CLOSE
iStock
iStock

13 Secrets of Rare Book Dealers

iStock
iStock

In the digital age, the rare book trade might seem like an antiquated trend from a bygone era, known for its dusty tomes and pedantic old men. But e-books have actually awakened readers to the fact that a printed book is more than just the written text—it’s an historical object itself. Thanks to the internet, information on this esoteric subject is now widely available, and more people than ever are learning about book collecting. Dealers are also handling a wider variety of material, and these fresh perspectives are electrifying a once-sleepy, rarified world. With these developments, the trade has changed more in the last 20 years than in the last 200. Rebecca Romney, a rare book dealer based in Brooklyn, shares some secrets and surprises of this quirky corner of book culture with Mental Floss in this list.

1. AN OLD BOOK ISN’T NECESSARILY A RARE BOOK.

A shelf of older books, some with damaged covers
iStock

In book collecting, supply and demand are king. A book becomes “rare” when it’s both hard to find and highly sought. If the supply side or the demand side isn’t extreme, it doesn’t qualify. This means a book from 1850 isn't necessarily “rare” if no one wants it. And no, a book from the 1800s isn’t automatically desirable because it’s “old.” In rare books, the word "old" is relative: Within the 500 years of printed history we handle, a book from 1850 isn't really that old. The only books old enough to be highly sought-after just for their age are those printed in the 1400s, from the earliest years of printed books in the West.

2. IT’S NOT JUST BOOKS.

Yes, our profession is called the rare book trade, but that's because it’s easier to say. In fact, we handle manuscripts, scrolls, etchings, and other prints, archives—even sometimes ventriloquist dummies from itinerant woman preachers. Is there text? Or does the item have a connection to books in some way? That’s good enough for us.

3. YES, DUST JACKETS REALLY ARE THAT IMPORTANT.

A bookseller holding a first edition of The Great Gatsby at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

“Completeness” is a key standard of book collecting—the idea is that a book should retain all the parts with which it was historically issued. In modern books, this often means the dust jacket: A first edition’s price can rise or fall exponentially based on the original dust jacket. An extreme example is The Great Gatsby: Without the jacket, a first edition currently runs around $4000-$6000. In a decent, unrestored original dust jacket, the price leaps closer to $100,000.

4. WE LITERALLY COUNT EVERY PAGE OF A BOOK.

This is especially true for books from before about 1800, in what we call the “handpress” period. The earlier in print history you go, the more likely you are to discover missing pages. Objectionable passages are torn from banned books. Stunning engravings are excised to be framed and put on a wall. The blank pages in the front or back of a book are often missing, too: Historically, paper was an expensive commodity, so owners would tear out those blank pages for use. Dealers must go through a book page by page to make sure that everything has remained intact. We even have a specialized method of counting based on how the book was formatted by the printer. And we hate being interrupted in the middle of counting a 500-page book. One of my friends puts a sign on her desk that reads, “Don’t bother me: I’m counting.”

5. YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE A LOT OF MONEY TO COLLECT.

A stack of bills inside an older book
iStock

The books that make the headlines are the $6 million Shakespeare First Folio or the $150,000 first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But often the most interesting collections—the ones that end up housed at some prestigious institution—are built by people who aren’t buying the most expensive books. In 2015, Duke University acquired the collection of Lisa Baskin, which documents women at work through the past five centuries, to much fanfare. Baskin formed this world-class collection for a fraction of the expense one might expect—because for most of the 40 years she was collecting, she was purchasing books that weren’t popularly sought. Today we say, “an 18th-century woman entomologist who published her own drawings of her scientific observations? Yes please!” But in the 1980s, such works were met with a shrug.

This year my company established a book collecting prize for women aged 30 and under with an eye toward demonstrating that great collections don’t have to be valuable tomes kept behind glass. Our first winner collects romance novels.

6. WE HATE IT WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT A BOOK’S SMELL.

We’ve all held a beloved old book and smelled the pages, taking in that vanilla-like aroma. It’s cozy. It’s peaceful. It reminds us of rainy days, blankets and tea, secret gardens. And it’s not relevant to most rare books. That particular smell comes from the lignin in cheaply produced paper, a chemical introduced when wood pulp was added to papermaking processes in the 1840s. For most of the history of printed books—over 500 years—a book with a smell means mold, or dirt, or any number of unpleasant materials that have been rubbed into the pages over the years. Smells are a red flag that something is wrong. We do not want our books to smell. Walking into our shop and remarking on the smell is like exclaiming, “Your books are gross!”

