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Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

If you are looking for a discussion about early rock and roll, I’m afraid you may be disappointed.

Bo Diddley seated, singing and playing guitar.
You can’t judge an apple by looking at a tree
You can’t judge honey by looking at the bee
You can’t judge a daughter by looking at the mother
written by Willie Dixon
recorded by Bo Diddley, 1962

On the other hand, you may find this of interest if you own any books. Or if you’ve ever just wanted to know how books are made. Or maybe if you work in a library.

What we are talking about here are things that affect a book’s chances of long-term survival, specifically in library collections.

Illustrated text page from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
For out of old fields, as men say,
Comes all this new corn from year to year;
And out of old books, in good faith,
Comes all this new science that men hear.
Geoffrey Chaucer, Parlament of Foules

Book conservators know how books are made — and importantly — why and how they fall apart. So I’m going to share some secrets about how you can distinguish between a book that is likely to last and one that may not.

Hint: One with a worn cover could very well be a better choice than one that looks good from the outside.

In truth, the choice is not always clear-cut. But still, better choices can be made — and made more easily — when armed with information about the physical aspects of books and how they are put together.

A book on a conservator's bench, in the process of being repaired.

Book conservators work hard to keep books in good condition so that they will be there when patrons need them.

But do you know what has helped the survival of our collective intellectual record much more than all the efforts of book conservators?

Lots. Of. Copies.

A library book truck filled with duplicate books
Multiple copies of the same books

Any book or journal is likely to be found on the shelves of many libraries. Everybody knows that, and that is a good thing. And an individual library very likely has duplicates within its own collection, as you see pictured here.

Redundancy is good in the world of information preservation, whether it is physical books or backups of your computer files. When bad things happen to good books — as they do — there will still be other copies.

So why worry about better or worse copies when we have lots of them?

Well, in recent decades the cost of maintaining vast print collections has become a pressing problem for research libraries. The space devoted to books diminishes a library’s capacity for other things, such as study space and meeting rooms for patrons. When libraries run out of space, difficult choices often have to be made.

Overcrowded book shelves with books piled on top of others.
Severely overcrowded library shelves

Since the 1950s, when post-war prosperity led to increasing rates of collection growth, libraries have been very resourceful about finding ways to cope.

Microforms reduced the footprint of voluminous materials such as newspapers.

Two people using microfilm readers
Two people using microfilm readers.

Compact shelving was added.

Compact shelving
Compact shelving

Interlibrary lending meant a library no longer had to acquire every book for its users to have access to them.

Woman reading a book as big as she is, with overlaid text, "Interlibrary loan was file sharing before it was cool."

When those measures were no longer enough, high-density storage facilities were built to house books efficiently by size on 30-foot-high shelves.

People on a lift vehicle used to retrieve and shelve materials in the Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility at IU. One person is waving.
People on a lift vehicle used to retrieve and shelve materials in the Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility at IU.

But today many libraries have filled up these facilities too, and financial support for yet more space has been hard to come by.

So what now?

You see where I’m going here.

Shedding some of the copies would seem like a reasonable next step, especially widely held older materials, which are no longer used as much as they once were.

So this is indeed what many libraries are up to these days — withdrawing some copies, either within their own collections or in collaboration with other libraries. Being more selective about gifts. Making commitments to retain their copy of a book in a shared print repository so that others can withdraw theirs. Some of these efforts are large in scale, and sometimes rely only on catalog records without any physical verification.

But there are other library workflows in which it is feasible to compare copies, and in those cases the following information will make that work a lot easier.

I’ve suggested that looks can be deceiving to the untrained eye when it comes to judging which copy of a book has better odds of long-term survival. And I promised to share what book conservators know about how books are made, and how and why they fall apart.

So now let’s look under the hood (the covers, that is).

1970s Plymoth Valiant with the hood up

First, though, we have to talk about paper.

Way back when, before the Industrial Revolution, paper didn’t grow on trees.

Engraving of a hand-papermaking shop.
Pre-industrial revolution paper-making by hand

It was made out of fibers reclaimed from cotton and linen clothing and other rags.

Photograph of a 19th century rag collector pulling his cart of bundled rags through the streets of Paris.
Lumpensammler (rag collector), Paris, photograph by Eugene Atget

But when the increased demand for paper in the early nineteenth century led to rag shortages, papermakers began switching to wood pulp.

Unfortunately, wood-pulp paper becomes acidic, weak, and brittle over time, unlike older paper made from cotton or linen fibers, which remains strong and flexible for centuries.

A book with brittle paper, with the pages broken into small bits
Brittle paper

By the 1980s, with the problem quite evident in library stacks, preservation folks launched a big campaign to get papermakers to convert their mills to making acid-free paper. Today most new books collected by libraries are printed on alkaline, or so-called permanent, paper.

But between the 1840s and the 1980s millions of books were produced on paper destined to weaken and become brittle. And libraries have lots and lots and lots of them.

So the condition of the paper is a big factor for long-term survival.

But now you are thinking that copies of books published at the same time are likely to have the same kind of paper, right?

Cartoon of a woman with a perplexed look and red question marks around her.

And you would be correct.

So this doesn’t help a lot by itself when comparing copies. But it is usually a combination of factors that leads to a book’s demise. One is the paper strength, or lack thereof.

So what is the other factor?

The essential thing that makes a book a book is that the pages are joined, or bound, together along one edge. There are numerous ways this can be done, and in library collections the binding method often does vary from one copy to the next.


  • Older books in libraries are likely to have been rebound at some point
  • Wear and tear often varies from one copy to the next
  • Publishers sometimes issue the same content in different formats – deluxe editions, paperback vs. hardcover

To wit, these five copies of the History of Utah. Each one was bound differently when issued, or rebound by the library over time.

Five copies of the history of Utah, each with different covers, binding methods, and damage.
Five copies of the History of Utah from the IU libraries collection

Below are two copies of the same book. The book on top is in its original binding and the one below was commercially rebound.

Two copies of the same book stacked and lying flat on a table.
Two copies of the same book

Here they are opened – the original binding is on the left and the rebound one is on the right. Notice anything different?

Two copies of the same book, opened on a table. The one on the left lies flat; the other does not.
The two copies pictured above, shown open


If you remember only one thing from this blog, remember this concept!

