and the other conservators see is caused by use. Scoot a book down from a shelf with your index finger on the binding and flip it open. Drop the book on its spine. Turn a page too fast and hear the paper rip. Leave the book open so that its pages whip in the breeze, or place an open book down on a table for an extended period of time. Get a book too wet or too dry, too hot, too cold, too humid or not humid enough. Do any of these things and you've done your part in adding to a book's demise.

Though controlling temperature and humidity can help stave off deterioration, all books have a shelf life of sorts. Whether their paper is made of wood pulp or papyrus, linen rag or birch bark, they are all susceptible to dirt and water, rips and tears, mold and mildew, and other forms of decay. This became apparent in recent decades when librarians realized that wood pulp paper widely used in publishing between 1840 and 1980 had a high acid content. The result: a very serious brittle paper problem affecting some 120 million volumes. The National Endowment for the Humanities has assisted libraries in their effort to microfilm more than 1 million brittle books, and the hope is to preserve 3 million of the most endangered volumes.

At Hopkins, once the damaged books reach the Preservation Lab, they are sorted by the extent of their damage onto shelves bearing labels like Spine Repair, Recase, Reback, Fan Glue, Text Block, and Odd Repairs. Student workers — usually undergraduates who receive extensive training — help repair much of the damage.

Thomas Harvey is one of them. A freshman who has worked at the preservation lab for the past year, he sits one spring afternoon at a work table surrounded by a handful of books with titles like Probability Concepts in Engineering Planning and Design Volume II and The Spirit and Origin of Christian Monasticism. He is in the midst of rebacking the books — a fairly complicated process used to fix books with spines that have split from their bindings.

Harvey has already used a small knife to slice off the front and back covers or "boards" of the Probability Concepts book and has removed the book's endsheets and its textblock. He attaches a new spine cloth to the boards, then paints the endsheets with glue and attaches them to the boards. He shuts the book and surveys his work. With a sharp knife and a straight edge, he trims the end sheets so that they no longer peek out from the binding. Then he takes the book, places it in a large green book press in between two plates, and ratchets down the weight on top of the book so that the glue will fuse with the binding. "I never thought there were so many steps to this," says the young physics major. "Book repair is kind of like cooking," he says. "As you do more, you can kind of alter the recipe a little." — MB

Return to "Preservation's Crumbling Future"
Return to June 2006 Table of Contents

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