Tuesday, 18 November 2014




I really love books, and I really love to read...

...so you will not be surprised to learn that when I heard about a volunteering opportunity at the Hart House Library, I couldn’t reply fast enough. It has been a wonderful experience thus far – who wouldn’t want to decompress among stacks of beautiful old books in one of the most charming silent study spaces on campus for three hours every week? As an added bonus, the Library’s student curator arranged a Book Repair Workshop for volunteers during the afternoon of November 1st, which I was able to attend.

A black and white photograph of the interior of a library that has walls of bookshelves, several chairs, a couch, and round table in the centre.
An undated archival photo of the Hart House Library. The doors and shelves still look the same. Source.

As you may already be aware, libraries and museums converge in many ways (an overview of which is definitely beyond the scope of this article). Therefore, I thought it would be an excellent idea to share what was covered in the workshop to give you all a glimpse into what conservation looks like when an artefact in your care happens to be a book.

Lauren Williams, a second-year LIS student from the iSchool in the Book History and Print Culture concentration who also has a background in book binding, led our group through several conservation and repair techniques in order to make some of the older books in the Library's collection more accessible to users while also maintaining their integrity. She explained that there has been a shift in the world of book repair from completely rebinding damaged books to making as few changes as possible, which is what we tried to achieve during the workshop.

A black and white sketch of the outside of a book with yellow labels for the different parts of the book

A black and white sketch of the inside of a book with yellow labels for the different parts of the book
The basic anatomy of a book. Source. (for both photos)
Handling Books
Do NOT grab the headband / head of the spine. The proper method is to pinch the sides of the book’s spine when you are pulling it out from a shelf. Also, do not lay it flat and flip the top cover open, which puts a lot of pressure on the front cover’s joint and the book spine. Instead, open both sides and fan out the pages. To stabilize particularly old books when you don’t have a small fortune to spend on triangular supports, fold a clean towel in half, then roll both of the short edges inwards to support the book’s covers.

Tying Books
When books are sitting on shelves, those with heavy text blocks may experience a pulling away from the spine starting at the head and the top of the joints. The spine will then start to peel away. To help stabilize them, you can use thick string or archival tape (which is not sticky, despite its misleading name). A book should not be tied too tight and the knot should be made at the top edge of the book, or a divot will appear over the years in the book’s cover. To get the right length of string, measure along the book’s long side twice, its short side twice, add a few more centimetres, and then combine those numbers together.

A girl in a long-sleeved blue shirt ties a length of archival tape around an old book to stabilize it
My repair partner in the process of tying a book with archival tape. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

Taping Loose Pages
For the love of all that is literary, set aside your Scotch tape – you want to use acid-free document repair tape for this. Use only just enough tape so that you are adding as little width as possible to the text block to avoid unnecessarily increasing the pressure on the spine. Measure and cut an appropriate length of tape. Also, only put tape along one side of the page, not both.

Hollow vs. Flat Spines: To Glue or Not To Glue?
There are two types of spines: hollow and flat. You cannot glue books with hollow spines because it will work against how the book is supposed to open and cause more damage, so these should be tied or placed in a book shoe (which will be discussed below. For flat spine books, there are three kinds of glue that can be used:

1. Wheat / rice paste – has less binding agents and is therefore a weaker glue
2. “Mix” – a mixture that is ½ methyl cellulose and ½ white glue and creates a stronger bond
3. Non-acidic white glue / “PVA” – this is the strongest possible glue and is used for big jobs

A girl is using a paintbrush to apply white-coloured glue to the spine of an old book that is damaged
Applying "mix" to a damaged flat spine. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

Two girls hold an old book steady while one of them uses a white bone folder to smooth over the spine which has just been glued down
Smoothing out bubbles with a fancy Martha Stewart bone folder. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

Once you’ve applied and smoothed your glue, wrap the glued area with wax paper and a tenser bandage for a couple hours.

Book Shoes
This was the most involved and time-consuming part of the workshop, the end of which I unfortunately missed because I had to catch a train home. Book shoes prevent abrasions, cradle books without putting stress on them, and totally enclose them, which means that they are especially beneficial for hardcovers.

Three black and white, illustrated images of the components of a book shoe
A book shoe. Source.

You need to choose acid-free, lignin-free board that is strong but able to fold well for your book shoes. The process involves a lot of precise measuring and cutting with a strong X-Acto knife. I invite you to visit the Northeast Document Conservation Centre’s free resource page if you would like to read up on the details of constructing a book shoe.

Two girls are measuring and cutting boards that are to be used for making a book shoe
Making the first measurements and cuts for a book shoe. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

Feel free to check out the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG) on their website or like the GTA chapter’s Facebook page to get updates about workshops in the area.

A heartfelt thank you to Lauren for sharing her knowledge and resources with me!


  1. What an informative post! And a lovely picture of the Hart House library, too. I tweeted this post @bookideasblog . Thanks!

    1. Thank you for sharing my post, BookIdeas! I'm very glad to hear that you enjoyed reading it.

  2. Great post! Thanks for sharing. Book repair actually looks like a lot of fun :)

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