This is a simple but important thing to look for: Whether a book lies open on the table by itself, or if you have to hold it open to read it, or mash it down on the copier or scanner.

The binding method – the way the pages are joined together — largely dictates openability.

Openability is important, not just because books that don’t open well are inconvenient to use — although they are — but because a restricted opening is a telltale sign of a binding method that makes future repairs difficult or impossible. This is a critical thing in a library whose mission is to serve today’s researchers as well as those far into the future.

Illustration showing the relative openability of different binding methods
The openability of the most common binding, or “leaf attachment,” methods found in library collections

The two at the top do not open easily. That puts a lot of stress on the pages.

The two at the bottom open easily and allow the pages to move freely without stress.


A book that has both brittle paper and poor openability is likely to end up broken and sad. And difficult to save. But when a book is bound in a flexible manner, there’s hope, and the chances are better that it can be repaired and lead a long life.

So let’s examine the most common ways that books are bound and talk about ways to identify each one.

First let’s look at one that has good openability and works well.

Sewing Through the Fold

Sewing Through the Fold is a traditional method of joining the pages of a book together to form a text block. This method has been in use since as early as the 2nd century AD. So it’s kind of time tested.

Sheets of paper (folios) are folded together in groups, and then the groups are sewn one to the next with needle and thread.

Folded sheets of paper nested together to form a book signature.

The needle and thread goes only through the very center of the folds.

Illustration of a book being sewn through the folds
Signatures are sewn through the folds and linked one to the next with the sewing thread

Attaching the pages together through the folds makes a book that opens well, is flexible, and allows for future repairs. There is not a lot of stress on the pages, and that is very helpful if and when the paper becomes brittle and weak.

This is still the way that lots of books are made. Sewing through the folds can be found in hardcover and paperback books.

Identifying Books Sewn Through the Fold

You can usually see a scalloped edge at the head and tail of the text block

View of a book looking down at the top edge, showing the scalloped edge indicating the book is in signature form.
The scalloped pattern at the top of the book is an indication that the book is in signature form, rather than single sheets of paper

Most of the time, you won’t be able to see the spine of the book where the sewing is obvious. But you can look for this scallop pattern at the top or bottom edge of the book. You can see that it is folded groups of pages.

As you page through a book you’ll come to the center of a signature and you may see the stitches – they are long and regular. But sometimes it can be difficult to find a center fold and see the stitches.

Close-up of the center fold of a book sewn through the fold showing the long, even stitches.
Characteristic long even stitches of a book sewn through the fold

And of course, books sewn through the fold open well and do not need to be held open.

So you have these three clues for books sewn through the fold – the openability, the scalloped edge at the head and tail of the book, and the stitches in the center folds.


The oversewing machine was used extensively by commercial library binders to bind library journals, rebind damaged books, and bind paperbacks in hardcovers from its invention in 1920 until the mid-1980s.

A book being sewn on an oversewing machine
An oversewing machine

A few pages are put into an industrial machine that has a row of threaded needles. The needles and threads pierce through the page edges many, many times. Then another clump of pages is added, and the machine sews through them and interlocks the stitching with the one before.

Books and journals are prepared for oversewing by chopping or milling off the inner spine edge so that pages become single sheets of paper.

The dashed lines in the illustration below show where the folds are chopped or ground off.

Illustration of preparing signatures for oversewing by chopping off the folds.
Preparing signatures for oversewing – a lot of the inner margin is lost

Below you see how the needles and threads pierce through what remains of the margins.

Illustration of the path of the needles and threads in oversewing.
Path of the needles and threads in machine oversewing, which encroaches well into the inner margin

There is a loss of inner margin — first from the trimming and then from the sewing.

This is what oversewing looks like on the spine – a thick mass of threads.

Ovrsewing stitches on the spine of a book.
Oversewing stitches on the spine of a book

Oversewing is very, very strong — an oversewn book with flexible paper and adequate margins is probably going to last a long time.

But if the paper is brittle, there will be a lot of page breakage, and you may not be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again. One page cracks, creating a knife edge that causes each subsequent page to break.

Page breakage that occurs when books with brittle paper have been oversewn.
This is what happens to an oversewn book with brittle paper

You’ve seen that oversewing reduces the width of the inner margins, which is part of the reason they are difficult or impossible to repair or rebind again. But if the margins are already narrow, the paper is brittle, and the book is oversewn, the breakage can also result in text loss.

The thin book pictured below took about two hours to take apart, snip by snip. And what you end up with looks like it was torn from a spiral-bound notebook. These pages were not terribly brittle, and the margins were decent, so the result was not that bad.

The damaged pages edges of a oversewn book that has been taken apart.
Damage to the page edges caused by oversewing

Practically speaking, though, oversewing is an irreversible binding method.

Identifying Oversewn Books

Besides the restricted opening and the typical buckram cover of a commercial library binding, another way to tell that a book is oversewn is to look for the close, irregular stitches in the inner margin. This is often visible in older books as they start to weaken.

Closeup of the inner margin of a book that was oversewn showing the clumpy irregular stitches.
Oversewing stitches are irregular and clumpy looking
A commercially bound book with a plain buckram cover and stamping on the spine.
Books and journals bound by commercial library binderies all look similar — the sturdy buckram cloth cover and stamping on the spine
Illustration of the restricted opening of oversewn books.
Oversewing produces a book with poor openability
Illustration of text obscured in the margins of an oversewn book.
Text obscured at the inner margin in an oversewn book

So, the identifying features of oversewing are: poor openability, text may be obscured at the inner margin, plain buckram cover and stamping on spine, and irregular, clumpy stitches sometimes visible at the inner margin.

Commercial Library Binding

Now let’s talk about one more binding method, which is done by commercial library binders (and can also be done by in-house book repair operations).

A commercial library binding is recognizable by the plain, sturdy buckram cloth cover material and uniform stamping on the spine. And we’ve discussed that oversewing was done by commercial library binders. But are all books bound by the commercial library bindery the same inside?

Two 1980s era commercially bound volumes, closed.
Two 1980s era volumes of a journal, closed
Two 1980s era volumes of a journal, opened.
Two 1980s era volumes of a journal, opened.

