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. 

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:

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.

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.


Bell Trace Art Class Visits the Lab

The Preservation Department and the Auxiliary Library Facility (ALF) hosted a group of local students this week for a tour.

The students are taking art classes taught by Sandra Tokarski at Bell Trace, a senior living community just down the road from the lab. The art classes cover a wide range of media, and most recently they did book arts. So I guess their visit was kind of their capstone experience!

They were especially interested in some of our big equipment, such as board shears, book presses, and hydraulic guillotine, since their book making was done using only hand tools.

Above Lara Tokarski demonstrates the guillotine, which cuts cleanly through thick stacks of paper and can be used to trim the edges of text blocks.

Here is Vaughn Nuest dazzling the group with facts and figures about the ALF. They also were treated to a peek inside the vault where millions of the Library’s books, archival collections, and AV media are housed.

One brave soul, Sandra Tokarski, was treated by Brian Johnson to a ride on the lift truck!

I’m not sure who had more fun — us or them!



In April, we had a lovely visit from the Guild of Book Workers / Midwest Chapter, while they were in Bloomington for their annual meeting.

In General Collections Conservation, aka the Book Repair Lab, we discussed the many changes in academic libraries that have led to an evolution in book repair practices, and showed the group some of the newer treatment techniques we are using today. Here I reprise some of that discussion, and then describe one of the board reattachment methods we demonstrated for them, called “thread staples.”

Preparing thread staples

Changing Practices to Meet Evolving Needs

Preservation practices must be able to respond to new patterns of use, and to collecting strategies that are constantly evolving. In the earliest days of library preservation programs, for example, a new type of use — the photocopy machine — helped lead to improved methods in commercial library binding. Double-fan adhesive binding, which has for the most part replaced oversewing since the mid-1980s, allows volumes to lay flat for good capture without causing damage.

Openability of different binding methods, from Guide to the ANSI/NISO Library Binding Standard, 2000, by Jan Merrill-Oldham and Paul Parisi, illustrations by Gary Frost. Oversewn volumes (top right) may have tight bindings and text at the inner margins is sometimes obscured. Double-fan adhesive bindings (lower right) open flat.

And so much has changed in academic libraries over the last two decades. Libraries have adjusted their collection management strategies for print collections in light of the wide availability of digital content, lower use of print, and demand for the space that print collections have occupied in library buildings.

Information resources lead long lives (if they survive) and their value may change over time, so preservation efforts must be able to meet the needs of current users while keeping the long view in mind. Today, selection for preservation and treatment decision-making both take into account these changing values and uses of the print collections. Envisioning the future value collections may hold, and factoring that into the actions taken today, is a challenging but fascinating part of the work of preservation.

Likewise, the approach to the repair and conservation of research book collections has evolved to support these changing strategies and needs. Advances in techniques have come via cross-fertilization among practices in different conservation specializations.

Traditionally, there was a “partitioning” of responsibilities for the remedial care of books in academic libraries1. Repair of circulating, or “general” collections adhered largely to standardized treatment protocols, or “treatment to specification” as described by Glen Ruzicka2.  With this approach, the treatment for an item is selected from a set menu. This provides both consistency and efficiency. By contrast, rare book conservation treatment is customized for each item. Typically, different staff in separately equipped labs applied these two distinct approaches, using different materials and methods.

Also in the past, the high-use, circulating books for which standardized treatments were designed often consumed all the available resources for book repair. At the same time, rare book conservation focused on special collections. Older materials in the general collection sometimes fell between the cracks. This was partly due to their lower priority. But it was also because the procedures and skill sets of general collections conservation labs were designed for modern, case-bound books with strong, flexible texts, not for older binding structures or the kinds of deterioration from which they suffer. Options for older materials may have included deferring action by boxing, or reformatting to preserve intellectual content.

Today, new approaches to book repair, which began percolating in the 1990s, have led to greater integration of general and special collections conservation approaches3. Techniques appropriate for older or “medium-rare” books have become part of the repertoire of general collections conservation today. These methods tend to be more reversible, less invasive, and are often less time-consuming. And some practices from the world of general collections that lend efficiency have been adopted in the work of special collections conservation. So with more tools in the proverbial kit bag, we now have the capacity to address the preservation needs of our collections more holistically.

