Book lover gives new life to old tomes

Associated Press//January 4, 2012

Book lover gives new life to old tomes

By Associated Press

//January 4, 2012

MIDDLETOWN — Tawn O’Connor’s mission is to sand off the rough edges and wipe away the scars of age as she resurrects old family Bibles, giving them new life.

O’Connor’s business, Heritage Book and Bible Repair, is small and very part time. She estimates she restores about a dozen books, mostly Bibles, each year.

It’s a good fit for O’Connor, 59, who has always loved books. She is also an assistant manager at Wonder Book and Video. A few years ago, O’Connor took a class from Linda Rollins, who runs Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring. The arts center offers classes in printmaking, papermaking and book arts.

“Linda Rollins was my teacher and is now my mentor,” O’Connor said. Book restoration takes a steady hand, a love for books and a willingness to be patient — at least when it comes to old books.

“I’ve always loved to read, and I’ve been reading for a half-century, since I was 5,” she said.

Before O’Connor learned about book restoration, she learned how to make accordion books — books that pop up and fan out, accordion-style. She taught home-schoolers, including her two daughters, how to make accordion books.

She then read the book “A Degree of Mastery: A Journey Through Book Arts,” by Annie Wilcox.

“I was amazed,” she said.

That led her to the class with Rollins.

O’Connor repairs any type of old book, but Bibles tend to be the most treasured volumes passed down in families.

The first book O’Connor restored was one of her own, a book of poems by Samuel Wesley published in 1743. Wesley’s sons, John and Charles Wesley, later became noteworthy for writing hymns.

This book has a series of thick cords across the spine, which bind it together. Pages are folded into small booklets, called signatures, which in turn are sewn together to create the book. Cords can be raised or sunken. Sunken cords are formed by using a small knife to score the signatures.

Restoring the book required cleaning and gluing the binding and cover and repairing torn pages. Pages last longer in books made before the Civil War because they were usually made from cotton rag paper, which is sturdy. Wood pulp, which was cheaper, became the main ingredient in paper made after the Civil War. Today, high-quality books are printed on acid-free paper, which lasts longer.

Many of the family Bibles O’Connor repairs were manufactured in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, a period when traveling Bible salesmen peddled their wares.

What deteriorates the most are the spines and the pages.

“It may cost more to restore it than it’s worth, but it’s what it’s worth to you,” she said.

One of the most important tools in book restoration is a bone folder. O’Connor uses one made of Teflon. The device, which looks like a tiny paint scraper, helps to remove deteriorating bits of leather and cloth on the book’s spine and cover. Fingernails also help, O’Connor said with a laugh.

When O’Connor begins work on a book, she first cleans it thoroughly. One Bible smelled of must and mold; she sealed it in a zip-close bag with cat litter to absorb moisture and odor. After leaving the book sealed for several months, she used a soft brush to remove dust and mold spores. She always brushes every page.

“It helps me get to know the book,” she said.

If the inside cover paper is in good shape, she will cover it with protective material. She removes the covers. Some are in good shape and easy to preserve; others have deteriorated. She may save the center of the cover and mount it onto a new board, as she did for a history of Ireland volume she restored. Or she may make a new cloth or leather cover.

She will often split a cover using a small, knifelike tool her husband, Darryl, made for her. That allows her to repair part or all of the boards.

The crumbling spine of the musty Bible was glued directly to the book’s signatures. O’Connor removed as much of the spine as she could, and then soaked the signatures in a wheat starch paste, which softens old glue and does not stain.

The Bible was clamped into place using a portable lying press, which she bought used from a book conservator. The press holds the book firmly in place using lateral pressure.

“I’m a book repair person, but I use the basic principles of preservation,” she said. When pages are crumbling, she fills them in with paper of a similar material. The printed text is lost, but the rest of the page is preserved. If the book’s cover or title page is inscribed, she tries to preserve that element, even if the rest of the page has deteriorated.

She will re-sew the signatures and glue the new spine to the book, and reattach the covers.

“I thought it was like magic,” she said, of her discovery of book repair. “You have a book that’s falling apart and can be brought back from the dead.”

In addition to old Bibles and histories, she has restored a copy of “The Wizard of Oz,” which was a client’s childhood favorite, and favorite old cookbooks that were passed down among family members, written in and food-stained.

She belongs to a listserv of book preservationists, and trades advice and tips with others.

While patience is required, she said patience comes to those who love the craft.

“I knew a man who restored rugs and carpets, and he said, ‘For that, I have patience,'” she said. “I am by nature an impatient person, but I enjoy this.”


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