The one on the left, v.61, is oversewn. I couldn’t even get this one to stay open for the photo – I had to use a weight.

The one on the right, v. 62? No, it’s not sewn through the fold. It is another binding method that has good openability like books sewn through the fold. Its the method that replaced oversewing in the 1980s. At Indiana University, oversewing stopped after v. 61, 1983-84 and before v. 62, 1984-85.

What happened in the 1970s and 1980s?

Well, a lot of things …

Three people in office attire standing around a large photocopier.


The problem with oversewing and other restrictive binding methods became quite obvious with the advent of photocopiers available for use by library patrons.

A few other things happened in libraries in the 70s and 80s–

  • Growing awareness of the brittle paper problem
  • The formation of preservation departments in research libraries


Double-Fan Adhesive Binding

Preservation librarians and commercial library binders worked together to come up with a new binding method that could be used for books and journals that otherwise would have to be bound by oversewing or other machine “side sewing” methods.

The adhesive application process for double-fan adhesive binding.
How the adhesive is applied in a double-fan adhesive binding

These photos show how the adhesive is applied. The pages are fanned one way, glue is applied with a brush or roller, then fanned the other way and more glue is applied. Doing this gets the adhesive a tiny, tiny bit in between the pages — about 1/32 of an inch.

Illustration of how the adhesive is applied with a roller while the pages are fanned.
This shows how adhesive is applied by the commercial library binder
Illustration of how adhesive is applied for mass-market paperback books without fanning the pages.
This shows how adhesive is applied for mass-market paperbacks, which tend to fall apart quickly.

Double-fan adhesive binding also uses a high-quality adhesive that remains flexible over time vs. a cheap one that dries up.

Identifying Double-Fan Adhesive Binding

A double-fan adhesive binding opens well and stays open easily.

A book opened flat on a table showing that double-fan adhesive-bound books open well.
A double-fan adhesive binding opens well and stays open easily

When you view the top or bottom of the text block, there is no scalloped edge, just a thin layer of lining cloth.

Spine of a double-fan adhesive binding viewed from the top
Spine of a double-fan adhesive binding viewed from the top

So, let’s review —

Illustration comparing the openability of the 4 main commercial binding methods - side sewn, oversewn, sewn through the fold, and double-fan adhesive binding.

Binding methods with good openability, which are flexible and repairable — 

  • Sewn through the fold (5c)
  • Double-fan adhesive binding (5d)

Binding methods with restricted openability, which puts stress on pages, and are difficult or impossible to repair

  • Oversewn (5b)
  • Side sewn (5a)

Putting all our eggs in one basket

If we are going to put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, by reducing the number of copies of books held in libraries, let us try to choose books that have the best chances of long-term survival when we can.

Photograph of Mark Twait sitting on a leather-covered chair, out of doors.
“Behold, the fool saith,‘Put not all thine eggs in the one basket’ – which is but a manner of saying, ‘Scatter your money and your attention;’
But the wise man saith, ‘Put all your eggs in the one basket and – WATCH THAT BASKET.’
Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain

I hope I’ve given you some new information that you can use – especially if your work involves making decisions about retention in libraries.

For more information on book structures:

University of Illinois. Preservation Self-Assessment Program. Collection ID Guide. Book and Paper/Binding Types

And for more in-depth information, there’s the AIC Book and Paper Group Wiki.

And this paper is an excellent analysis of the many factors involved in withdrawing copies:

Considering Sameness of Monographic Holdings in Shared Print Retention Decisions.

A Post about Post-it Notes

This is a public service announcement for those of you who may have, at one time or another, used Post-it Notes to mark pages in a book so you can return to certain passages later. Only when later comes around — especially if it has been a while — they become harder to remove without damaging the pages.

An attempt to remove a Post-it Note, with unhappy results. This book must have been super full of important stuff!

I have to admit, sticky notes are pretty cool and handy and all that. And they ARE designed to be removable. BUT they do get harder to pull off cleanly after they have been stuck on for a while. Sometimes the paper tears (see above) or they leave stains. Other times a layer of the page peels off. If you’ve stuck the note on top of text or images, whoops! These problems are more pronounced in older books that have weak paper.

I know I am probably not going to be able to dissuade you from using sticky notes in books, so if you want to use them in your own books, that is totally up to you. But I hope you won’t put them in books that someone else owns — or, more to my point, those owned collectively. And by collectively I mean library books, which need to last a long time so that people after you can read them too.

But there is a way to remove sticky notes that is much less likely to cause damage. It’s not like removing a band-aid, where no matter what you do, it is going to ouch!

It is a basic hand skill that conservators use all the time when they need to separate two things, remove tape, and so on. Instead of pulling up, peel or roll the sticky note back on itself. Click on the photo below to watch a short video clip. And remember, you can always return your book at the library’s circulation desk and ask them to send the book to the Preservation Department for some TLC. We’ll be glad to help you out.

The safe way to remove sticky notes.

And remember …

I made this sign after removing those 48 sticky tabs from a nice old book. I did feel a little better afterwards.

A (New) Librarian in the Lab

By Wendy Spacek

Collection Management with a Preservation Perspective

In the fall of 2018 I joined the Preservation Lab as a Student Conservation Assistant. I was excited to engage my skills as a painter, printmaker, and DIY bookmaker to help preserve library materials. At the time, I was in the final year of my MFA in poetry and intended to continue at IU to complete my library degree. I started as most Student Conservation Assistants in the book conservation lab have: removing the staples from music scores and sewing them into pamphlet binders. To some it would seem a tedious job, but I found the meditative, repetitive task relaxing and I was eager to learn more. 

For the next year and a half I learned treatments and tricks from everyone who worked in the lab, picking up details about how books are made, why they fall apart, and how books are identified and prioritized for repair or stabilization. By early spring of 2020, I was practicing just about every treatment available to Student Conservation Assistants in the lab. Then suddenly, like many others, everything changed because of COVID and I was no longer able to work in the lab. 

