Damaged books and how libraries fix them

Damaged book awaiting repair

Damaged book awaiting repair

What have you done when you have torn the page of a book you want to keep? My guess is you have repaired it with tape.

If you have used cellophane tape, you have soon been disappointed.

It dried out and pulls away from the book, exposing the tear. Only now it has kind of a burn mark where the tape used to be.

Or have you tried to fix a book cover with tape. If it’s a hard cover book, the tape only leaves a residue of the glue when it eventually peels off.

Libraries have lots of books and things. What do they do with damaged books and journals?

As I have written earlier, libraries preserve the past. That often means that they must preserve artifacts of the present. Many libraries simply send repair work out to another company. Others have an in-house preservation department. Still others have one person who repairs damaged books as part of their job.

At my first library job, I learned how to mend torn pages and make other minor repairs. Instead of tape, I chose from a variety of Japanese tissue papers that have long fibers and applied it with a wheat paste. After the paste, I could tear off the edges of the tissue, leaving behind a permanent repair that would never turn yellow.

Libraries’ damaged books

What else can happen to library books and bound journals?

Covers of cloth-bound books get frayed around the edges or even break. Sometimes, they even fall off the book, and the innards (called the book block) come out.

The same things can happen with paperbacks, but the book block is usually made differently and requires different repair techniques.

Acid in the paper of books printed after the Industrial Revolution and before acid-free paper became standard for book printing makes pages very brittle. In order to avoid losing historically important parts of the collection, libraries often send them out for mass deacidification

Sign about damaged books

The book block itself can break. If it’s sewn, like a hardcover book, the sewing can come loose, another consequence of acid damage.

I recently carelessly broke one of my own books by leaving it open and absent-mindedly piling lots of stuff on it.

If it’s glued together, like most paperbacks, it’s more difficult to repair, but there are ways.

Bookworms are real worms that get into books and eat the pages. There’s not much that can be done to fix what they’ve damaged, but at least it’s possible to get rid of them before they do any more.

How books get damaged

Preservation departments shudder now that more and more libraries are allowing food and drink. Spilled food attracts cockroaches, and there’s not much they like better than the glue that holds books together.

And of course, water does all kinds of damage. Coffee and wine aren’t very good for books, either.

Unfortunately, damaged books are not only the result of wear and tear or carelessness.

Vandals cut pages out of books or otherwise commit deliberate acts of destruction. In those cases, it is necessary to get another copy of the book on Interlibrary Loan, make high-quality photocopies on good paper, and reinsert them into the damaged book.

I once watched a colleague carefully repairing an anthropology text from which someone had childishly cut out pictures of naked people. The book he borrowed had been similarly vandalized, although not as much. So he was fixing both books at once and hoping that he wouldn’t find the same pages missing from both.

Library preservation departments

A library preservation department will have a variety of tools, machines, brushes, glue, the kind of heavy cardboard used for book covers and various colors of buckram (the cloth used for library book binding), among other things.

I mentioned that I repaired torn pages with Japanese paper. Tape suitable for the same task exists. It’s acid free and applied with glue.

The preservation department at the last library I worked for also inserted pamphlets, sheet music, etc. into stiff bindings with a special stapler.

They frequently made boxes from book binding materials in order to house sets of parts for musical scores, groups of maps, books with spiral or comb bindings, and other things that could otherwise easily be damaged and possibly lost in the stacks.

When you see a book not in its original cover or otherwise showing some sign of repair, keep in mind that a highly skilled person devoted time, attention, and maybe even love so that you could safely use it.

As I was looking for pictures, I came across several by a book conservator who found a book with much more damage than he expected. I once sent one that turned out to be in not much better condition to our in-house bindery and got it back with a note saying, “We’re good, but not this good.”

Book damaged beyond repair

Book damaged beyond repair

Photo credits:
Damaged book awaiting repair Some rights reserved by Karin Dalziel
Damaged book sign Some rights reserved by Enokson
Book damaged beyond repair. Some rights reserved by Larry Wentzel

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