7. WE DON’T USE WHITE GLOVES. AND WE’RE NOT SORRY.

A senior specialist for rare books and manuscripts at Christie's holds a copy of former President George Washington's personal copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights in 2012
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This is probably the single biggest misconception about rare books. Random strangers yell at me for it all the time. In fact, it was established years ago that gloves weaken your tactile sensitivity. That means you're much more likely to tear a page, or otherwise damage the book (like, heaven forbid, dropping it) while wearing them. Instead, conservationists simply recommend handling them with washed and well-dried hands. This myth has been perpetuated by the exceptions: A very small percentage of materials, like metal bindings and photographic film, do require gloves. But rare book curators from such institutions as the Harvard library system and the British Library [PDF] have made it very clear that white gloves have no place in a rare book room.

8. DIFFICULT CLIENTS DON’T GET OFFERED THE BEST MATERIAL.

Say you’ve acquired the find of a lifetime. You know there are at least three collectors who would jump for the chance to add it to their library. Who gets the first offer? The guy who beats you up about your price and denigrates the material as part of his haggling strategy, or the guy who smiles and asks you how you’ve been before you get to the serious talk? Many collectors think haggling gets them the better deal, but it’s a dangerous game: Become too difficult or stressful to work with, and you will get fewer phone calls from the dealers who find the material you want to buy.

9. THERE IS AN ASSOCIATION OF ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSELLERS, WITH BYLAWS AND A CODE OF ETHICS.

Two men at the Park Avenue Armory during the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

If you’re a new rare book dealer, one of your most important goals is getting into the ABAA, or the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. You must demonstrate a record of professional dealings for at least four years in order to apply. Current members are surveyed and asked whether new applicants pay their bills, accurately describe their material, and run their business ethically. Once you join the ABAA, there are a number of important perks. Besides carrying the seal of approval in the American rare book trade, you are eligible to showcase your inventory at the ABAA-organized book fairs, including the biggest one in the country, at the Armory in New York City. For some dealers, the sales from the New York book fair alone can make up 25 percent to 50 percent of their annual revenue.

10. IT’S NOT JUST OLD WHITE MEN. BUT IT IS PRETTY MUCH ALL WHITE.

In this business, dealers in their 40s are considered the young whippersnappers. But the new generation of younger dealers is making its presence felt, especially in handling material outside the traditional canon of dead white men: LGBTQ material, African Americana, women’s history, pulp publications, punk ephemera [PDF], and more.

Women are making significant inroads as well. While there have always been formidable women at the top of the rare book trade, we’re seeing an increasing number of women running their own businesses or being offered equity in established firms. We also recently established a successful schedule of networking events to provide support, mentoring, and business opportunities for women in the trade.

We still have a major problem with racial diversity, however. The trade is taking steps to attract and train people from underrepresented groups, but we have a long way to go. One of the most important new developments is the Belle da Costa Greene scholarship, named after J.P. Morgan’s brilliant book buyer and librarian, who was African-American. It is awarded annually to a person from an underrepresented or disadvantaged community to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, commonly known as “Bookseller Bootcamp” for dealers.

11. MANY RARE BOOK DEALERS ARE ALSO SCHOLARS IN THEIR CHOSEN FIELDS.

A bookseller at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Many of the best rare book dealers specialize in particular subject areas. Because of their endless research with primary source materials, they earn a reputation of expertise in that topic. One famous example is the 20th century rare book dealer Madeleine Stern, who tracked down Louisa May Alcott's pseudonyms in her search for material to sell and discovered that the author of Little Women had for years been writing sensational "blood and thunder" stories—19th century pulp fiction—under a pen name.

12. MOST COMPANIES ARE PRETTY MUCH MOM-AND-POP SHOPS.

Many rare book dealers are one- or two-person operations. Only a small fraction of companies have three or more employees. A company is huge if it has over ten people. On the one hand, this gives the job a decidedly anti-corporate atmosphere: Many of us joke that we are unemployable elsewhere. On the other hand, it also means we do everything needed to run the business, from shipping to website design, on our own. Besides the bootstrapping, it also means living with the risks of a small business. For example, I know of only a handful of rare book firms who offer health insurance or some kind of retirement plan. Frankly, most of us plan to keep dealing until we drop dead mid-sale.