Over the year of quarantine and lock-down that followed, I continued my MLS coursework remotely, leaning into my interests in collection management, research support, and teaching. When vaccinations became widely available in the spring of 2021, I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to return to the lab for the summer to participate in a de-duplication and preservation project for the Folklore Collection; a project designed as a pilot for larger de-duplication and preservation efforts. Working on this project both mobilized and tested my existing preservation knowledge, expanded on my database management skills, and deepened my understanding of library workflows, policies, and procedures.

Library book truck with books on three shelves
A set of books waiting to be evaluated

For the next month and a half, hundreds of books passed through my hands. It was my role to look at each set and evaluate them based on how they were made, evaluate prior repairs, and their present condition (see the previous blog on this site, You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover, which explains a lot of the thinking that goes into such an evaluation). 

Some sets were easy: a copy sewn through the fold with little wear to the interior or covers was an obvious choice when compared to an over-sewn copy with too-tight binding, and brittle, torn pages.

Two copies of the same book, closed

Book sewn through the fold, showing good openability
An oversewn book, showing poor openability
The difference in openability of two books, which is not apparent when the books are closed (top). One is sewn through the fold (center) and the other is oversewn (bottom), which demonstrates how oversewing creates a too-tight binding.

When these decisions became difficult was when choosing between very bad copies of the same book.

Three copies of the same book, closed. All were rebound by oversewing.
Three oversewn copies of the same book

This is where the skills I’d gained in my years as a Student Conservation Assistant really came in handy. Because of my past preservation experience, I could estimate how much time it would take to complete various repairs, identify opportunities for simpler, less-time consuming fixes, or know when to bring the two awful copies to my supervisor for her opinion.

Two copies of the same book, with damaged and detached pages

Two copies of the same book, one with torn pages (top) and the other with detached pages.
Two oversewn and ripped copies of the same title.

As I worked my way through the project, giving recommendations for repair and turning the books over to the full-time conservation staff, I encountered binding methods I’d not yet seen, books with unidentified substances smeared across their pages, heart-warming inscriptions to beloved professors, and the unfortunate reality of acidic paper gone brittle and crumbling as I turned each page. Through conversations with the conservation staff, I expanded my knowledge of preservation techniques and witnessed how conservators make different decisions based on the item and its needs. There are a number of ways to approach a book in need of repair, and sometimes two conservators will make different decisions, or the same conservator might take a different approach on a different day, due to external factors like overall workload or the skill level of available staff. Like so many things in the library world, there is more than one way to do it! Hearing back from full-time preservation staff about how the treatment they ultimately performed aligned and differed from my recommendation was uniquely instructive, and served to deepen knowledge of book repair techniques and decision-making.

Three books after they were repaired, standing with spines showing.
Books with repairs completed, ready to return to the stacks

While I worked on the project, I evaluated the condition of over 1000 individual monographs. Beyond the preservation skills I expanded upon, I also deepened my knowledge of library management software, database software, and library workflows and procedures. While evaluating titles I uncovered and flagged numerous cataloging errors, a happy side effect of such a project. Between pulling books in the stacks at Wells, packing totes of books and organizing them on carts, and comparing copies and making recommendations, I read up on preservation management in libraries, and even had some time to make some conservation treatments of my own by mending torn pages with Japanese paper and wheat paste.

An open book with weights to hold it open while mended areas are drying.
A book being repaired with Japanese paper and wheat paste

This project is a wonderful example of preservation staff and subject librarians working together to maintain the health and continuation of a collection. As I move into my new position as the Arts & Humanities Librarian at Central Washington University I’ll bring with me a theory of collection management that integrates principles of preservation and emphasizes cooperative relationships between public and technical library services, centering responsible stewardship of library resources with the shared goal of ensuring continued access to research collections for decades to come. 

Of Scrapbooks and Banners

Lately, there are more and more opportunities to attend virtual events, lectures, webinars and presentations on the subjects of preservation and conservation of heritage collections. An upcoming event is a case in point: members of staff from University Archives, the Preservation Lab, and Advancement have put together an entertaining evening: “IU Baseball in Japan, 1922: A Trip We Can All Take!” to be held September 22 from 5:00-6:30pm EST. Paper Conservator Doug Sanders will elaborate on the conservation work needed for a scrapbook and silk banner associated with the historic 1922 trip.

For more information and registration (free, yet required) please see the following listing: https://events.iu.edu/libraries/view/event/date/20200922/event_id/137688

Depiction of the 1922 IU Baseball Team departing Bloomington for Japan.
IU Baseball Team departing Bloomington
Image # P0042248 Archives Photograph Collection, Indiana University

In Search of Lost Time

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu | In Search of Lost Time

And we’re back …

Well actually, some of us never left. A skeleton crew has been working in the IU libraries throughout the pandemic, just to keep the pipes clear so that information continues to flow for you, dear readers. Meanwhile, the rest of us were hunkered down for almost 4 months in our kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms, and back porches, and yes, sometimes even in our parked cars in the IU Stadium lot in order to get an Internet signal. With eyes and fingers glued to our computers, we have been doing all the things a modern library can do online — placing orders for e-books, paying for them, reference services, cataloging, and so many other things you never even knew went on behind the scenes in a library.

As we prepare for Fall 2020, additional staff are back on campus, mainly those who work with the physical collections – the books, journals, and other things you can hold in your hands and sometimes even take home. Some staff re-shelve books, some repair them, some put the call numbers on them, some prepare them for deposit in our state-of-the-art collection storage facility.

We are following IU’s guidelines to keep you and ourselves safe. One concern unique to a library, but not addressed by the campus guidelines, is the handling of those physical collections we talked about. You may get up close and personal with the books you read, and when you return them, staff need to handle them — to get them checked back into the circulation system, possibly repair them, and re-shelve them. In ordinary times, that is.

Books piled high on the library circulation desk with a man resting his heand in his hand.
Library book returns after holidays, January 4, 1960. Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection: http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/archives/photos/P0050896

So we thought you might want to know what we are doing about that.

Although we know that disinfectants are effective in killing the virus that causes COVID-19, unfortunately we also know they can damage library materials. Not to mention how long it would take to disinfect all the pages of a pandemic-appropriate book such as Marcel Proust’s A la Recherché du Temps Perdu. And please — don’t even think about microwaving books; nothing good can come of that.

