General Collections Book Repairs

By Anneka Vetter, General Collections Hourly

Note: Click on any image to enlarge.

In library conservation we come across our fair share of beautiful books, historic letters, and unique objects all in need of treatment and tender care. We also have a regular influx of common, mass-produced books: textbooks, reference books, literature, and everything in between. While these books may seem less important than many of our special or rare collections materials, they serve an important function to the university as the most circulated items. These are the books handled by hundreds of students and professors over the years, taken down from the stacks, stuffed into backpacks, perhaps accidentally dropped a few times, eventually worn thin and broken from use. Since these book repairs make up a regular part of our daily operations in the lab we thought it only appropriate to introduce this basic workflow.  

As highly circulating materials, our ultimate goal for general collections books is to withstand being handled by many hands over many years, and that changes what materials and processes we use to make repairs. Function comes first and aesthetics second. While we take care to make our repairs blend in to the original design as seamlessly as possible, we don’t spend very much time on perfectly matching every new material and color to the original. Medium Rare and Special Collections conservation treatments, in contrast, are far more detail oriented and carefully consider every aesthetic and material aspect of the treatment. On the other extreme, the local bindery, where we send a fair amount of books, chops off spines and replace most of the original material except the textblock (check out our previous post about bindery options for more info). Our general collections workflow is the happy medium: we stabilize and repair while still considering aesthetics and keeping as much of the original book as possible, while also working quickly. For reference, medium rare and special collections book binding can take weeks to complete; in general collections most repairs take about an hour.  

So today’s blog post will introduce our most common general collections repairs. But first, let’s start with Book Anatomy 101. What most people consider the “book” is actually the textblock, containing all the writing and pertinent information being communicated to the reader. The binding of the book is how the pages are kept together, they can be glued or sewn together, and there are hundreds of bindings styles and variations. The rest of the structure, the case, is simply protecting the textblock and helping to make it functional.  The case is the outside covering made up of boards and bookcloth (or sometimes leather, paper, parchment, etc). To attach the textblock to the case there is the internal structure: supercloth (gauze in the diagram), cords sometimes, and spine lining material to reinforce the binding.

Fig. 1 Modern Hardcover Book Binding

In conservation we do everything from fixing tiny tears to completely rebuilding the case. Every book has different needs, we often combine multiple repair types to fit the book’s needs, but the damage generally falls into the following categories: torn bookcloth, loose or torn supercloth, damaged boards, and broken bindings. Our most common repairs, from least invasive to most, include cover repair (repairing small tears in the bookcloth), reback (replacing damaged bookcloth on the spine), reback with boards detached (replacing damaged bookcloth on the spine AND repairing the supercloth internally), recase (repairing supercloth internally but keeping the original bookcloth), and creating a new case (replacing the boards and all of the bookcloth). If this is starting to sound too technical, don’t worry, we’ve got great pictures! For example, Fig. 1 provides a visual showing the structure of a hardcover book.

Cover repair

These repairs are pretty obvious: there are small tears in the cover materials, but not enough to warrant replacing the bookcloth. These are easy to fix externally: tears are reinforced with tissue and then toned (colored) to match the original cover material. We also help consolidate and strengthen any soft corners or loose pieces of bookcloth, although, spoiler alert: the outside corners are soft on almost every single book we ever get in the lab.

Fig. 2 Before: the cover is torn! Oh no!
Fig. 3 During: repair tissue is applied.


Fig. 4 After: the tissue is now toned to match the bookcloth.
reback with boards attached

These books show more significant damage to the cover material, mostly along the hinge, but the boards and hinge and supercloth underneath are still stable. Often the difference between a book needing cover repair vs a spine repair is the degree of the damage. On these repairs (Figs. 5, 6, and 7), we replace the cover material around the entire spine, but preserving as much of the original materials as possible. 

