King County Library System bookbinder Donald Vass said it took him 15 years to master the skills of book mending. Here’s one how-to: Use a hypodermic needle to shoot bits of wheat paste into the corners of dog-eared covers to stiffen them.
Sometimes a book just gets loved to death. A Bible, or a copy of “Charlotte’s Web,” for that matter, can be opened only so many times, even by the gentlest reader, before its spine weakens and surrenders.
And here is a dirty little secret: Public libraries, despite their reputations for hushed wonder about the written word, can be rough places. Automated sorting machines, whirring conveyor belts and hard bins can break a book and shorten its life.
Donald Vass, who has spent the past 26 years mending and tending to books for the King County Library System, has seen mechanical and human-inflicted damage and more. At 57 and with not many years left before retirement, he says he believes he will be the last full-time traditional bookbinder ever to take up shears, brushes and needles here. The skills take too long to learn, he said, and no one is being groomed to take his place in “the mendery,” Room 111 at the library’s central service center, where not so many years ago, 10 people worked.
His is an ancient craft that in many public-library systems is fading. It stands in particularly stark contrast in Issaquah, near where Amazon reinvented the book business and is leading a high-tech boom. Seattle’s Central Library, completed in 2004, is ultramodern and angular. Software engineers, often with corporate-ID cards clipped to their shirts or belts, fill the cafes and bars.
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Vass said it took him 15 years to master the skills of book mending: how to diagnose a book’s ills, what to patch and what to leave alone, how to hide evidence of a repair. He uses hypodermic needles to shoot bits of wheat paste into the corners of dog-eared covers to stiffen them, and an old-fashioned screw press to hold pages in place while adhesives dry.
He talks of his repaired books — 60 to 80 a month — as if they were children heading out into a dangerous, unpredictable world.
“I’m reluctant, many times, to send them out because I know what they’re going to be up against,” said Vass, who is used to working alone.
Menderies, often called book hospitals, were once common in library systems nationwide. But the digital revolution, cost-control pressures and shifting reader tastes pushed many libraries away from paper and the maintenance of fragile old classics. The internet has made it easy to find used books to replace worn ones and to borrow through interlibrary lending systems.
“We don’t mend anymore; it’s a lost art,” said Alan Hall, director of the public library of Steubenville and Jefferson County, Ohio, for the past 33 years. “It was a question of what you could do without, but it’s also technology taking the place of it.”
Call it conservation
Even the humble word “to mend,” which derives from a French term for atonement, or “to put right,” is dropping out of circulation, librarians said. Conservation is the operative term for the specialized, highly skilled work taught in graduate degree programs at places such as New York University and the University of Delaware. Graduates of such schools are hired by government archives, university research libraries and some big public systems with deep reserves such as the New York Public Library, and by art shops that will bring your grandmother’s tattered copy of “Great Expectations” back to luster at a price of $500 or more an hour.
“Conservation has gone through an accreditation/professionalization process,” said Stephanie Lamson, director of preservation services at the University of Washington Libraries. Technology plays a bigger role now, too, supplanting some of the traditions of book repair that were based on long apprenticeship and practice.
“It is quite interdisciplinary and draws from a wide range of techniques and technologies from microscopy to digital imaging,” Lamson said in an email.
Books have been changing for an even longer period, Vass said, beginning in the mid-1800s, when growing literacy and a mass market — the era of dime novels — drove a switch from traditional stitching to much cheaper glues.
But those older glues were acidic time bombs that ate books alive, Vass said.
“The people who did that first adhesive binding; they really have a lot to answer for.”
Vass, who came to book repair through early training as a fine artist and painter, said his mendery had almost no modern technological tools and needs none.
“A computer does not do anything here — it only interrupts,” he said.
His prized piece of machinery is a large cast-iron board shear that had a previous life slicing boxes in a candy company. Made in the early 20th century, it can cut a book’s replacement cover pieces, called boards, with absolute precision. He bought it at an estate sale, covered with dirt and rust, for $50 and restored it.
His one exception to technological intrusion is a CD player remote control that he keeps on his workbench. But what plays on the two small speakers above the door is also distinctively out of step with the modern world.
Vass listens to medieval and Renaissance music, and what he hears, in the ethereal choral and cathedral pieces written by composers such as Christopher Tye, who lived in England in the 1500s, or Jehan de Lescurel, a French poet and composer of the 1400s, creates what Vass called “a perfect harmony” with his work. The work of Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote music in the 1700s, is an exception to the mendery’s typical Top 40, which tilts toward tunes from the 13th to 16th centuries.
“Bach seems like a modern composer to me,” Vass said with a smile.
Love of books pervades the work of the mendery — and the desire to protect them from the harsh threats of the outside world. Damage from automated library sorting and processing machines, for example, has led Vass to create cardboard box covers to fit newly repaired volumes, like a kind of armored overcoat.
Library patrons, worried or grieving over a damaged or worn-out book — often a childhood treasure — sometimes find Vass and ask for his help. If time allows, he said, he does the work and charges nothing, justifying such side projects, he said, in that they often hone his skills.
Words leap occasionally from the pages he works on, in an author’s voice, usually long dead, speaking to him. He keeps one such quote prominently on his desk:
“Whatever struggle you have met, find its meaning and it will cease to be a struggle.”
He remembers nothing else about the book, neither title nor author. But he knows that he sent it back out, mended and ready to fight on for another day.