But there is a simple solution (no, not that kind of solution). We just quarantine the books coming back to the library, because we know that the virus has a finite period of viability. Although we are still learning about SARS-CoV-2 transmission, recent studies to address library concerns found that the virus is no longer detectable on library materials after three days. The REALM project is ongoing, so check there if you are interested in what they are doing.

While the library buildings remain closed to the public, you can submit requests online to borrow books, and schedule a no-contact pickup appointment. Please know that any library materials you borrow will have been quarantined for three days after someone else has used them. And the staff preparing those materials for you are washing their hands, disinfecting surfaces, wearing face coverings, and keep six feet from others.

Greg Eismin, Circulation Supervisor in Wells Library, waves while sitting at a table outdoors reading the New Yorker magazine and wearing a face mask.
Greg Eismin, Circulation Supervisor in Wells Library, keeps up with his reading while waiting for patrons to come for their Paged Pickup appointments.

Beyond the physical collections, there are ten tons of books you can read online in HathiTrust, and lots of other e-books are available by searching IUCAT. Find up-to-date information on the current library services page about borrowing, research help, requesting articles, access to lots of online resources, and other services.

So please wear a face covering, wash your hands, and while you’re at it, maybe read a book?

Continue reading more from the Preservation Lab blog to find out about some of the ways we keep the collections in good condition so that they are there when you need them. Also find out how we have been managing through the pandemic, including this totally apolitical analysis of the meaning of a word – depending on your (book) world view. It is light-hearted fun, but also illuminating.

Stay safe out there.


Now that we are gearing up to get back into the lab in the next couple of weeks, I can share something I have been thinking about while working from home.

What do you think of when you hear the word “bookworm”?

Is it this?


Or this?


Or this?


Chances are, your answer will vary greatly depending on what part of bookworld you live in. Children’s librarians probably think of something like the first two. Those of us on the preservation and conservation side of things, probably think more about the third.

Just for fun, let’s spend a moment analyzing these images. First, I will need you to do a quick Google search for “bookworm” and let’s just look for a moment at these worms.

Clearly, from these images, there are a number of things which we must understand about bookworms.
• 99% of Bookworms are green
• 95% of bookworms wear glasses
o Corollary: the glasses must have round lenses
o Corollary: the frames must be black or red
• The bookworm really should be depicted holding a book, but occasionally may be depicted in a more realistic burrowing through the book fashion. (we’ll get there)
o Corollary: the book must have a red cover.

If I may have a pedantic moment here, I actually judge most of these “worms” to be caterpillars.  I base this solely on the fact that caterpillars are more likely to have something resembling hands which which to grasp a book.





Whatever this is.


Alternatively, the image search may turn up something like this:


This version allows for slightly more variation. However, a few rules do apply:
• Over 80% of human bookworms are female
• Most human bookworms wear glasses
• Corollary: frames must be plastic or horn rims.
• Dang it, those are my glasses.




Here’s the basics:

• Bookworms are real things
• They aren’t really worms

Actual book eaters come in a large number of forms and can do a huge amount of damage to collections.

Here is an abbreviated list of the critters in question:

1. Book lice.


Not lice in the way we generally consider lice. They are not parasitic, meaning that they do not feed on live hosts. However, they do consume old binding adhesives, paper, wood and leather. They also seem to be attracted to molds which inhabit old books.

As an aside – molds are living organisms, so I guess book lice are parasitic on molds? Is it considered parasitism if the living organism is only part of a varied diet? Also, often old colonies of molds in books are actually dormant (if not totally dead).  This is a thing which we often have to consider when treating moldy items in the lab.

2. Beetles.

Let’s discuss beetles for a moment. There are at least a quarter of a million species of beetles on Earth. Many are beneficial to humans. They act as predators of plant pests (such as aphids), as essential pollinators , and as a human food source. Some species in adult, or more commonly, larval form feed on books. Most prefer old binding adhesives and paper, but some go for leather bindings.

3. Termites.

This is serious people. Not only will termites eat your books, they will also eat your bookshelves.

4. Moths.

In larval form, they will eat your sweater, they will eat the quilt your grandmother made for you. They will also eat cloth book bindings.


5. Silverfish.

Just ugh. I’m pretty insect tolerant, but these things creep me out.   We have to consider them, however, because paper is their meal of choice when they live in libraries.  They may also have been an insect that Robert Hooke identified as a bookworm in his early microscope work in the 1600s.

6. Cockroaches.

The less said the better. Sorry cockroachologists.

And let’s take just a moment to celebrate a fierce looking critter which eats books eaters. Friends, I introduce to you, the pseudoscorpion.

It is a tiny arachnid which feeds on book lice, moth and beetle larvae, ants, and other insects. Because of their very small size (about 2 – 8 mm) they are often not noticed by humans, or are taken for small spiders.




The lacy effect can be pretty and all, and may have predated modern, human book carving techniques, but it’s not so great if you want to retain the information in those pages.

Insect Damage to Chinese documents


Incredibly impresssive book carving by artist Brian Dettmer.



One of the classic treatments of  the insect bookworm is in William Blades’ The Enemies of Books, first published in 1880. Blades was a printer and bibliophile who did research into early British printing, and thought a lot about old books.  His book is readily available online and I highly recommend reading it over. But then, like Blades, I am also a bit of a curmudgeon who thinks that the whole world is out to destroy books. Given my profession, the chapter on the evils of bookbinders does make me squirm. Here is a brief quote from his chapter on bookworms:

“Anathemas have been hurled against this pest in nearly every European language, old and new, and classical scholars of bye-gone centuries have thrown their spondees and dactyls at him…But as a portrait commonly precedes a biography, the curious reader may wish to be told what is this “Bestia audax”, who so greatly ruffles the tempers of our eclectics, is like. Here, at starting, is a serious chameleon-like difficulty, for the bookworm offers to us, if we are guided by their works, as many varieties of size and shape as there are beholders.”

Later in the chapter, he goes on to describe in an astonishing amount of detail, a bookworm “race” through a volume from the 1400s, tracking each worm trail through the thickness of the book until its creator perished. (Or maybe just turned around?)

Just a note: as a profound lover of books as physical objects, I can only imagine that e-readers would have made poor Mister Blades apoplectic.