New Tool in Our Kit Bag — Thread Staples

During the MWGBW tour, we showed a variety of techniques used in our lab to solve a common problem of 18th and 19th-century books – detached boards. The attachment fails due to deterioration of the materials, structural design, use, or a combination.

Detached boards — a common problem of 18th- and 19th- century bindings

Our repertoire of board re-attachment methods includes Japanese paper hinges, linen tabs, full cloth hinges, cutaway cloth hinges, Ramieband, and one called thread staples.

It is useful especially when you don’t have access to the text block spine, such as in a tight-back binding. It is stronger than Japanese paper hinges, so it can be used on books that are a bit heavier or larger. The first and last signatures need to be well attached.

The cover material is adhered directly to the text block spine in a tight-back binding (top), vs. the hollow spine, which is attached at the joints.

The thread-staples repair has some things in common with another board re-attachment method called “new slips.” A description may be found in “Binding Repairs for Special Collections at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center,” by Olivia Primanis, published in the Book and Paper Annual, v. 19 (2000).

The basic idea for thread staples is that linen thread is sewn through the folds of the first and last signatures of the text block, and the thread tails are used to attach the boards.

Here is a diagram showing how the threads should end up after the sewing is done: one thread tail at the top and bottom, and two thread tails at every other sewing station:

Diagram showing the sewing for thread staples

Sewing can begin from the inside of the signature and come out at the point of the shoulder, or from the point of the shoulder on the outside to the inside of the fold, whichever is easiest. It depends somewhat on the depth of the shoulder. If starting inside, you un-thread the needle after the first pass, put the needle back on the thread inside, and then sew through the next sewing station from the inside.

This is how it looks after the sewing is done.

I sometimes rub some thick paste into the threads right at the shoulder and press the tails toward the text block. This helps get the thread to lean in the right direction, but also protects against accidentally pulling the threads out during subsequent steps.

Next the thread tails are trimmed to the length that will fit under the lifted cover material (or paste-down), and then they are frayed out by untwisting the 3 plies first with your fingers, and then using a needle or awl to separate them further.

You should have something that looks like this:

Then the board is positioned on the text block

Board in place on the text block. This is a different book than the other photos!

and the thread tails are adhered under the lifted cover material. The threads are splayed out, and made tight and flat using first a brush and then rubbing down/pushing inward with a spatula.

The finished book, Lettres et pensees d’Hippolyte Flandrin, Paris, 1865.

We enjoyed the visit from the Guild of Book Workers Midwest Chapter, and it was fun sharing some of our work!

  1. “Integrated Book Repair,” by Gary Frost, Archival Products News, v.7, no. 3, Fall/Winter 1999-2000.
  2. “Book Repair in Research Libraries,” by Maria Grandinette and Randy Silverman, Abbey Newsletter, v. 19, no. 2, May 1995.
  3. “Identifying Standard Practices in Research Library Book Conservation,” Library Resources & Technical Services (LRTS), v. 54, no. 1, 2010, pages 21-39.

Of Baseball, Books, and Book Tape

What could a ticket to a Cincinnati Buckeyes baseball game in 1869 have in common with a book of Sophocles’ works in Latin and Greek?

Ticket for a Cincinnati Buckeyes baseball game, 1869

Sophoclis tragoediae septem / ad optimorum librorum recensuit et brevibus notis instruxit I. [i.e., C.] G.A. Erfurdt.
The ticket was signed by B.O.M. DeBeck, third-baseman for the Cincinnati Buckeyes. Here is the text of the advertisement of this rare bit of early baseball memorabilia:

“1869 pass issued by the first baseball team in American history, the Buckeye Base Ball Club of Cincinnati. Partially printed pass instructs: ”Admit Harry Heys and Lady to all games of the BBC” within a printed oval-shaped line. Verso is labeled ”No. 138” and is signed in black by the team’s former third baseman ”B.O.M. DeBeck” as Treasurer. The Buckeyes were the Cincinnati Red Stockings’ original rival, and were eventually absorbed into the Red Stockings. … A scarce baseball collectible.”—–lot7358.aspx

The connection is that B.O. M. DeBeck is the former owner of said book, now in the collection of the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries.

