Old Books Get New Life At UW

In the basement of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington, Kate Leonard is at home in a windowless room filled with stacks of torn books and rolls of colorful cloth that match virtually any text in the whole building.

She sits, shoulders hunched, eyes squinched, stitching together "The Arts of Japan," a 1966 book, before it goes back to the shelves for another reader. Nearby, a 1948 yearbook needs a new cover, and a 1910 history book has to be resewn.

"Books are irreplaceable," says Leonard, who's been mending books at the library for 14 years. "They're full of inspiration and information."

Leonard is chief mender for the UW's 5-million-volume libraries system. Each year, she and her staff repair more than 10,000 books and journals, ranging from fragile 19th-century leather-bound readers to weighty doctor's-office fare. The UW recently won a $67,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to train other librarians in the Pacific Northwest in the art of repairing books.

The UW menders have a mountainous task. Every day books arrive on gurneys; some are as brittle as potato chips, others as fragile as butterfly wings. They've been smashed on photocopy machines, muddled by rain or worse. Readers have removed art plates, lettering and entire chapters.

Such work is "mutilation," says Leonard, who owns about 1,000 books herself. She shudders.

"It's like any other vandalism. It's senseless, selfish and


The mendery smells like musty paper and dusty basements. There's not much need for high tech. The menders still use a blackened book press installed in the 1930s. Books line a wall, many with slips of paper detailing their injuries.

Scattered on Leonard's desk are her tools: a needle and thread, a scalpel, an oyster knife to remove staples. There's also a jar of extra-strong glue and a brick or two to hold bindings in place.

Often, repairs can be done in a minute with a quick stroke of glue.

When books can't be mended, boxes are custom-built to protect them. "We often get books that are one touch away from being crumbs," Leonard says.

Other books need a little more attention, a little more ingenuity, like finding the right paper and cloth to match pages and bindings.

Mending a book is like putting together a puzzle, says mender Mark Andersson. He recently repaired Volume III of "Mrs. Browning's Poems," an 1863 collection of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's best stuff. The gold-tinted pages were bound in vivid purple leather. The leather, however, was torn and nothing in the mendery matched its distinctive hue.

Andersson couldn't bear to tack on book cloth that differed from the purple. "It would be unethical. I didn't want to ruin the beauty of the book," Andersson said. So he delayed the book's repair until another mender told him about Japanese paper, which patched up the cover like papier-mache and could be dyed to match the purple. The final repair looks like the original.

"It's challenging mentally and creatively," Andersson said. "It's adding life to a book that doesn't have life in it anymore."

Andersson is repairing a McGuffey's Eclectic Primer, published in 1881 and once owned by a girl named Lovisa Wagoner, who scribbled her name in pencil on the book's first and last pages. In 1978, Wagoner donated the primer to the UW's children's collection. The covers are tattered and the spine worn.

As Andersson works on the primer, he wonders who Lovisa was and what school she attended.

"I love books that have sentimental value. It doesn't have to have monetary value. These books make me wonder who once owned them and who will read them in the future."