I’m not going to go into methods of treatment for insect damage to collections, or for pest eradication.  There are many, many far more informed folks out there who have published complete and detailed information. I will shout out Mary Lou Florian, whose book Heritage Eaters is a great resource.  The Northeast Document Conservation Center also has a wealth of information.

Modern libraries often have better climate control than in previous generations, and this would lead to fewer infestations than in the past.  But they are by no means unheard of.  For example, when libraries and museums accept donations of old collections kept in poor storage conditions, the possibility of insect or mold infestations must be considered before materials are accessioned.


Really, all the above is all just so many diversions from what I was originally interested in writing about. I wanted to see if I could track down the moment in history when the bookworm went from being a literal book eater to a metaphor for a human who reads all the time and wears glasses and is socially awkward.

And this is what I found, folks.

First: The shift happened a lot earlier than I expected.


Yep, I was incredibly surprised to find out that the Oxford English Dictionary (can we please get a round of applause for the generations of fine folks at the OED) indicates that the term “bookworm” was first used in 1580 to describe a person who spent too much time reading. And doing other things which aren’t such a great idea:

1580: E. Spenser & G. Harvey, Three Proper & Wittie Lett.:
“A morning bookeworm, an afternoone maltworm.”

1601:   B. Jonson, Fountaine of Selfe-love:
“Peruerted, and spoyld, by a whoore-sonne Book-worme, a Candle-waster”

And really, right now while I have been spending so very much time at home, being a bookworm, a maltworm and a candle waster seems like a pretty good idea.

Wine, book, and candle


It wasn’t until 1654 that someone described a non-human bookworm:

1654   R. Whitlock Ζωοτομία
“Book-worme is of all Creatures the longest lived.”

Sorry, Ming the 500 year old clam.  That 110 day-old book louse has got you beat.

All of these descriptions  of bookworms were pejorative. Worms of all forms were thought to be basically disgusting and harmful. Or maybe they were actually dragons? Early English folklore sometimes uses the words “dragon” and “worm” interchangeably.   The bookish reference to a human worm predates the insectoid version, because “worm” was a common Elizabethan insult. Then later, as we get into the taxonomy of the book eating insects, since the term already exists, it is applied in that context as well.  Plus, sometimes the book eaters are larvae, which look like worms.

So who was the tricksy librarian or teacher that started using the word bookworm in a positive light? Who was this person who decided that children should embrace the term and spend their time devouring books. Metaphorically.

I have no idea.

Language usage changes. Word meanings change. In fact, the word “bookworm” had changed little from its first usages. The definition has remained pretty constant: a person or insect who devours books. We understand by context whether literally or metaphorically.

I was surprised to find in my research that there are still negative connotations. Some folks do still consider bookworm to mean someone who is so wholly devoted to books that they are unable to function in normal society.

For example, this guy:

The march of language change is still working on this definition.  By the time I was hanging out in the children’s department of the public library in the late 1970s, the term seemed positive. I remember there being posters and bookmarks urging children to be book worms.

Ok, it doesn’t say “bookworm”, but it is David Bowie in at letter jacket.

And today, now that nerd culture has been more fully embraced, it seems to me that the term bookworm is more often one of esteem. Bookworms are well read. Bookworms are smart. Bookworms have the most fashionable glasses. Some celebrities identify as bookworms.  I mean, Oprah’s Book Club is a big deal. And I think we can all agree that Harry Potter would not have gotten through even that first year at Hogwarts without the help of renowned bookworm Hermione Granger.

So while we’re all at home for a while, let’s spend some time indulging our bookwormish sides.

Here’s part of my current list:

And keep your books out of the basement to avoid the other kind.

Cartoon from Saturday Review of Literature sometime in the 1930s.

Old School

March 2020

Lately I’ve been spending some quality time in our guest room.

Temporary book repair workspace in my guest room with sonowshoes on the wall.In my quiet refuge, between Zoom meetings, I’ve been continuing work I began in a class I attended in early March on the conservation of leather bindings. In the class, led by the inimitable Jeff Peachey and held at the University of Notre Dame, we practiced the latest thing, called social distancing, as we practiced conservation treatment techniques for leather-bound books.

Jeff Peachey leading a discussion on conservation of leather bindings around a lab table in the Conservation Lab at the University of Notre Dame.

Perhaps you noticed the snowshoes on the wall there in my guest room. Although we use them now to impart a ski lodge ambience, those are real, old-school snowshoes. My father-in-law wore them in the Vermont woods in the 1940s.

Detail view of a 1940-s era snowshoe made by Tubbs of Vermont.

They are made from ash wood and rawhide. The rawhide is intact and unbelievably strong. Rawhide is similar to parchment, in that it is made from animal skins. But rawhide and parchment, unlike leather, are not tanned. Tanning is what makes it leather, but is also more or less where the trouble starts. Acids from tanning, plus atmospheric pollutants, lead to leather deterioration. And leather used for bookbinding is typically pared very thin, especially in the areas of stress, so that exacerbates the problem.

Hence the need to know how to repair leather bindings.

The most common way that leather bindings fail is the attachment of the cover boards to the text. The joints — the place where the covers meet the spine — are flexed every time the book is opened.

A leather-bound book with detached front cover.

So in class we studied and practiced many ways to reattach boards, considering the pros and cons of each method, and what constitutes a good candidate for each.

Boards can be attached mechanically or adhesively with thread, cloth, paper, leather, or parchment. There are many variations and combinations among these methods, just as every book presents unique properties and problems to solve. Factors to weigh in selecting an appropriate attachment method include size; weight; condition of the paper, boards, leather, and other components; original construction; prior repairs; anticipated type and amount of use; the conservator’s skill level; invasiveness of the treatment; importance of the original binding; and time (and therefore cost).

Over the first two days we discussed and practiced minimally invasive reattachment methods, including joint tackets, thread and cord extensions, board splitting, and Japanese paper hinges. These techniques are also less time consuming than traditional, shall we say old school, repairs such as rebacking or complete rebinding.

The spine of a book is also called the back, so rebacking is the replacement of a missing, damaged, or deteriorated spine with new material. Books sometimes have both detached boards and a damaged or missing spine, so they need both board reattachment and rebacking. Also, some reattachment methods involve removal of an attached spine cover to gain access to the spine of the text block.