13. RARE BOOK DEALERS ARE ONE BIG FAMILY.

This is a small world. We all know each other. The ABAA is made up of perhaps 400 active members across the nation. Many of my best friends are fellow dealers, even if they live across the country. We see each other a few times a year, mostly during book fairs, where we celebrate our regular reunions with lots of alcohol. We know which dealers have chronic money problems, which are most likely to be casually sexist, and whom we can go to in a crisis. We know each other’s strengths, so we’ll often refer people with books to sell to a colleague who specializes in that subject. ABAA book fairs, in many ways, are like Thanksgiving dinner with extended family. We may not all get along, but we all made the same decision: to try making a living in this odd world, risking our livelihood to help save and preserve history.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
job secrets
14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists
iStock
iStock

Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
iStock

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
iStock

While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
iStock

Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
iStock

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
job secrets
11 Secrets of Book Conservators
iStock
iStock

Books might contain timeless wisdom, but the objects themselves aren’t immortal. In addition to normal wear and tear, they can succumb to mold, pests, environmental hazards, and other threats if not stored and handled properly. Book conservators are the people who help repair this damage, preserving and protecting books for future readers. We spoke with a few of these experts to learn more about the job, from their favorite projects to the surprising utility of commercial freezers.

1. THERE'S NO SINGLE PATH INTO THE FIELD.

According to Mindell Dubansky, head of book conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, becoming a book conservator requires an intensive mixture of hands-on and academic experience. "It's very challenging because there aren’t that many formal educational opportunities," she says, "and [the route] is not that straightforward."

People may get into book conservation through bench training (i.e. learning on the job as a lab technician), working in a commercial bookbindery, taking bookbinding classes, earning a degree from a handful of specialized trade schools, or going through a book arts, material culture, or library science master’s program. But Dubansky says that where you study—and the collections you have at your disposal—will shape your skill set and determine the course of your career. She herself received an undergraduate arts degree from Carnegie Mellon before studying bookbinding and restoration at what's now London's Camberwell College of Arts. She later earned her master's in library science and a certificate in library preservation from Columbia University. Today at the Met, she works on a collection that includes everything from artists' sketchbooks to Beethoven's funeral invitations.

2. THEY NEED TO BE GOOD WITH THEIR HANDS.

Loving books is great, Dubansky says, but it's no substitute for fine motor skills: Conservators spend lots of time sewing, measuring, gluing, rebinding, handling sharp objects like knives, and treating books with chemicals. She recommends that aspiring book conservators take basic bookbinding classes before deciding whether to pursue a career in the field. The experience should let them know whether they enjoy working with their hands, something they'll be doing frequently once they become full-fledged professionals.

"The process [of bookbinding] is simple but requires great accuracy," Dubansky says. That accuracy becomes even more important when you transition from a bookbinding class to on-the-job conservation.

3. OLD BOOKS CAN BE EASIER TO RESTORE THAN NEW BOOKS.

You might think that centuries-old books are always more fragile than newer works. But Katie Wagner, a rare book conservator for the Smithsonian Libraries, says that's not always the case: "We have books from our collection that are hundreds of years old, and that paper is in better shape than modern paper. That’s because the process of making paper from cotton and linen changed around 1840. They started incorporating wood pulp and they weren’t de-acidifying it first." When paper becomes too acidic, it degrades and turns hard.

As a result, even well-made books from the late 19th century onward can be brittle to the touch. "If a book is pre-1840, it's often easier to restore than a book from 1940," Wagner says.

4. THE MAIN TOOLS OF THE TRADE HAVEN’T CHANGED FOR CENTURIES.

“If a bookbinder from the 19th century walked into our room [at the Met], they would feel very much at home,” Dubansky says. Book conservators have used the same equipment for hundreds of years, from basic hand tools like bone folders (used to make sharp creases in paper and other materials) to thread and needles used to re-sew tattered tomes.

Changing technologies have added new techniques to the mix, of course, “but day to day, it’s the basic tools that we probably use the most,” Wagner says.

