11 Secrets of Book Conservators

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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.

10 Secrets of Airbnb Hosts

iStock/Tero Vesalainen
iStock/Tero Vesalainen

Since it launched in 2008, Airbnb has grown from a scrappy tech startup to a major force in the travel industry. The website acts as a middleman between hosts with empty rooms, guest houses, and vacation homes to rent out and travelers looking for an unconventional (and often affordable) place to stay. The company reportedly recently valued itself at $38 billion.

Tech-savvy globetrotters may be familiar with Airbnb from the guest side, but being a host offers its own experiences. If they're willing to endure the occasional clueless, tardy, or rude guest, hosts often learn that meeting people from around the world can be just as rewarding as travel—and a lot more lucrative. We spoke with a few Airbnb hosts to get their perspective on what it's like to provide a temporary home away from home.

1. Airbnb will send a photographer to host homes.

Airbnb wants its listings to be successful, and they offer hosts some pretty appealing perks to make that happen—including sending a professional photographer to their space for a free photoshoot, if hosts ask for one. “The photographer made the room look really nice,” Steve Wilson, an Airbnb host who manages a listing in Austin, Texas, tells Mental Floss. “And the pictures are certified, so people know Airbnb took them and they’re not fake picture I took from the internet.” Enlisting a professional photographer pays off for both the hosts and the company: According to Airbnb, hosts with professional photos see a 40 percent increase in earnings compared to other hosts in their area.

2. Airbnb hosts know that cute pet photos can lead to bookings.

Brenda Tucker's dog, Boo.
Brenda Tucker's dog, Boo.
Brenda Tucker

Brenda Tucker first listed the spare room of her San Francisco home on Airbnb in 2009. As one of the company’s earliest hosts, she had the honor of having CEO Brian Chesky stay in her home, and he shared some useful tips. One piece of advice he gave is something dating app users may already know: Including photos of your pets is a great way to get attention. “Their data was showing that people weren’t really reading the listings, which is true of myself when I use Airbnb,” Tucker tells Mental Floss. “So I put my dog and my cat in the photos early on and that has been very, very helpful.”

3. There's a reason some Airbnb hosts greet you in person.

Some hosts have a set-up that allows them to check in guests without ever meeting them in person, but Wilson prefers to greet guests the old-fashioned way. It’s a friendlier way of doing business, but he says there’s another motivation behind the protocol. “I’ve worked in retail, and it’s like when you try to say ‘hi’ to every [customer]. It’s nice to do, but it’s also a way to reduce people shoplifting,” he says. “They might be more respectful of the space that way if they see a real person there.”

4. Sometimes Airbnb hosts get gifts.

Beyond checking in on time and being considerate, Airbnb hosts don’t expect much from their guests. But occasionally they encounter a guest who goes above and beyond to leave a good impression. Carla (not her real name), a host in Dublin, Ireland, who’s retired, recalls a woman from Belgium who expressed her gratitude by crocheting her a tea cozy. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” she tells Mental Floss. "She showed me that she used to make these, and she showed me photographs, and [then] she made me one. She was lovely."

Early in his Airbnb career, Wilson received a gift from an unexpected source. “One of my first guests was this guy, he had the worst possible photo of himself. It was weird and out-of-focus and he just looked mean and angry. I begrudgingly accepted his invite, and he turned out to be the nicest, sweetest guy. He was from Seattle and he gave me some freeze-dried salmon and a really nice note he wrote me later on a card. That taught me not to judge anybody by their picture.”

5. Not every Airbnb hosting experience is positive, however.

Even if hosts have positive feelings overall toward their experience with Airbnb, they’re bound to collect a few horror stories after working with the service long enough. One traveler Tucker hosted made herself at home by ruining the walls. “She brought her bike up 36 steps from the street, which left tire marks everywhere.” After that incident, the guest proceeded to wash her dirty clothes in the bathtub and lay it over the furniture in the shared living room to dry. “She did not expect me to come home early that day.”