Traditionally, rebacking was done with new leather, and was a cheaper alternative to full rebinding. Nowadays, however, other materials are often used because of concerns about leather deterioration.

Damaged book, Mackenzie's five thousand receipts in all the useful domestic arts, Philadelphia, 1830, before treatment.
Mackenzie’s five thousand receipts in all the useful domestic arts, Philadelphia, 1830.

Here is a book I repaired a few months ago. Both boards were detached and the spine cover was missing. Instead of leather, I used a laminate of Japanese paper and cloth. The paper and cloth are pasted together, and the paper, which faces outside, is toned to match the leather. The cloth underneath provides additional strength.

Mackenzie's Five Thousand Receipts in all the useful domestic arts, Philadelphia, 1830, after treatment.Here the book has been rebacked with a toned paper-cloth laminate.

But sometimes rebacking with leather is appropriate, so it is an important skill to have. So on the third through fifth days, we worked on rebacking, starting with identifying the pros and cons.

List of pros and cons of leather rebacking written on a large white pad of paper

Oeuvres de Racine, v. 4, Brussels, 1828, before treatment.
Oeuvres de Racine, v. 4, Brussels, 1828.

This is the little book I rebacked in leather. I started it in class, but had to finish it at home, having left a bit early the last day, times being what they are. Both boards were detached, and about half of the spine cover was missing. The thin leather has a smooth glossy surface, with the top layer flaking pretty badly in some areas. The spine covering was adhered over a hollow tube of paper attached to the book, and there are false raised bands under the spine covering.

Front cover showing the beveled cut first made in the leather.Here a beveled cut has been made at a shallow angle along the length of the board edge, leaving a narrow strip of leather on the edge. The leather, which is thinnest at the edge of the beveled cut, is lifted off of the board from the cut line, but the narrow strip is left on. Later the new leather will fit under the lifted area and cover over the narrow strip.

Book with the boards placed in position for reattaching.Here the lifted leather is held up out of the way with a piece of folded mylar. The thread extensions sewn in around the original cords have been unplied (twisted to separate the three strands of the thread) and will be glued under the lifted leather, forming the attachment of the boards to the text.

View of the spine area of the book with a piece of paper glued to it, the first step to forming a holow tube.Now the boards have been attached with the threads and a new hollow tube is being made. The middle section of the paper has been glued to the spine, then the flaps will be glued to each other. Later the new leather spine piece will be pasted out, centered over the tube, and the extended edges will be inserted under the lifted leather on the boards.

We learned how to prepare new leather for use in book repair, including “boarding” to make it soft and pliable so it will shape and adhere well to the book, toning it to blend with the original leather, paring it thin in all the right places.

The piece of leather for the new spine of the book being pared on the back side. A curved French-style lifting knife rests on top of it and a thin piece of leather that was pared off sits to the side.Here the piece of leather that will form the new spine is being pared. The first pass has been made along one long edge with a French-style paring knife.

The book with the finished hollow tube and false bands attached. Next to the book is the piece of new lether and the fragment of the original spine piece.Here is the finished hollow tube with pieces of blotter glued on to create the look of raised bands. Three false bands are visible in the fragment of the original spine cover. The leather for the new spine is under the spine fragment, toned, trimmed, pared, and ready to prepare for attaching.

The new leather is wrapped in a damp cloth for a while, then thick paste is applied to the underside, left to sit, scraped off, pasted again, and scraped off. Then it is pasted again and put on the book. The leather darkens from the moisture, but lightens once dry. The softening helps with adhesion, shaping the leather around the bands, and getting the new leather under the lifted leather to be as flat to the boards as possible. While water is used to prepare the new leather, water on older leather is to be avoided at all costs (old leather can turn black permanently and become brittle) so the lifted areas of original leather are protected with the folded pieces of mylar.

The new leather has beene pasted onto the book and is darkened from all the moisture.Here the new leather has been pasted over the hollow tube and under the lifted leather on the boards.

The book is hanging out of a book press with one cover inside the press.After the new leather spine is nice and dry, the leather that was lifted from the boards is adhered down, and then pressed hard, one board at a time. The new leather compresses because it is soft and malleable, which helps everything come out smooth and flat.

The book after rebacking is completed.Here the fragment from the original spine has been attached over the new spine, after removing  the original hollow tube fragments from the back side.

The spine of the book after rebacking is finished.Once the little book and I are back in the lab, I’ll make a paper label for the title and place it on the spine in the panel below the top band. I hope that will be before I need the snowshoes.


Working from Home: Part Two

So it’s been a month. Or longer even. You’ve already finished all the little projects you had lying around and you’ve spent hours watching tutorials, webinars, and baby elephant videos. Now things are starting to get dire. Now we really have to reach deep into our bag of tricks and find some new, unusual, and possibly ridiculous projects to try out. All with the added challenge of not being able to leave the house. Well, luckily for you I tried a couple and I’m here to share my results. Now, these may not be the most practical activities, but they are fun and I imagine we could all use a little bit of that right now.

The first things I tried was paper marbling using shaving cream. This one has been on my list for awhile, because who doesn’t love marbled paper and playing with shaving cream. I think this one would be super fun to do with kids and the clean up is quick and easy.

Basically, you just spray shaving cream in a container, drop in your color, then press some paper into it.

Let the shaving cream sit on the paper for about 5 minutes, then scrape it off with a squeegee or a bit of cardboard or something.

I played around with food coloring, acrylic paint, and glitter. The resulting paper is definitely not archival, but would work well for handmade cards or something like that.


Acrylic paint with a little bit of glitter.

Food coloring

Just a note, this paper will smell like your great-uncle Carl forever and ever.

The next project I tried was making my own paper. Now, it might surprise you to learn that in my tiny apartment I possess very few of the materials that one would normally need to make paper; deckles, beaters, vats, dryers…I don’t have any of those things and I imagine most of you don’t either. So we’ll just have to make do. We’ll call it rustic! Artisanal! That makes it quaint and charming instead of a bit sad and pathetic.

The first thing you do is blend up some paper and water to make your pulp. Use whatever you have lying around! Experiment with different colors! Tear the paper up and soak it first though. It will make things a lot easier. You’ll also have to use a lot more water than you think.

