By Stephanie Campbell, MLIS
Preservation is a core tenet in librarianship. But despite our best intentions, best practices often fall by the wayside in our day-to-day operations.
On the patron side, there’s no avoiding boiling hot cars, freezing-cold book returns, unclean hands, smoke, mud puddles, food, beverages, and pets. What we find in and on library materials is the stuff of legend. I cringe at the very thought of toilet paper bookmarks.
It’s hard to believe that in my first job, in a very small public library, we wiped down each and every item that was returned before re-shelving: definitely a worthwhile aspiration, but hardly practical. Back then, one of the worst offenders to book cleanliness was hairspray. In the big hair era, there was nothing standing between people and their Aqua Net.
I also smile when I think back on dedicated co-workers and volunteers of times past who kept clamps and slabs of wood mounted on their kitchen tables at home, as they were in charge of the library “mending.” A practice that seems antiquated—a dying art—actually is not.
One of my personal pet peeves to this day is sand in book jackets. There’s just no getting it out! The only recourse is replacing the jacket. But really, what are you going to do, tell patrons they can’t take that perfect beach read to the beach?
But we as library staff are not entirely blameless, either. We are charged with conservation, yet we expose our materials to many, if not all, of the things that are most detrimental to their longevity. In our own sacred libraries, we are guilty of the sins of improper lighting, lack of climate control, dust, and haphazard shelving, to say nothing of the wear and tear of multiple circs.
Furthermore: We know not to overcrowd shelves as it’s damaging to bindings. (But the process of weeding and shifting projects doesn’t happen overnight!) We also know that it’s best to shelve items spine-down whenever they can’t be shelved upright. (But doing so hides the spine label and makes it difficult for patrons to find books!)
Patrons and staff alike have accidents and just plain bad luck—such as the tragedy of unpacking that brand new bestseller only to drop it on the floor and watch in horror as its spine splits in two.
So, in light of the things we can’t control—the acts of God and the unfortunate mistakes that no one ever seems to own—here are some things we can do to ensure our collections stay in the best shape possible:
- Have separate returns for books and AV materials to prevent heavy books from breaking AV cases.
- Empty returns regularly to prevent items from getting crushed
- Choose your temporary labeling methods wisely, as the wrong stickers and tape can easily damage books when removed.
- Evaluate your shelving and display methods—are they helping or hurting the life of your collections?
- Here are more tips on book care and repair.
Bottom line: Damage happens, and materials either need to be repaired or replaced.
It’s interesting that in today’s disposable society one of Brodart’s most popular give-away items at library conferences is a book repair kit.
When to fix and when to toss is largely determined on a case-by-case basis. Some library materials are more expendable than others. Similarly, Scotch® tape on a paperback probably isn’t a big deal. But it’s important to arm frontline staff with guidelines on what to do when materials fall apart. Sometimes it’s best to just flag and bag an item for immediate checkout rather than risk on-the-fly repairs with improper methods and materials. Expensive, rare, and out-of-print items are obvious candidates for doctoring, and those merit the time and attention of your resident “mender.” Archives and special collections are a whole different story.
Sometimes, librarianship feels like an uphill battle. Sharing is hard, and can be downright messy, but it’s what we’re all about.
For further reading:
On general preservation and conservation decision-making: http://www.ala.org/rusa/resources/guidelines/guidelinespreservation
Care and tips of various collections:
Simple book repair:
Stephanie Campbell has worked for more than 20 years in public, academic, and special libraries. She is an avid gardener, bicyclist, and kayaker. Click here for more.