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Can Book Restoration Weather the Digital Storm?

April 17, 2010 08:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Despite the abundance of digital content, book conservators around the world continue to pursue their craft. Is book conservation a dying art form or more important than ever?

The Case for Permanency

The world's libraries are scrambling to digitize their content to appease an increasingly tech-centric patron base, but book conservators say their painstaking craft has history on its side: Books have been the main mode of information storage for the past 1,000 years.

"I think the more that people become digital, the more they place value on the physical things they love. People bring me the books that they love," book conservator Susan Soleil told North Carolina newspaper The News & Observer.

Others in the oft-overlooked field tend to agree with Soleil.

Douglas Filler, a book conservator profiled by the Orlando Sentinel, suggests that society's emphasis on digitization will result in books—the brick-and-mortar equivalent of information—becoming "even more treasured." Mary Bogan, who restores books at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, told the Sentinel her career will always been in demand because "the book is still the most permanent and most certain way of preserving information."

Not all book restorers feel quite as confident, however. Ellen Hahn, whose bookbinding business was started by her father, expressed concern over university budget cuts and the very real possibility that digital content could entirely replace actual books, reported the Orlando Sentinel.

The World Digital Library, for example, a project spearheaded by the Library of Congress and UNESCO, will gather many of the most prominent international collections online. The idea was first proposed by Dr. James Billington of the Library of Congress in 2005, and has since blossomed to include libraries from Sweden, Iraq and Egypt. The Library is intended to become an unmatched educational resource, a diplomatic tool and an alternative to mainstream media.

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Background: The life of a bookbinder

Book restoration carries a romantic appeal, but those who know it best provide a window into the struggles of maintaining a career in the field.

Tom Webb of Pioneer Press spoke with bookbinder Gary Buchner, who explained the importance of doing an apprenticeship. Says Buchner, "you have to find a master bookbinder and work with them side-by-side." Once a bookbinding business is established, keeping it up requires "word-of-mouth" and a "trusted reputation." The average cost for hand rebinding, which is only done for a small percentage of books brought to Buchner, is between $125 and $250.

According to Reuters, book restoration can consist of simply washing pages or "regilding the spines of ancient books with gold leaf," among other tasks. Projects are frequently time consuming and can be exhausting. "It's a highly complex job," Vicki Humphrey, who leads book conservation at the British Library, explained to Reuters.

Related Topic: Libraries go digital

During Library Week, findingDulcinea spotlighted digital libraries representing collections from around the globe, including holdings of independent organizations, universities and established public libraries.

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