Then form the sheets! I used a mesh strainer because it is literally the only screen-like thing I have in my house and I’m just going to pretend I always wanted to make circular paper.

Shake the pulp around a little as it settles, but not too much. You may have to press some of the extra water out with a bit of damp paper towel.

Then, flip your paper out onto a towel to dry. The way I did this was by putting my hand underneath the sheet of paper and giving the strainer a good tap so it fell out into my hand. The paper should be solid enough that it will stay (mostly) in one piece.

Honestly, this isn’t meant to be a strict tutorial and I’m sure this is slightly horrifying to actual, professional papermakers…sorry guys!

The paper will take quite a while to dry; mine took about two days, but I also wasn’t able to hang it, which would speed up the process. I also didn’t bother to press it.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

So at the end of it all we’re left with some perfectly serviceable, handmade paper!

Sure, it’s a little wrinkly, but it’s paper! I think it would be quite nice for gift tags or other little decorative objects.

So, there’s two easy and fun projects for everyone out there to try! And both have endless possibilities for improvement (really…just endless…) and experimentation! Good luck out there and stay safe!

Working From Home: Part One

I assume that you, dear reader, have recently found yourself spending far more time than you are used to (or would like to) at home. Well, I’ve got good news for you! The first bit is that you are keeping everyone around you safe by spending more time indoors, and we thank you for that. The second bit, is that I have some tips and suggestions for how to keep the fires of your preservation passion alive while stuck at home.

The first tip is an easy one, one which you’re already doing. Blogs! We have lots of great posts here on this site, why not take a look at our backlog? Then when you’re done with that, check out a few of my own favorites.

Duke University’s preservation blog

A beautiful blog by artist Hannah Brown with lots of embroidered leather bindings

Preservation at the National Archives

Preservation at the Parks Library at Iowa State University

Once you’re properly inspired and energized, take this opportunity to check in on your own collections. Are all of your books and papers stored safely?Are any of them sitting on the floor, in front of a furnace, under an old, leaky AC unit? If so, pick them up! Then have a look at this post or this one to learn more about safe handling and storage. Take steps now to ensure that Grandma’s old copy of The Joys of Jello is available for future generations to enjoy!

A quick and easy way to keep your books in tip-top shape is to make sure you’re using them gently and correctly. I realize it’s unreasonable to think that anyone could refrain entirely from eating while reading, and I will be the first to admit to occasionally finding myself at the end of a book with an inexplicably empty family-size bag of Cheetos next to me, but we can at least take sensible precautions. Make sure your hands are clean when handling books and don’t leave them anywhere where food or drink could be spilled on them.

And while we’re on the subject of food, don’t use it as a bookmark! A few years ago the Guardian had a very interesting article about the wide range of disgusting items found in books, and we can relate! Our very own Elise Calvi once found an entire slice of moldy tomato!


Why not make some bookmarks instead? They will keep your books in perfect shape and they’re so cute you’ll never forget them and be forced to use produce in a pinch. Here are some of my favorites.

A cute cat!

An adorable koala family!

An elegant crane!

A…dragon? Kind of?

And since you’ve already fallen in to this YouTube rabbit hole, why not make yourself a whole miniature library! There are so many things you can do with tiny books! Make necklaces, earrings, keychains! The world is your oyster!

Perhaps a tiny library for your cats?

I hope this gives you a bit of inspiration for how to spend your days at home.  Stay tuned for more suggestions! Stay safe out there everyone!

Road Trip!

I spent a very enjoyable day last week over at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus presenting a lecture and then conducting a series of hands-on workshops upon the invitation of Jennifer Teper, Velde Professor and Head, Preservation Services. The topic of the day was the “Technology of Writing”. Over the course of an hour I explored the various writing implements and traditions of several cultures- European, Islamic, Far Eastern and Mayan civilizations.

The morning talk was attended by primarily Conservation and Preservation staff, though a few select members of the public were also invited. Afterwards this eager group of fifteen jumped into learning how to cut quill pens and exploring writing with various inks (including the walnut ink we made in-house this past August) and writing instruments (quills, reed pens, writing brushes, steel nibs).

Tools and materials involved in the workshop. Photo courtesy of JP Goguen


People cutting quill pens. Photo courtesy of JP Goguen

Cutting a pen. Photo courtesy of JP Goguen

The afternoon event was an open house at their Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The library was currently displaying an exhibit curated by the Conservation Department entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Conservation Treatments and Decision Making Through the Ages”. Cookies, cakes and coffee created a festive atmosphere; adding to this, tools and materials for quill cutting and writing were set up. In no time at all, dozens of students and staff arrived wanting to try their hands at cutting goose feathers to create a writing instrument used from roughly the 6th century up until the mid 19th. By the end of the afternoon, the door count was 132! By all accounts, it was a successful event and I’m proud to have played a part in so many people visiting the library- hopefully there were some new visitors who will keep coming back.

The room set up with writing materials

room full of participants
Moments later!












When I had some free time between the day’s events, I was generously hosted and given a tour of the Conservation Department by members of staff. It’s always a pleasure to talk with other conservators- we invariably share methods and learn from each other. The University of Illinois is in the Big Ten Academic Alliance, as we are here at IU. Library collection size and scope and organizational structures are similar; so they encounter similar challenges within their conservation and preservation departments as us. This made for a good heart-to-heart discussion.

The lab is currently developing some in-house papers utilizing agricultural waste in conjunction with Fresh Press. I spoke a bit with staff members Quinn Ferris and Anneka Vetter about the testing- both physical and chemical- of these papers in order to create a product that satisfies archival needs. The topic brought me back to many years ago when I worked in a laboratory ageing and testing for clues to paper deterioration.

Also of interest to me were the innovative enclosure and display solutions the Exhibit Conservator, Marco Valladares Perez, has come up with in order to reduce the amount of material purchased (and often thrown away afterwards).
The day ended with a staff holiday pizza party at RBML with Library Head, Lynne Thomas, and her staff.

Looking back, I’ve always found that these sort of hands-on materials talks and workshops generate a lot of interest and enthusiasm. Though much of what is covered is no longer in widespread use in the 21st century, people are always eager to learn about the past and have a hand at new skills development.