The following is a guest post by Preservation Librarian Jon Sweitzer-Lamme.
Sometimes, the Library’s books are used so heavily, bound so poorly, or have become so fragile with age, that even normal, careful handling of them causes the books to fall apart. When this happens, unfortunately, pieces of books can become separated, and the identity of one or both pieces can be lost.
One of my responsibilities is to track down those pieces and reunite them, so that the book is fully available to readers both now and in the future. Previously, a series of blog posts detailed how a Collections Management Division staff member gathered up these fragments – now read on to see how I build off this work to reunite fragments with the whole!
When a box of these fragments builds up, it is sent to my office, where I triage them. Sometimes, a page is too far gone for me to identify or for readers to use – it has fallen apart into what resembles cornflakes. I do unfortunately have to discard these, as they are completely unusable.
Other times, it simply looks like a fragment, but is actually a complete book. These are typically small pamphlets with damaged covers. We carefully house these items in envelopes and can send them back to the shelves!
This leaves a collection of items, from several hundred pages to a single sheet, for me to work on. Depending on what information is available on the sheet, I use the back end of the Library’s catalog to figure out what these items might be. Sometimes I have a title page, and can use that information. Other times, I search a quote from the page online, and another institution has digitized the book. I then can use that information to track down the Library’s copy.
Often, what has fallen off is the back of a book – the last pages and the back cover. This tells me the number of pages in the book, as well the height of the book. The Library always records both of these pieces of information when we catalog our books, so using the back end of the catalog, I can find all of the books at the Library of Congress that are, say, 213 pages long and 23 cm tall. Once I have that list, I narrow it down by process of elimination – I can tell about how old a book is and what language it is in just by looking at it. This will often give me just one book, or sometimes several books, that the fragment could belong to. I request the books, then figure out which of them is missing its back covers.
Once I have gotten all of the pieces of the book, we can either put all of them into a custom-built box, or we can repair the book and make it whole again.
Sometimes, even after this process, we are still missing a few pages: the “cornflakes” we had to discard. In that situation, we can use inter-library loan to acquire scans of another library’s copy of our book. We insert those scans, printed on buffered, acid-free paper, into the book. This ensures that our copy has all the information that a reader may need, and it also ensures that our copy can serve as a copy of last resort for the nation, should the other copies in other libraries be lost. This is why I don’t feel all that bad when I have to discard the “cornflakes” of books that we find: we have the ability to replace lost pages, once we identify what pages are lost, to ensure that readers, both present and future, have access to the book.
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — learn how the largest library in the world preserves the coolest stuff in the world.