Monday, October 29, 2007

Those Who Repair History

Every Monday, I write an essay on libraries. This will be the last set of essays. Stay tuned next week for something different.

Oral history has its own charm but the problem with such a method is that we usually end up with different versions of the same account. Written history has the illusion of permanence, or at the very least the differences and nuances can be spotted more easily. So what does this have to do with libraries? Well, the purpose of the first libraries wasn't necessarily to provide provide the public with books but rather to archive documents. And while these days we have devices such as CDs, DVDs, and MP3s, for the most part libraries continue to be an archive of printed work. And as much as that's a good idea, the reality is that while books are sturdy enough to last for years, they won't last forever. What good are archives if they won't last long? Which is why librarians are usually trained in one skill most people never notice: book preservation and repair.

I've noticed that in some libraries, the covers all look the same. In certain ways, this discouraged me from picking up the book (as much as we constantly utter the cliche "don't judge a book by its cover", that's still how people choose which books to read and it's honestly difficult to differentiate one book from another if they all look alike). The library book covers somehow look subdued (at least compared to their commercial covers, even as we might talk about horrible book covers) and it was only later on that everything made sense: someone repackaged the book, obtained a new cover for it, and then rebound it. Now as a book collector, I know that books undergo wear and tear. And that's me as an individual. What more when possibly hundreds of users borrow the book? And let's admit it: as much as I take care of my books, I don't see other people taking as much care of books that aren't theirs. I've witnessed some book horrors that make me want to swipe away the book from the reader, such as opening the book more than 180 degrees. Think of the binding! And in most cases, the binding is the first thing in a book that gets wrecked (I'm looking at you Harry Potter, Wheel of Time, and my various RPG hardcovers!).

Thankfully librarians come to the rescue. As much as bookworms love the written word, they need a medium to read it. I think we've all had experiences with the matter: some people find it discomforting to read from a screen, while others don't like reading photocopies. A "real" book in which you can turn the pages is currently the paradigm of how we should comfortably read something. A book with weak binding might end up losing pages or nigh unusable because it takes too much effort. Or the book might survive the current reader but not the next. So changing the book's cover wasn't the intent as much as rebinding the book, although I find that adapting a standard book cover helps police which books belong to the library and which don't (when it comes to book security).

I was looking at A Simple Book Reapir Manual and so far, I have no real objections to the principles of such a practice:
  1. Reversibility
  2. Do No Harm
  3. Expediency
  4. Preservation of the Order of Pages
  5. Books Must Have a Cover

Unfortunately, loose binding is not the only damage a book might sustain. A small tear in a page for example might end up ruining the entire page eventually if it is not remedied. Then there's the issue of spilling your drink on the book. And honestly, there will be times when the book will be too fragile for public handling in which case it's time to turn over the book to the special collections section or find some way to reproduce it (i.e. microfilm). It makes me wonder and appreciate the tools that a librarian might possess in order to revive an injured book. And this becomes quite important to libraries because well, they are monuments of history. A bookstore can simply stock the latest books available. A library on the other hand is not only limited by budget but it honestly has to keep a record of old work, texts that you wouldn't otherwise find anywhere else except in museums and other libraries. Reproducing digital copies might alleviate the problem in the future but as far as the present is concerned, repairing and preserving books is the domain of the library.

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