Learning to take a stitch in time to save old books

AT the century-old North Bennet Street School in Boston, hard work, high quality, and craftsmanship are taught in a variety of courses. Among them, violinmaking and restoration, preservation carpentry, and cabinet- and furnituremaking. The school was founded in 1885 to teach Boston's immigrant population skills that would help them join the mainstream and lift themselves out of poverty.

Its efforts are no longer aimed at immigrants, but the school continues to turn out productive, skilled workers. The newest offering is its bookbinding program, now in its second year.

In the school's brightly lighted basement, students are hard at work learning various types of book repair. Each has several projects in progress.

Marilyn L. Heskett works on an end stitch, the colored threading you see at the top and bottom of a book's spine; another stitches folios, or groups of pages, to the spine of a different book.

David Kingshorn, who works part-time at a book bindery, has replaced the spine of a large leatherbound Bible and has the volume fastened in clamps and what amounts to a Velcro-and-fabric cast to hold it in position while the glue dries. He peels back part of the fabric to reveal the new leather and explains the repairs he has made.

Mr. Kingshorn says he got involved with the program because ``I'd been interested in books for a number of years and bookbinding in particular. I wanted to turn this interest into a workable career.''

In the next room, a young woman repairs holes in the folds of pages with wheat paste and Japanese tissue before the pages can be bound in a new cover. These repairs, according to instructor Mark Esser, should last for several hundred years.

The demand is keen for people to do the kind of work that is being taught here, as more and more books around the world are slowly and silently self-destructing, largely because of the materials on which they are printed.

According to Merrily Smith at the National Preservation Program Office at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., when the Library of Congress did a survey of its collection in 1984, it found that 95 percent of its books were acidic and 25 percent were already brittle.

The Library of Congress, Britain's National Library, and the national libraries of Canada and Austria are among the institutions where efforts are under way to develop methods of deacidifying large numbers of books at once. A plant scheduled to be completed by late 1990 at Fort Dietrich, in Frederick, Md., is expected to handle 1 million books a year, according to Ms. Smith.

These mass treatment projects, however, will not eliminate the need for people to deal with books on an individual basis.

``As long as there are rare books, there will be a need for rare-book conservators,'' Smith says. She is concerned that it not be forgotten that people are needed to work on rare books, and that these people get the training they need.

``It's a hungry market,'' says Ann Russell, executive director of the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass. She adds that graduates of North Bennet's program will ``certainly be valuable technical people.''

Tim Albro of the Rare Book Conservation Department of the Library of Congress says, ``There is a need, but maybe not a market,'' for people who specialize in labor-intensive restoration work on individual volumes. He notes with concern an attitude in the field that would turn attention away from rare, single-item restoration; administrators, in their efforts to mass-preserve entire collections, may forget that collections of books are made up of individual volumes.

While a general approach is good to a point, Mr. Albro adds, ``The need for the general approach may overwhelm the need for the kind of people Mark [Esser] is training.''

Both Mr. Esser and Tim Williams, executive director of the school, say North Bennet is the only school that teaches bookbinding strictly as a bench, or hands-on, course.

For making book paper, rags were riches

Centuries ago paper was made out of rags, a readily available, stable material. To keep ink from soaking into the paper and distorting the crispness of the printed images, alum was added to the sizing with which paper is treated.

As the printing industry grew, wood pulp was substituted for rags. Impurities in the wood, combined with the alum in the sizing, increased the acid level, causing paper to begin disintegrating even before environmental factors and human hands took their toll.

Alkaline paper, made using pure cellulose fiber and synthetic sizing, increases the longevity of the printed page. It's no more expensive than other papers, says Mark Esser, an instructor at the North Bennet Street School, but the cost of refitting printing plants and retraining workers is a deterrent to switching to such paper. He estimates that only about 10 percent of all paper manufactured is used for books.

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