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People mean different things by “conservation” or “restoration” and etc. Here’s what these words mean to me.

What’s the difference between repair, restoration, rebinding, and conservation?
There’s no sharp demarcation between these three terms. They shade into one another.


Means fixing damage and wear before it gets worse. Typical book repairs might include mending torn pages, covering worn corners with new material, reattaching loose cover boards, reaffirming loose sewing, etc. Repairs can be elegant and unobtrusive, or strong and obvious. A circulating library book, for example, requires sturdier repairs than a delicate book which will receive gentle treatment. In all cases, having a book repaired at the first sign of damage prevents further damage. As an example, if a cover board begins to separate, it will eventually come off, and without the cover properly attached the pages of the book could become folded and torn.

A more thorough repair, with additional care given to the appearance of the book. Restoration returns a book not to “new” condition, but to as state as close as possible to where the book should be - providing new strength and life while preserving the authentic appearance of the book.

A new cover is made for the book to replace the existing one. If the book needs to be resewn or repaired, this is done at the same time. The book must be dismantled to remove degraded or damaged parts, stripped down to where it is still solid, and then built back up again. For example, if the sewing is still good and tight, there’s no need to cut the book apart into sections and resew, but the spine linings might need to be redone. Rebinding can be either the last or the first resort. If a valuable book’s cover is worthless (or ugly) it may be best to rebind it in an entirely new cover.

Maybe better called “preservation” in that sometimes the best approach is to do nothing to the book that might compromise the historic condition. A conservation treatment might be simply making a box or other enclosure to protect the book. Or, it may mean taking every single page apart, washing them to remove stains and dirt, de-acidifying the pages, mending them, resewing the book with a “concertina guard” to keep all adhesives off the pages, and making a new cover or case. Most books don’t need all this, but it’s nice to be know that meticulous conservation is an option.

What kind of treatment does my book need?
Repair, restore, or rebind: it’s not one-size-fits-all. Each book is an individual, and should be evaluated individually. Let me give you some examples. They may not be from the real world.

Favorite workhorse cookbook:
This is a book that receives a lot of use in a dangerous environment, at least from the book’s point of view. Oil, food stains, spills, knives, hot pans, being dropped by a cook trying to turn the page with one clean hand . . . cookbooks have to take the heat because they can’t stay out of the kitchen. Consider having the book rebound in a sturdy stain-resistant cover, possibly reinforcing the construction to stand up to rough handling.

Prescription: rebind.

Favorite family cookbook:
Ah, a dilemma. On one hand, you want to preserve the old marks from that time Grand-dad sat the iron down on the cover while also fixing dinner for your Grandma, who was busy giving birth to your mom. On the other hand, you’d still like to use the cookbook to fix that same recipe for mom’s birthday, so you want the book to be strong enough for you to use. Consider doing more of a restoration, to make the book safe to handle while preserving its important sentimental look.

Prescription: repair / restoration.

Antique, rare cookbook from the cook’s personal library:
Say you have a book that shows the wear of two or three hundred years of life. It’s still all there, just not all in one piece. Maybe the back is missing, the spine is loose, and the pages are torn and falling out. This is a prime example of a book that wants restoration or rebinding. It wants its torn pages mended with fine handmade paper and archival paste, sewn back together with strong linen thread, and the missing parts replaced. It wants to be put back together with the best linen, paper and leather in such a way that it doesn’t look like a two hundred year old book that’s been through a battle. It wants to look like a two hundred year old book that’s lived a pampered life.

Prescription: if there is enough of the original cover to warrant it: restoration. If not, rebind. The new binding can be historically correct, or gussied up with fancy leather and decoration. It can match the other books in your library or not.

Prescription: restore / rebind.

Dolly Madison’s own personally inscribed cookbook, containing notes in the margins listing the secret ingredients she left out of recipes on purpose, purchased by William Faulkner at a White House yard sale and containing HIS extensive comments on Dolly’s comments, along with a ring stain from a frosty Sazerac that he accidentally sat down onto the title page while hunting for a pen so he could inscribe it as a birthday gift to Hemmingway, and further damaged by Earnest by being taken marlin fishing:
As the song says, can’t touch that. Do as little as possible. Every rip, every stain, every fish scale is part of the history and value of this book. If there is any organic matter that could damage the book, maybe that has to be neutralized. If there are inclusions such as letters from Hemmingway to Faulkner asking why he gave him a cookbook for his birthday when what a man really needs is a bigger boat, they must be carefully examined separately. I’m not going to sew this book back up, glue it back together, wash out the marlin blood, put the pages back in order . . . nothing. This book is perfect just as it is. Maybe a researcher will analyze it someday, and every clue might be important. What I will do is make a nice clamshell box, perfectly sized, to keep everything safely together. The box can be as pretty as you want: it can be covered in the finest leather and decorated with raised bands and pure gold leaf, but the book itself shall not be messed with. This is a conservation treatment, and you will be instructed to take out extra insurance and sign a waiver, then call Sotheby’s. Maybe call them first, and they’ll send out a whole plane full of conservators. I can still make that box for you to protect it until they get here. Then I’ll probably refer you to a big conservation lab with lots of expensive equipment. Whatever they say, don’t let them do anything to the book.

Prescription: Karen, wake up! You’re having that dream again!

Does this help? It’s not that complicated, really. It’s just a matter of treating each book appropriately. Ask the book what it needs, and listen. It will answer. I’ll be glad to have a conversation with you and your book to answer any questions.

When does a book need treatment?
A damaged book should be repaired as soon as possible. A small tear becomes a large one, a torn page becomes completely loose, a loose page gets lost. A torn cover falls off, and the spine comes off along with it. Once the spine is loose, the sewing of the book will be damaged and start to work loose. The spine piece can be lost. When the cover is gone, the pages of the book will get dirty, torn, dog-eared, and stained. The more the damage to the book, the more expensive the repair will be. Take care of small repairs early, before they become big repairs!

A book that needs more treatment than the budget allows can be treated in “phases”. A simple portfolio or four-flap enclosure can ensure that the book parts stay together, no bits get lost, and it doesn’t sustain further damage while waiting for treatment. Even sitting on a bookshelf causes wear and damage to books. Later, additional steps can be taken - again, as the budget allows - to stabilize, repair, and restore the book.

How long is this going to take?
Way, way longer than you want. There is only one binder in the bindery. The binder works slowly, and only on a part-time basis at the moment. All books are repaired in the order in which they are received. I do not rush repairs, and I do not allow books to leave the bindery until I am satisfied with the quality of the repair.

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