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Close-up view of two hands carefully at work on an aged, yellowing manuscript with handwriting
Michelle Smith from the Library's Conservation Division disbinds the autobiographical manuscript “The Life of Omar ibn Said” in preparation for further preservation treatment, June 15, 2018. (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)

Reunited and it feels so good!

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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!

An open box filled with different colored papers and pages - pieces of books.
A box of fragments, as it is delivered to Jon Sweitzer-Lamme’s office. Photo: Lily Tyndall, December 2023.


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.

View from behind of Librarian searching the Library catalog for fragment information.
In the back end of the Library’s cataloging, hunting for clues. Photo: Lily Tyndall, 2023.


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.

Previously unidentified fragments are safely housed and await matching to their books.
These fragments have been identified, and Jon is waiting for the circulation staff to retrieve the books they belong to. Photo: Lily Tyndall, 2023.


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.

Items that were previously fragments are rehoused in yellow 20-point boxes and ready to return to the shelf.
Made whole again! These books are ready to go back to the shelves. Photo: Lily Tyndall, 2023.


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.


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Comments (6)

  1. Thank you for providing this knowledge, it all helps to grasp the in and outs of library science, to keep up with the terminology used and to reinforce our knowledge.

  2. Thank you. Restoration is a fascinating & important topic.

  3. Dobrá práce!

  4. I have long been bothered by public libraries’ habit of discarding–and rarely replacing–books with missing covers or pages. I am so pleased to know that the L of C has systems in place for dealing with these problems. Good work–and I always wish that you will have increased funding!

  5. What an interesting job. I’m impressed with your patience and ingenuity. And I now know to what to call all that broken acidic paper: cornflakes!

  6. Absolutely fantastic detective work! 🙂

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