Just like any activity you don’t do often, book repairs should be planned and your work area prepared before you start.
- Read the directions for any repair thoroughly before attempting the repair.
- Make sure the workspace is large enough to work comfortably. Clear away excess objects and have the tools and materials needed close at hand.
- Think about where the repaired books will dry. Materials that are glued or pasted must dry under weight or the paper will buckle.
- If the book has several problems, start with the simplest and work toward the most complex. In general the text block is repaired first (torn pages, damaged signatures, etc.) then the cover (rebacking, mending damaged comers, etc.). The last part of the book to be repaired is the attachment of the text block to the cover (the crash and endpapers).
- Try to group similar types of repairs together. In addition to saving time and materials, repeating the same repair several times is a good way to improve your repair techniques.
Initially, it’s a good idea to practice each repair either on a book that is not as special as the one you need to repair or on plain paper. Different types of paper and different book structures will react differently to the paste or glue. For instance, shiny, coated paper will not absorb as much moisture as uncoated paper so less paste is used on the latter kind of paper.
Read the explanation and instructions before beginning a repair. Take time to assemble all the tools and materials called for in the instructions. Reread the instructions after practicing a repair two or three times. They will probably be more understandable and some questions that came up during the repair may be answered. Once it is clear why and how a repair works, it is easier to choose a technique to match a particular repair need and not rely on the written instructions.
The materials and techniques used in conservation book repair should not damage books and, if a repair is not successful, it can usually be reversed and repeated.
It is important to determine why a book needs repair.
- Has it been damaged through carelessness or simply through use?
- Was it manufactured in a way that caused the damage?
- Has an old repair failed or caused more damage?
- How have previous repairs hindered the mechanics (the way the book opens and closes, the way the pages turn) of the book?
- Is the book constructed in signatures (folded pages that can be sewn or glued together)?
- Is the book constructed in single sheets glued or oversewn together?
- Is the paper coated and shiny?
All these factors should be considered when choosing to repair a book and deciding what techniques to use.
Examine the volume carefully and determine how it is constructed. Book construction is covered in a separate post on this site to help you get familiar with how a book goes together.
Determine which part of the structure failed so you can use the most appropriate repair technique. Some books were not constructed to be repaired and will never successfully be put back together.
Remember, choosing not to repair a book is not a value judgment about the contents of a book. It is an informed decision on what is best for the long term posterity of your valued possession.
To Repair or Not?
Before you rush in and prepare to work on repairing your book, ask yourself a few questions:-
- Has the book previously been repaired using incorrect or damaging techniques?
- Is the book worn beyond mending or rebinding?
- Should this book be sent to a specialist?
It can be a difficult decision to not repair a book. However, the urge to save every book is unrealistic because some books cannot be effectively repaired.
I was recently at a family gathering where one of my Dad’s cousins produced the Family Bible from his branch of the family. (Family bibles are probably the book I have had most enquiries about in the past 20 years). I had told this cousin many years ago that the book was beyond effective repair but could be kept in its current state for posterity. Since I saw him last he had taken it to a large bookbinding company (he’s a barrister and has many volumes bound each year). The bookbinders returned the bible to him in a custom made acid free box with the advice that it would not be cost effective to repair the bible. We still enjoyed looking at it during the family gathering and it will keep for many more generations in its special box.
Don’t despair if your book cannot be repaired. Just give it a good storage home (acid free custom made boxes you could make yourself although they are now commercially available in a variety of sizes) and visit it regularly.
I have some instructions for making book boxes here.