Books In A Bind? He Aids In Their Re-Covery

Just watching the way he holds an 1881 edition of Jules Verne's "In Search of the Castaways" before him - palm supporting the faded tome from beneath, as if cradling the fragile head of a newborn - you know Mark Andersson can love a book for more than the wisdom in it. He can love a book simply for being - or, more accurately, for its being done well.

"I did a book on Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry. It was purple leather - just gorgeous," says Andersson, book repairman extraordinaire. To hear the awe and pleasure in his voice, you might think he had touched up the "Mona Lisa" itself.

A book conservator at the University of Washington, Andersson understands the zeal of book collectors, which there are more than a few of in the Seattle area. That's why Andersson, who recently returned from a yearlong Fulbright scholarship in Sweden, will talk about new practices in book conservation and the history and techniques of bookbinding at 7 p.m tomorrow at the campus' Odegaard Undergraduate Library.

"Books are kind of strange in a way because everybody has one, but no one really knows how one is put together," he says, his voice straining to stay library-soft. Except for the wire-rim glasses of a scholar, this buoyant man seems slightly out of place deep in the windowless bowels of UW's Suzzallo Library.

Down in "the mendery," three of the nation's 700 or so book conservators work together year-round, performing surgery on thousands of the UW's 5 million books each year. Thanks to their skill in sewing, pasting and even occasional washing of the pages, the operations rarely become autopsies.

Which isn't to say there aren't a lot of insidious killers out there. Humidity, floods, sunlight, grimy-fingered undergraduates - even the materials the books themselves are made of - can harm them. "Once they started making paper out of wood, all hell broke loose," Andersson said.

He and his comrades have seen it all: Books made with acid-rich paper, which time and use turn to confetti. Books dropped in bathtubs, toilets. Gin-soaked books. Singed books. Spines spiked with chewing gum. The parade of abused literature never stops.

The tools of repair remain simple. A cup on Andersson's desk holds brushes the way an accountant's would hold pencils. A bowl of glue sits next to a disassembled chapbook of songs by Pelham Humphrey; sheet music lies about like car parts around a mechanic. But Andersson's most important tools may be his hands, each blessed with the long, agile fingers of a concert pianist.

Paper towels are often the first prescription for waterlogged books. Others get disassembled and re-sewn, the cockles in the pages smoothed under a giant iron press. Charred books can have their pages trimmed, then re-covered.

Most books take an hour or less to fix, but Andersson would probably spend four hours re-sewing the binding on the Jules Verne novel and pasting strong Japanese paper - a long-grained tissue paper - to pages to keep them in place. "I don't feel like I'm doing this for anyone that's alive today. I'm doing it for people 100 years from now," he says, explaining that a skilled repair can keep a book in circulation through the next century.

In Europe he studied the evolution of Scandinavian bookbinding - esoteric knowledge to be sure, but "it's important, I think, not to let stuff like this be lost or forgotten," he says. That's why he's also been hired privately by people like Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz, who want their musical scores and other valuable writings preserved.

As he speaks, yet another dolly laden with world-weary books is wheeled into the mendery. "It's like Lucy in the candy factory - except we don't have to work that fast," he says.

You expect a sigh after a comment like that, but Andersson doesn't give one. Passionate doctors never tire of saving patients.


Bookkeeping tips

UW book conservator Mark Andersson has a few tips for keeping your books in good shape:

-- Whenever possible, buy hardcover books with sewn bindings; they last ages longer than adhesive bindings, which most publishers now use because it's cheaper.

-- Keep books clean and free of dust.

-- Keep them out of sunlight.

-- Keep them in a room with a stable temperature

-- The drier the clime, the healthier for books. (It's better here than in New England, Andersson says, but Arizona's best.)

-- Be gentle when you handle books.