Sue Donovan was raised in Middle Tennessee, where her mother was a storyteller and worked at the county library. “We basically grew up in the library. I brought books to school to read behind the books that we were supposed to read in class,” she said. Now as Conservator for Special Collections at the University of Virginia Library, Donovan still spends her days surrounded by books, mending torn pages and repairing broken bindings. Later this month, she is offering her services to the local community, in partnership with the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (which was named the Virginia Library Association’s 2022 Library of the Year).
In honor of Preservation Week, UVA Library and JMRL will host a Community Book Clinic from April 30 to May 6. If you have a book in need of repair, drop it off at your local JMRL branch in Charlottesville or Albemarle, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties. Place your book in a reusable bag with a completed waiver (there is a one-book limit per family). Donovan, with a team of six additional UVA Library staff members, will mend rips and tears, sew in detached pages, and fix damaged bindings and spines, all for no cost. The repaired books will be ready for pickup in June. “Ever since I moved here [in 2016], I've wanted to do something like this,” Donovan said. “I love being able to help members of the community and local organizations who don’t have conservators on staff.”
Donovan, who studied book conservation at the Sorbonne in Paris, mends tears using traditional Japanese methods. “We use paper made out of the mulberry plant … and we apply that with a wheat starch paste,” she said. “It’s kind of like tape, but inherently removable with the same solvent, which is water.” While this method of repair is time consuming (the mended pages must be dried under weights until the water evaporates), the mend holds firmly in place once dry, and can be removed with water at any time without further damaging the book.
Book conservators consider adhesive tape to be “evil,” Donovan said with a laugh, because tape can solubilize ink and pigments. “If you put a piece of Scotch tape down on top of a family letter that was written in ballpoint pen, the ink can go up into the adhesive. And even if you remove the tape, which is possible to do, you have damaged part of your heritage.” The Community Book Clinic cannot remove tape from books at this time, as the library that includes the Conservation Lab is under renovation. “We need a fume hood to extract the solvent vapors. So we just can't deal with tape removal for this particular book clinic,” Donovan said.
The clinic can accept up to 75 books total to repair this year. “We’re starting slow, but I’m hoping that the clinic will be a yearly event going forward,” Donovan said. Below, read a few of Donovan’s recommendations for preserving your favorite books at home:
- Rule number one is don’t tape your pages, unless, say, you have to carry your book on a journey, and you don’t have any other way to keep the pages intact.
- Keep things out of direct sunlight; ultraviolet light can really damage leather, damage cloth, damage paper.
- Don’t keep books in the basement or the attic or any other place that doesn’t have temperature control.
- If there are loose pages, or parts of the book are falling off, there are websites out there where you can custom order an archival box and save the materials for your descendants.