Inside covers with DeBeck’s bookplate. Note the crusty, whitish-gray residue from book cloth tape.

And from the number 2221 on the bookplate, it seems that DeBeck had quite a substantial library. A little more poking around on the old Internets reveals that besides playing baseball, B.O.M. DeBeck was a teacher in the Cincinnati public schools.

And he wrote this arithmetic book —

The sad state of DeBeck’s Sophocles is all too common. In the distant past, book repair in libraries meant the creative and copious application of tape. Now we spend our time removing it.

Here are all the pieces of bookcloth tape I removed from DeBeck’s book:

The long, wide piece in the center was covering the spine leather, the two long narrower pieces on either side were stuck to the first and last pages of text, and the 4 triangular pieces covered the corners of the both covers. That orangey thing at the top is the only remnant of the original spine.

Fortunately, I have an effective method to reduce / remove the dry, crust of adhesive that this type of book cloth tape leaves behind. Klucel G in isopropanol is applied, and then “scrubbed” with a soft brush.


The crud softens, and can be wiped away. It usually take a few applications. I have used this technique with success on cloth and paper too, although it does nothing about the dark brown stains that penetrate the paper, as seen on the left edge of the title page below.

Mr. DeBeck’s book, sans tape and once again in useable condition.

Future Book Artists

This week the Preservation Department hosted Bloomington’s Girl Scout Troop 3468. They came to learn about book arts so they could earn their Book Artist Badge.

They got to see some nice old books

and learn about how they were constructed.

Chelsea Hoover demonstrated pamphlet sewing.

Anitta Salkola-White taught them step-by-step how to make their own blank books using both 3- and 5-hole pamphlet sewing patterns.

Doug Sanders, Lara Tokarski, and I helped them make their pamphlets. It was fun for everyone!

Don’t Pull, Just Cut!

While working on this very damaged book, some words of advice from long ago kept ringing in my ears –



Come to Cincinnati, published by the Cincinnati Enquirer, [1929]

Brittle, oversewn book being taken apart

Some of our work is repetitive, tedious, perhaps meditative. For the hour I spent taking this book apart, stitch by stitch, I remembered this advice from long ago. That was way before I became a librarian, or even gave a thought to the idea that you could repair books.

I had a job working in the vast, dark, back room of a downtown retail furrier shop. My job was to repair all the coats brought in for cold storage and cleaning in the summer — all the holes in the fur’s skin, loose linings, fallen-off buttons, snaps, and hooks.

I worked with Bogdan, the furrier, who made new coats, and Stephania, who did alterations. The very first thing Stephania taught me was what to do if I saw a loose thread sticking out of the coat.

She warned,

“Don’t pull, just cut. If you pull, you could pull apart whole coat!”

Said in the wonderful Polish accent with which she also told about her childhood experiences in a forced labor camp during WWII, and traditional recipes she liked to make, such as plum tarts and brains. I only tried the plum tarts.

The book, Welcome to Cincinnati, was brittle and oversewn. Many pages were broken off, leaving some text on the stubs still attached to the binding with gobs of thread and stitches, otherwise known as oversewing. The result of oversewing is much the same as when you rip pages out of a spiral-bound notebook.

Oversewing is a method of binding a text block that consists of individual sheets of paper, rather sections of folded pages. It is very strong, but also very difficult to repair. Oversewing has been replaced, for the most part, with double-fan adhesive binding — a durable, yet more easily reversible binding.

Oversewing combined with brittle paper is a recipe for disaster. Pulling on the thread would result in more damage and I didn’t want to make even more jigsaw puzzle pieces that I would have to put back together.

So, with tweezers, fine scissors, and a microspatula, I snipped and snipped and snipped until each each stub was free of the snarl of stitches. Then I rejoined the remnants of each page so they could be scanned. There are only a few copies of this book in libraries across the US, and our copy has circulated sort of a lot, which seems natural since it is about one of the big cities in a neighboring state.

I like to believe that no experience, however humble, is a waste of time. Little do we know how things we learn along the way may turn out to be valuable later on.