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Previously damaged items are bound for long term accessibility and storage
Items damaged by water were dried and reviewed before being sent out for binding so that these materials remain accessible for decades to come.

Why We Bind

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When asked to describe my job quickly or in one word, I usually go with “preservation.” When given two words or just looking for the pithy response, my choice is “book preservation.” When asked what I actually do, that’s when things get complicated, and sometimes the answer only brings on more questions. Personally, I’m good with answering questions about the Library of Congress and its collections, but there is one question that I’m not a fan of: why?

Materials for the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room sit on a wooden transport truck
Items bound for the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room, packed for transport within the Library. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023

The Library is home to over 40 million print materials, from books to magazines to pamphlets to manuscripts, according to the FY2021 Annual Report. For the past 56 years, the stewardship of care for those materials, plus the 130 million other collection items, has been the domain of our Preservation Directorate. Our binding office, known since 2020 as the Processing and Preparation Section (PPS), goes back to 1900 as a vital part of preserving the collections, and thus, the collective knowledge held within our walls.

This is a task that encompasses literally thousands of items. During Fiscal Year 2022, PPS staff prepared 65,688 items for commercial binding, overseeing binding of 112,803 volumes overall. These materials are reviewed and grouped by size and binding style, compared to cataloging records, sent to a commercial bindery in Indiana, and reviewed for quality once they return to the Library. As of writing, most of this work is done by a staff of five technicians, of which I have the honor to be a part.

Plastic crates strapped to plastic skids for transport
A shipment of over 2,000 books is packed and secured for transport to a commercial bindery in Indiana. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023

Each book is measured, with the new cover and spine trimmed to exact specifications. For books that are glued, also known as Perfect bound or Double Fan Adhesive (DFA), the text block is cased in – the endpapers glued down – to a new cover and spine of book board, wrapped with buckram, usually ruby colored. For books featuring sewn signatures or pamphlets, the pages are sewn and then cased in to the new cover. The new cover is completed with the distinctive Library of Congress endpaper, title and call number stamped on the spine, and the Library’s tracking barcode reproduced on the back.

The distinctive Library of Congress endpaper is only used on materials bound for the Library
The distinctive Library of Congress endpaper on a bound book being reviewed prior to being sent to the Law Library. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023

Preservation comes at a cost, so it is important to remember why we do it.

We bind because it provides the most secure storage container for the material that allows it to still be accessible to the reader. The hard binding protects the text block and stands up to wear and tear of long-term storage on Library shelves and generations of reader use. The spine is reinforced and the whole book is enveloped and lifted upward in a rigid shell.

We bind because we need to. Not every book that comes to us is in the best quality, or in a condition that will allow it to sit on a metal shelf for decades on end. Low quality bindings fail or put stress on the paper that causes it to rip. Adhesive or sewn bindings come apart. For long term storage, magazines and other serials are best stored bound together, so we’ll organize them into units based on time or series and bind them. Even the best bindings fail over time, and we have a highly skilled staff next door to PPS in the General Collections Conservation Section ready to take care of these items.

Water damaged materials that have been reviewed and designated for binding by the GCCS Staff
Water damaged materials that have been accessed by the General Collections Conservation Section and routed to PPS for binding. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023

We bind because it’s our purpose. The Library is constantly growing, thanks to our acquisitions through donation, purchase, and copyright registration. Under U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17 of the U.S. Code), with some exceptions:

“the owner of copyright or of the exclusive right of publication in a work published in the United States shall deposit, within three months after the date of such publication—

 two complete copies of the best edition.”

This resulted in 472,601 print materials joining the Library collection, both classified and not, in Fiscal Year 2021. These materials bridge the whole of human knowledge and purpose, fiction and nonfiction, academic and entertainment, written and drawn – it’s all here. Items are not chosen at random and though there is a review system, we do not practice censorship in any way.

Softbound or paperback books on a plastic and metal security truck
Softbound materials arrive at PPS in security trucks from Acquisitions, Copyright, and other offices. PPS Staff count and sort the material based on size, binding style, and location. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023

We bind because we care. The books on our shelves are a collection of the individual passions of writers, poured forth onto the page and shared with the world. The publication may also not be of the best quality, so wrapping these materials in book board and buckram is the best way to keep the knowledge within safe for generations to come. We care about each and every one of our items and have a duty to protect them.

Serials are journals, magazines, and some government publications. They are bound in bundles less than two inches thick.
Serials are tied into bindable units based on thickness and weight, not to exceed five centimeters or the binding may fail. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023

We bind because we should. It is our mission to care for these items, and this is one of the best ways to do that and also keep it accessible to our readers. We are open to more than just the 535 combined members of Congress, as anyone over the age of 16 can gain access to one of our reading rooms with a reader card. They expect that when an item is retrieved for them, it will arrive in the best condition possible, and in a way that they may actually look at, and touch, the individual item.

Each of these books had been sent out a month prior as damaged
Damaged materials returned from the bindery in crisp ruby buckram. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023

We bind because we can. Libraries across the country are facing budget shortfalls. Many of them, including university libraries, do not have the budget to afford to bind even damaged items. We are able to save these materials and loan them out as needed. The Federal Library and Information Network (FEDLINK), overseen by the Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLICC), brings together Federal libraries to share resources and promote common services. The materials we have bound are available to them and can travel safely due to that binding.

Softbound materials prepared for binding with their individual slips
Dozens of items prepared for binding by PPS Staff. Each binding slip contains all the information the bindery should need for proper care. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023

Over the past few years I have shared stories of some individual items that have come through the PPS office, such as So Many Islands, Finding Freedom, and Heart of the Holidays. There are items with stories yet to tell, both similar and much different. Each item has a purpose, just as each person that calls our country home is unique and part of the rich tapestry of our national character.

The books on the shelves of any Library are a cherished item, and even though the Library of Congress has many more than any other library in the world, we still cherish each and every one of them. This week, PPS staff will sort, prepare, and ship out over 2,000 items to be bound for long term storage, and over 2,000 items will return to us for quality review. When they leave our office, we may never see them again, but we hope they will be there when someone needs them. Each book is a memory, and we are their guardians.

Comments (3)

  1. Very informative piece.

    I am an LOC docent and I think I recall learning in training that the binding color—called ruby or maybe burgundy—is proprietary to the LOC and that other institutions may not use it. Is that correct or is it only the endpapers?

    • Thank you for reading, the color is not proprietary to the Library, nor are any of the cover materials, be they buckram or material called Library Summit. Only the endpaper is specific to us. Have a great day!

  2. K.F.—Thanks for your reply and the now accurate information I can give our visitors. 😊

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