5. SOME CONSERVATION TECHNIQUES ARE SURPRISINGLY BASIC.

Even schoolroom supplies can find new life in a conservation department. Take, for example, the humble eraser. Victorian-era volumes sometimes have sooty pages if they were housed near coal-burning furnaces, and according to Wagner, erasers can remove this residue. But since the pressure of a regular eraser’s point can cause streaks and lines to form on the page, bookbinding supply companies sell ground-up eraser crumbs, which conservators sprinkle onto pages and then rub in circles. Once the white eraser crumbs have turned black, they’re carefully brushed from the page, and new layers of crumbs are applied until the stains have faded. (Not all conservationists opt for erasers, though; some prefer to use small rubber sponges called soot sponges.)

Another conservation technique involves an appliance you might not expect: When conservators spot mold growing on a book, they stick the volume inside a commercial freezer, which Wagner says inhibits growth.

6. EVERY DAY ON THE JOB IS DIFFERENT …

No two books (or their materials) are exactly alike, which keeps the job fresh and interesting. "I'm always getting something new to treat," Wagner says. Books from different eras and places vary in their materials and construction, as well as in the kinds of traumas they've experienced, whether it's water or insect damage or mold exposure. Amateur fixes from prior owners—a taped page, for example—can inflict their own kind of damage.

Repairs can include re-backing books, patching tiny holes and tatters with Japanese paper (it's thin and strong), humidifying paper to separate stuck pages, and deciding which methods of treating stains work best with the book's ink and materials. Some books might be good candidates for washing using de-ionized water—which can remove dirt and debris—although this method isn't conservators' first line of treatment, since it changes the structure of paper.

"You have to look at each object as its own entity and decide what’s best for it," Wagner says.

7. ... BUT LIKE ALL JOBS, THERE ARE DULL MOMENTS.

When they’re not repairing old tomes, book conservators can sometimes be found tackling paperwork of a different sort. “For every rare book I treat, I have to write a condition report,” Wagner says. “When that book comes in I have to photograph it, and I have to note its size, its condition, how it’s bound, and the problems it’s having. That can be time-consuming."

8. THE BEST CONSERVATION JOBS ARE INVISIBLE.

A conservator’s job typically isn’t to make an old book look like new again (unless it’s, say, going on display in a period room), but to make it readable using as little work as possible. “I’m not going to rebind a book because it’s old and beat-up,” Dubansky says. “I treasure the fact that it’s old and beat-up. What I’m going to try to do is repair all the parts that are vulnerable to make it functional.”

9. THEY OFTEN FREELANCE.

Book conservators can be found working at bookbinderies, museums, college and university libraries, public libraries, and other types of institutions. Some, however, also tackle freelance projects on the side, working with clients to restore items like tattered family Bibles, old journals, and heirloom books. Many conservators are also self-employed: Instead of working a 9-to-5 at a single institution, they'll work part-time or with institutions or private individuals on a project-by-project basis.

10. DIGITIZATION HELPS SAVE OLD BOOKS.

Some books are beyond repair, like when they're "so brittle that they're breaking to the touch," Wagner says. In that case, the book may be a good candidate for digitization, since at least then the subject matter will be available to researchers. Conservators will use special copiers or take individual photos of each page ("very, very carefully") to immortalize the words without harming the book itself.

11. THEY SOMETIMES GET TO WORK ON HISTORY-CHANGING DOCUMENTS.

In 2013, a life-changing first edition passed through Wagner's hands: Edward Jenner’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae (1798), which details the English physician's work with what would ultimately become the smallpox vaccine. "That was amazing because he’s the father of immunology," Wagner says.

While rare and influential, the book itself wasn't in great condition. Its inside pages were covered in mold, and its stitching had unraveled so that sections were detached from the binding, among other damage. The first thing Wagner did to treat the book was to stick it into the freezer to blast its mold. Then, after dry cleaning it with a brush, she dismantled the book's text block (a.k.a. the "block" formed by a book's cut and stacked pages), washed individual pages in de-ionized water, and humidified and dried the color plates. Wagner then patched holes from mold growth with Japanese paper before re-sewing them together and re-casing them in their original binding.

Wagner says she still remembers the project because of the amount of labor that went into it—and the importance of the book in medical history, now preserved for future generations to enjoy.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER