Thursday, March 11, 2010

An old book for the New Year

The theme for today's post is "Things I haven't done in a while." Obviously the first of those is to write a blog entry. The second was to repair a book.

The last book a friend gave to me to repair ended up looking like this. After working full-time for seven years on book preservation in the library, I've been using my studio time more recently to make artists' books, or blank books as gifts. At the end of last year, though, I went back to my repair roots in order to fix a book for my friend Alan, and learned some new techniques in the process.

The book itself was an anthology of literature and essays published in 1942 by New Directions. Alan is a friend from college -- a fellow passionate reader with whom I still share any new favorite book or literary discovery, almost 20 years later. The work in the book represents the same period and movements whose discovery challenged and changed us during those college years, so repairing it was more than a simple act of doing a favor for a friend. On another level it was an attempt to restore some of the impossible sheen that literature held for me (us) at the time, maybe to extend this one book's life toward the immortality all books promised.

Well I've been guts-deep in enough old, decaying books now to know that that promise is about as realistic as finding the Fountain of Youth in our septic tank, but obviously some of the old romantic notion still lingers.

When Alan sent the book to me, its spine was torn and tattered but otherwise it was pretty well intact. I could have done a simple repair to replace the spine and the book would've been whole and usable again. There were obviously some problems with the materials, though. Not only was the spine torn, but it was badly discolored. The endsheets, too, had browned worse than the inner pages over the years. That seemed to indicate that the boards themselves were degrading badly. So I decided to do a much more extensive overhaul.

Sure enough, when I disbound the book and got down to the boards, they were soft and crumbly. They were a danger not only to themselves, but to the rest of the book's materials, too. While I wanted to replace those boards, I also wanted to re-use as much of the original material as possible so that it would look like the original publication. I considered covering the new case with a book cloth I had in my studio that almost matched the original -- but it wasn't a perfect match, plus the original had a New Directions emblem on the front cover that I couldn't reproduce.

In the end I decided to construct a new case to cover the book, using new boards but covered with the carefully salvaged original cloth. That way the visible material (the cloth) would be original while the material underneath would be newer and more chemically stable. The original spine was unsalvageable, so I had to compromise and make the spine of the new case with the nearly-matching cloth mentioned above.

The most interesting complication that came up was that the original cloth was frayed a little bit at the corners and edges from normal wear and tear. In order not to see dark book board peeking out from under the frayed cloth, I covered the corners of the new boards with the near-match cloth, before covering the entire case with the salvaged original cloth. The extra layer of new cloth underneath could have added bulk or created unsightly lines (think panty-lines on a book), but I inlaid the extra cloth pieces into the board just enough so that it keeps a smooth surface.

Ideally -- like most book repair flourishes -- that extra repair on the corners is invisible, or at least inconspicuous.

It's not quite dressed for immortality, but the book should be rejuvenated for many more years of loving study and rediscovery.


  1. Thought your post was pretty cool. It reminds me of a recent article I read. What do you make of it?

  2. Thanks, Ryan! Interesting article. I know in the library's disaster plan, one option is to have a company come in and freeze-dry wet books. I didn't know it would work in a regular freezer. Maybe it just takes longer, since the temperature wouldn't be as extreme as in a commercial freeze-drying freezer.

    In any case it would definitely stop the book from getting worse, or getting moldy, which is the serious problem with wet books...