Fig. 5 Before: the bookcloth is torn at the spine.
Fig. 6 Before: another view of the spine bookcloth detaching.
Fig. 7 After: We’ve replaced the bookcloth around the spine, using a bright and cheery coordinating color.
reback with boards detached

Here we go a layer deeper: these generally have a damaged internal structure, for example the supercloth or hinge is torn in addition to the cover material (Figs. 8 and 10). We detach the boards, strip down the textblock to the spine, and rebuild with new supercloth and bookcloth on the spine.   

Fig. 8 Before: the cover is torn at the spine.
Fig. 9 After: replaced the bookcoth around the spine.








Fig. 10 Before: another view of the spine damage.
Fig. 11 After: the spine fixed and decorative label saved.
Fig. 12 Before: the hinge and supercloth is torn on the inside.
Fig. 13 After: we’ve replaced the supercloth and managed to save the decorative endsheets and book plate.

On these books the cover material looks great, no tears! So what’s the problem? Upon opening the book, the internal hinge is broken and the textblock has become separated (Fig. 16). Thus, we detach the cover, replace the supercloth underneath, and “re-case” it in the original cover. 

Fig. 14 Before: the case is in good shape (although there is a small tear at the top we fixed, earlier shown in cover repair).
Fig. 15 After: we were able to save the whole case!
Fig. 16 Before: while the bookcloth and case is fine, here we see the internal damage and torn supercloth.
Fig. 17 After: we’ve replaced the supercloth and endsheets!
Double Fan Adhesive Bindings(DFA)

We’re headed to the guillotine! Time to free the books, off with the spines! This repair type is an adhesive binding rather than a sewn binding. This repair is most often done on books that were originally bound this way and have “cracked” or broken. Books in this state often go to the bindery, however if the paper is too brittle or there are portions of the cover to be retained we repair them in the lab.  This repair removes the cover and chops off the spine of the book, so that the entire textblock is now unbound, flat pages.  The pages are then glued together by “fanning” the pages out one way to apply glue to the right edge, then fanning to the other direction to apply to the left, thus the name “double fan” adhesive. Because this repair chops off a bit of the spine, it changes the original size of the book and an old case would no longer fit. Therefore, these repairs are finished by creating a new case. 

Fig. 18 Before: This binding was broken into multiple separated blocks.
Fig. 19 After: The pages are now bound together! This is after the DFA, but before being put into a new case.
Fig. 20 After: the DFA binding is open, showing how well the textblock stays together!
New case

These books are often the most damaged (or in the case of the DFA, simply need a new case to fit their changed shape). The book in figure 21 is a great example: the cover material is torn, the edges of the boards are frayed and soft, the boards are detached, packing tape has been used to keep pieces together, ultimately there is so much damage it isn’t worth saving very much on them. Thus, we replace everything around the textblock and build a new case! Figures 22 and 23 show the new case from the previous DFA repair.

Fig. 21 Before: damaged spine being held together with packing tape, scratched cover, board edges worn away.
Fig. 22 Before: broken binding, and the case has boards that are warped and will not fit the new DFA binding.
Fig. 23 After: new case made and the decorative cover and label was saved.
Miscellaneous repairs

Internal hinges, sewing, and tip ins, oh my! Is there a book that technically looks fine, doesn’t have any tears, but just seems loose? We can tighten up the hinges without taking it apart completely and help it live a long and fulfilling life in the stacks. Pages missing or falling out? We can put them back in the right place. We also spot sew, or fully re-sew books where the actual structure is compromised.  

While this post shows a range of what we can do, one of the underappreciated benefits of the general collections workflow is that it provides training for our hourlies! Because we have a much higher volume of these books and they are cheap, in comparison to medium rare and special collections, they provide great practice materials. Our department specifically prioritizes education and training for future conservators, and this is where many of our graduate students and assistants from the iSchool, academic hourlies, undergraduate students, and volunteers begin their work in the lab. Our workers are able to learn basic bookbinding principles, the structure of various binding styles, types of adhesives and when to use them, how to prepare a myriad of materials from bookcloth to paper and board, and countless other skills. The general collections workflow not only gives books longer lives for the university to use, but also allows our department to give back to the university community by providing jobs and assistantships and passing on the craft of bookbinding on low risk materials.