Wilson recalls a guest who dealt with mosquito season by nearly setting his room on fire. “A few mosquitos had gotten in, he had basically let them in, so he kind of freaked out about it and bought all these mosquito candles and left them under the bed.” Fortunately, Wilson caught the fire hazard before it turned disastrous.

6. Hosts appreciate it when you clean up.

People who host on Airbnb know that cleaning up after guests is part of the job, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate it when people go out of their way to be neat. “It’s nice when they clean up a bit,” Wilson says. “They can leave their sheets or towels wherever. I don’t care about that stuff, but it's a nice little touch when they do the dishes. It's not that big of a deal but I feel like it’s considerate.”

7. Airbnb hosts hate it when you're late.

Traveling can be stressful and unpredictable, but if you tell your Airbnb host you’ll arrive at a certain time, try your best to stick to it if you want to stay on their good side. “I don’t want to wait around for hours and hours,” Tucker says. “I understand if your flight is late and that’s something you can’t help, but there have been a few people who unfortunately think I have nothing to do on a Saturday except wait around for six hours. When people are rude or have the expectation that you are a personal concierge and you should behave as a hotel, that makes things more difficult for me.”

Wilson repeats the same sentiment, adding that updating your host if you know you’re going to be late is much better than not communicating with them at all. “I always appreciate it when people give me a decent ballpark figure of when they’re planning to get in, and if they don’t make it at that time if they could possibly give me a heads-up that they’re going to be a little later than they were expecting. I have a set check-in and check-out time, but sometimes I can give people a little more time if they need it.”

8. Airbnb hosts don’t want to give you a bad review.

Airbnb hosts know how important reviews can be, and they aren’t quick to assign negative ratings to guests. Tucker says she always tries to confront issues with her guests in person before airing out the problems online. “I try to be diplomatic. Generally I can have a discussion in person where I can feel heard and there’s some kind of understanding,” she says.

But in some cases, even diplomatic hosts may feel forced to rate guests poorly as a warning to future hosts. Tucker says, “I had a woman who was very challenging. She came too early and she seemed a little entitled. She requested a refund because she was leaving early but she hadn’t let me know. I think that was probably the most negative review I ever gave.”

9. It's hard to make a living just from Airbnb hosting.

Many hosts use Airbnb as a source of supplemental income. For her day job, Tucker is the director of arts marketing for the San Francisco Travel Association, and Wilson is a freelance writer. Both say the money they make from Airbnb is a nice cushion, but it’s not enough to make a real living. “It’s not super lucrative, it’s just a stable stream of dough. I don’t think anyone would get rich off it, especially in a place where you’re taxed and have to have a [short-term rental] license,” Wilson says. Airbnb also takes a service fee of at least 3 percent from hosts for every night they book.

For Tucker, being an Airbnb host is more about meeting new people and being exposed to different cultures than it is about making money. “That opportunity to intersect with other cultures is incredibly interesting to me, and something that has enriched my life quite a bit,” she says.

10. Sometimes hosts make lifelong friendships with guests.

The relationship between Airbnb host and guest doesn’t necessarily end at check-out time. Thanks to her hosting gig, Tucker has developed lasting friendships with former guests who are scattered around the globe. “I've made very close friends with people who’ve stayed with me. I’ve traveled with an Italian guest of mine in France and in Italy. I’ve gone to Sweden twice to see a guest I keep in touch with. Those opportunities have been pretty amazing.”

7 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Roadies

Lindrik/iStock/GettyImagesPlus
Lindrik/iStock/GettyImagesPlus

Although the word roadie may conjure up images of non-stop partying with rock stars, the reality is that most work unglamorous, physically and emotionally demanding jobs. They lug the gear, set up the instruments, manage the stage, run the sound, sell the merch, drive the bus, and generally do whatever it takes to make concerts possible. Mental Floss talked to a few roadies (who probably wish we'd stop calling them that—see below) to get the inside scoop.

