Libraries have always had need to repair worn and damaged materials. Until recently, most such items were sent out of the library for commercial rebinding. The in-house mending units, which handled basic repairs, were generally operated by well-intentioned (but often ill-informed) library staff whose supplies and techniques frequently resulted in unsuspected damage to the materials they were intending to restore. By the mid-1970S the effects of these unsatisfactory procedures had become all too evident.
While effective in-house treatments had long been used on rare books at a few specialized libraries, the same consideration had not been awarded to library collections in general. As librarians became aware of the physical problems facing their collections; environmental damage, physically unstable paper, deteriorating structures, and ineffective and often harmful book "repairs;" they began to look for appropriate long-term solutions, including the development of professional conservation units.
The conservation unit at the Homer Babbidge Library has been designed to provide technically sound and chemically stable treatments for the library's collections. Although around 10% of repairs still require commercial binding, most materials needing physical treatment can be handled in the conservation lab itself. This is not only more economical for the library, it offers other advantages as well: the materials are always on hand, that is, they remain within the library building and can often be returned intact to the shelves within 24 hours (instead of the 2 - 6 weeks required for commercial binding); more varied and refined treatment options are available in the library's lab than can be performed through the pre-established treatments offered by commercial binderies; and, most important of all, in the conservation lab, the repair program can be organized to accommodate both the specific needs of the library's collections and the individual needs of the users of those collections.
The Homer Babbidge Library's conservation lab was designed following a careful inspection of several units already established in New England. Paying attention to their successes and avoiding their mistakes has resulted in a well-planned, easily utilized, state-of-the-art facility, whose features include a physical layout that maximizes each individual's workspace, standardizes workbench tools and supplies, and displays all conservation materials in open, visible and readily accessible racks and shelves. In addition, many supplies have been pre-cut, pre-sorted, and pre-prepared for optimal workflow. To create these features it was necessary to invent new designs not only for the workbenches but also for the book repair cloth storage racks, the pre-cut supplies storage units, and the flat paper storage cases. Unlike the book repair units of old, which were often relegated to unwanted corners, the new conservation lab is an open, clean environment, with full-spectrum lighting, that has been carefully organized for worker safety and productivity.
At the University of Connecticut, conservation treatments are basically the same whether the item needing repair is a fragile volume of nineteenth century poetry or a well-worn volume of twentieth century chemistry formulas. The distinction between rare book conservation and general collections conservation is in the type of material being treated, not the quality or care of the procedure.
We provide three broad levels of treatments. In order to keep the categories as clear and simple as possible, we distinguish the levels by the amount of time required for the treatment, not the actual complexity. The first level, minor treatments, comprises general maintenance work that require less than 15 minutes to perform. These treatments include repairing torn paper, hinging in or tipping in loose pages, tightening the loose hinges or joints of bound volumes, constructing simple protective covers for "temporary" binding of soft cover books, sewing single-section soft cover items into commercially manufactured stiff covers, and simple repairs to the pages of items being prepared for hard-cover binding by a commercial vendor. This level accounts for about 50% of the work done in conservation. The skills required are basic ones that all workers are expected to be able to perform with two to three months of training.
The second, or intermediate level of treatment is what is commonly considered standard book repair. These treatments generally require anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours to perform and include such procedures as replacing torn endsheets, repairing and replacing worn and damaged spines, removing textblocks from cases (covers), repairing the textblocks or cases, and then reattaching the textblocks to the cases as well as other more complex repairs like resewing loose sections in volumes being prepared for hard-cover binding by a commercial vendor. This level accounts for around 40% of the work done in the lab and is performed by students who have had several months of training and possess a high level of manual dexterity.
The third level of treatment, major conservation work, includes procedures that generally require more than 2 hours to execute. These include complicated textblock and case repairs, complete rebinding, as well as the construction of entirely new cases. Materials in this level frequently include older and more delicate items. This level accounts for around 10% of the work in conservation and is usually performed by those who have had several months to over a year of training.
Not all materials are repaired automatically, some are so worn and damaged that they are routed to a subject bibliographer to determine if they should be replaced, or if they are worth the time and expense they require for repair. Additionally, no conservation unit can repair everything. We cannot repair, for example, books whose paper is no longer flexible, i.e. crumbling and brittle. Such materials are also sent to subject bibhographers for replacement review. But as long as the paper isn't brittle or crumbling (or destroyed by mold or other environmental factors) we can almost always devise some treatment for the volume and restore it to a usable condition.
When we repair materials from our circulating collections, we are making them stronger so that they can withstand the physical rigors of frequent handling. Repair technicians must have an understanding of the structure of books - how they should open and close. The pages should flow smoothly the way the coils of a child's slinky move. When a book is opened, it should open easily and stay open for easy reading.
We have tried to establish conservation repair techniques that not only contribute to the shelf-fife of the item repaired but also enhance (or at least do not detract from) the aesthetic quality of the item, in the belief that most users will respect the physical book and perhaps handle it more carefully if it is beautifully presented and works well structurally. We strive to attain not only a high level of productivity but also a high quality of craft.
Such treatments are, in effect, a very basic realization of the library's mission to provide efficient access to information. Though there is an inevitable wear that takes place in any well-used collection, it is satisfying to see the materials receiving such heavy use. On occasion, however, books and journal volumes come to conservation because of careless or deliberate mutilations. Identical copies of these books and articles must be ordered through the Interlibrary Loan Department from other libraries so that stable replacements for pages missing or damaged can be made. This is a time-consuming and expensive process but it ensures that information will not be lost to future readers.
In general, our repair efforts are guided by the use of the collections themselves. There are three primary sources of work for conservation. The main source is from the Circulation Department. As books are returned to the library, the circulation staff set aside those items in need of repair for the Conservator to review. Almost every item set aside does go to conservation, but a quick review can help control backlogs. Books identified for repair are charged out on the circulation system and are eligible for priority treatment if recalled by special request.
A second source of conservation work is from other library staff who discover problems during routine processing. These problems can be anything from a torn page to an entire text upside down in its case. Many times supplements arrive separately and need to be physically incorporated into a main volume. Errata sheets and text corrections frequently arrive on single sheets that need to be inserted into an already bound volume. All of these procedures are performed swiftly and expertly in the lab.
The third source of conservation work is from various special collections within the libraries: Reference, Reserve, Government Documents, Art & Design, Music, Pharmacy, Special Collections, and Archives. Work of this sort necessarily entails a collaborative effort between the Library Conservator and those who manage these collections for there are, generally, realistic time constraints involved: only the collection managers know at what times damaged items can be "spared" long enough for repair, while only the conservator knows what repairs can be accomplished within the limits given.
All items entering the conservation lab are sorted into work categories based on the type of treatment required. Student technicians select items from those categories according to their assigned responsibilities. Reference and reserve items are awarded the highest work priority. Next are books requested or recalled by individual library users. Apart from these priority categories, work is done on a first come, first served basis.
Over the years, library staff have become more sophisticated in recognizing conservation problems. When I first came to the Homer Babbidge Library, a majority of items sent to conservation were either "basket cases" requiring extensive repair, or were beyond repair. Now staff expertly recognize problems before they become quite so serious. A simple tightening of loose book hinges, for example, can prevent the kind of damage that demands a more complicated and time-consuming repair. A caring library staff have helped make this program successful.
When we first began our conservation efforts, we estimated that almost half of the books returned to circulation required some kind of treatment. After over seven years of conservation effort, that number has been greatly reduced and the effects of the program are clearly visible in every comer of the stacks.