A Decade of Damaged Things: Experiments in Book Repair by Risa de Rege Issue Repair 2022.1 “Book is Falling Apart” I have worked at libraries for over a decade, bearing constant witness to book damage. At one point I was a technical services clerk at a library at the University of Toronto. I was responsible for processing, but when the opportunity to learn mending and repair came up I was eager to experiment. My desk became the intensive care unit for anything needing special treatment: books from other libraries joining our collections for a second life; volumes of journals to be consolidated; and, primarily, books that were wounded. Books are both hardy and fragile objects; anything can damage them. Neighbouring volumes on a shelf can warp them or leave imprints of rot or size. Their material makeups are picky and climate-sensitive. Pages tear, covers crack, leather rots. Inherent vice. The act of using or even touching a book causes harm. Any library user has seen books in need of care. These signs of the ways violence is inflicted on non-personal items, intentionally or not, are as common and varied as the titles themselves. Few of us are free of sin: as a teenager I cut out pictures from popular magazines borrowed from the public library. (I did not seek out this career path as a form of atonement.) I am here to mend, not to judge or apologize. I do appreciate these signs of use. My official stance on book damage, as a library professional, aside, I love exploring what they suggest. Like a crime scene investigator, one can create a profile of the perpetrator and assess the damage. The natural aging process breaks a spine. A stressed student vividly highlights a page. Humid storage facilities beget mould. For ten years, damaged things crossed my path and I served only as an observer of their suffering. Now, with some basic training and the freedom to learn, I was to become their mender. Surrounded by shelves of books from all around the library in need of help and prepared with tools of the trade, I was immersed in the ER. Scalpels. Bone folders. Glue. Countless types of book tape. I might have spent as much time going through supply catalogs as I did mending. This was an experiment, and I wanted to have all the necessary supplies. “Tools of the trade” One of my first projects was a 1864 volume of Italian poet Francesco Berni with a dislocated spine, a common problem for books of a certain age as the material covering the joint weakens over time. “The Berni with the broken back” Uncovering is an intrinsic part of building. Like a ruin found under a construction site, a plague pit below busy streets, the spine revealed a secret in the backing material when it fell off. Known as binding waste, scrap paper is often repurposed and recycled to reenforce bindings or act as infill. This fragment has a drawing on it, but many have text. What little it offers in meaning or provenance is made up by character and awe: I could have been the only person to see this in-person since it was bound over 150 years ago. What a beautiful connection to share with a book I cannot even read. “Uncovered art” But what healing uncovers, it often re-covers. To make this book useable again, the spine needed to be reaffixed: rebuilt, glued, and bandaged over with tape so that it would stay on. While the book would be back on the stacks in no time, nobody will ever see the drawing again. Acid-free glue was applied to both sides and spread liberally (subsequent training in bookbinding has taught me that I may use entirely too much glue for these projects). After a moment it becomes tacky, and the two parts are stuck together. I learned the hard way that using elastics to hold everything together while it dries is essential; my apologies to the uneven covers that sacrificed themselves for this lesson. After the glue has dried, a reinforcing tape cover is added to hold everything in place. Various colours and materials are available: this one was clear, because the spine was in good enough condition to show off. After extensive bone foldering to ensure everything is smooth and connected (a vital step, I have learned, in most mending and binding processes), the book was ready to rejoin the society of the stacks. It was not what it once was, but it made the book useable again and introduced me to some best practices. “Years after mending it, I revisited this book in the stacks while writing this article. It’s doing well.” As I did more of this work, I started to see some regular issues come up. The more I tried things out, the more I learned and developed processes specific to the type of damage and material. As in medicine, I would always start by cleaning the wound and removing any injured flesh, using a scalpel, canned air, or a paintbrush. Leather bindings, for example, are subject to red rot and require a lot of dusting before tape or glue will have much hold. Once cleared, the problems can be better assessed. “Clean-up.” Dislocated spines were common, especially among the older bound volumes. Enough was missing from this book to reveal another example of the treasures of wastepaper used as backing material. The metal spinal cord here is tattle tape, a magnetic security strip used to prevent theft. “Hanging by a thread.” Some books came to me with fully dislocated covers. I found these harder to attach than spines, but I eventually got the hang of reforming joints and hinges. Overall, this was a simple wound to set right. “A dislocated front cover.” Another frequent problem was the fraying of cloth-bound cover material, especially along the edges. The solution was a bit hard to figure out; at first I experimented by using glue to solidify everything and prevent more fraying, but glue is fickle and created a mess more than once. Eventually I found the best way was to simply re-cover the edges with book tape, sealing the damage and potential away forever. “Frayed (left) and covered edges.” Most repairs I made were to the covers and spines. As the exterior, they are subject to more wear and tear with every passing year, and while they are made to last nothing is forever. But a particularly interesting triage case was the victim of a bite. I started by assessing the damage: the corners of both covers would need to be rebuilt. To prepare for reconstructive surgery, I modified a prosthetic to fit by measuring and cutting small triangles of cardboard, which were then attached with layers of various book tape to hold it steady until it felt solid. While most books were merely old and worn, this one was hurt. “Creating a prosthetic corner.” Everything suffers the inherent violence of existence. Like our bodies, objects age and face harm; like library books, we are passive receptors of the damage done by our environments, peers, and circumstances. We succumb to rot and mould and acid; our skin is torn and scarred. We are bandaged and rebuilt. Much has happened in the years since I worked as an ad-hoc book medic. I moved to a different department of the library, away from the operating theatre. I began my master’s degree, specializing in book history with a focus on material culture. Desperate to get my hands dirty again, I started letterpress printing and bookbinding, learning the “proper” ways to do things. But as I expand my formal and academic training, I am grateful for the improvisation that previous positions offered. It is only through experimentation that we learn how to mend, of course. Every medical treatment was new and uncertain at some point. Experimentation is the basis of the scientific method, and I cannot understate its value: messing up is the best way to learn. When your mother tells you not to do something, she knows full well you’re going to do it anyways, because you could never learn from her mistakes. You have to make them yourself. Photo credits: Risa de Rege, 2019–2022. Risa de Rege is a Toronto-based writer, artist, and library professional. She works at the University of Toronto, where she is also a graduate student at the Faculty of Information. Her research currently focuses on the material culture of the book and learning through making, unmaking, and remaking.