1. Roadie is an outdated term.

Some roadies who worked in the 1960s through the 1980s later wrote books bragging about their sexual conquests, wild partying, and drug use while on the road. Although that lifestyle is not completely obsolete—genres such as metal, rap, and hip hop supposedly see more illegal activity than indie, pop, folk, and alternative—most roadies don’t refer to themselves as such.

Morgan Paros, a violinist and singer based in Los Angeles, says that the generic term roadie seems slightly derogatory now. Instead, it’s better to use terms that more specifically describe individual duties. “Anyone on a tour is generally working very hard to fulfill their role of tour manager, front of house (sound engineer), light tech, stage manager, instrument tech, or merchandise manager,” Paros says. “These individuals make everything possible for the performers every night.”

2. Roadies work insanely long hours.

Most roadies work 16- to 20-hour days. Waking up early and going to sleep late is part of the job description, as Meg MacRae, a production coordinator who’s been on the road with Bon Jovi and the Eagles, attests. A typical day for her starts with a 6 a.m. bus pickup, after which she sets up a temporary production office at the venue. After a long day of problem-solving, booking flights and hotels, and making sure the crew is taken care of, she ends her day at 1:30 or 2 a.m.

3. Roadies get used to roughing it.

Unless they’re working for an A+ list performer, most roadies are not living the high life, sleeping in luxury hotel suites and flying on private jets. Being on the road can be hard work. Depending on the band’s budget level, the road crew may sleep on the floor of a shared hotel room, or sit in a crowded Ford Econoline or Chevrolet Express van for hours.

Tour conditions offer minimal privacy and maximum mess. “You wouldn’t believe how insanely messy a van can get after a 6-week tour of the country,” says Michael Lerner of Telekinesis.

David, a front-of-house sound engineer based in New York, also describes the dirty working conditions in many venues. “Consider how grimy some music venues look. The dusty mixing board in the back coated in spilled beer, the germs of hundreds of singers talking/spitting/shouting into the same microphones night after night, and the questionable odors of green rooms inhabited by people who spend a solid portion of their days packed into a van … this is your office. Good luck not getting sick.”

4. Roadies usually have good reasons for putting up with it all.

So why do roadies subject themselves to the long hours and less-than-glamorous conditions? Many say they love music so much that they can’t imagine working in any other field. “For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to have a job in music,” tour manager and sound engineer William Pepple writes. Some roadies also get into it because they love traveling all over the world, seeing new cities, and meeting new people.

5. Maintaining relationships at home is a big challenge for roadies.

Being a roadie is a lifestyle rather than just a job. Because they travel so frequently for work, roadies often struggle to maintain relationships with loved ones. Technology such as FaceTime and Skype has made keeping up with family, friends, and significant others easier, but it can still be a challenge to find privacy to make phone calls. Roadies who travel on buses have a little more privacy and time to connect with loved ones back home, since bus tours often give them the freedom of waking up in the city where the band’s next show is, while road crew on van tours spend the majority of the daytime driving to the next show.

6. They probably have at least one horror story from the road.

Whether it’s an unscrupulous promoter cheating the band out of their earnings, a bus overheating, a van breaking down, or driving through dangerous winter storms, roadies probably have at least one horror story. Most awful promoters or venues, though, are usually due to simple misunderstandings. “Most bad days are due to either bad communication or a lack of understanding that most touring people just want simple comforts: a clean shower, clean towels, a safe place to put their stuff, laundry machines, and good food,” says Mahina Gannet, who’s worked as a tour manager and production coordinator for bands such as The Postal Service, Death Cab For Cutie, and Neko Case.

7. Good roadies are there to work, not just hang out with the band.

Achieving a balance between being professional and having fun is harder on tours because “you are working, living and traveling with your co-workers,” Gannet adds. “I’m there to get a job done, and when it’s done, I love to hang out. A lot of tour managers I’ve seen definitely can go to either extreme (some actually thinking they are a member of the band, some so distant the band can’t talk to them), but it’s like everything else in life. It’s about finding your own personal balance.”

This piece first ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

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