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Book Mending is Going the Way of the Buggy Whip

The internet radically changed the book industry by first making endless information available almost for free, and then by making all used books available in the world’s largest swap meet (no, not Amazon).

As the NYTimes reports, cheap alternatives and replacements is having the predictable impact on book repair as it did on electronics twenty or more years ago.

Libraries like the King County Library System used to employ staffs of book menders, but now King County only has the single expert on the payroll:

Donald Vass, who has spent the last 26 years mending and tending to books for the King County Public Library system here in the Seattle area, has seen both mechanical and human-inflicted damage and more. At 57 and with not many years left before retirement, he says he believes he will be the last full-time traditional bookbinder ever to take up shears, brushes and needles here. The skills take too long to learn, he said, and no one is being groomed to take his place in “the mendery,” Room 111 at the library’s central service center, where not so many years ago 10 people worked.

Menderies, often called book hospitals, were once common in library systems across the nation. But the digital revolution, cost-control pressures and shifting reader tastes pushed many libraries away from paper and the maintenance of fragile old classics. The internet has made it easy to find used books to replace worn ones, and to borrow through interlibrary lending systems.

“We don’t mend anymore; it’s a lost art,” said Alan Hall, the director of the public library of Steubenville and Jefferson County, Ohio, for the last 33 years. “It was a question of what you could do without, but it’s also technology taking the place of it.”

The NYTimes mourned the diminishment of this profession, but I was surprised that King county had any book menders still on staff.

A simple cost-benefit analysis says they aren’t worth the payroll cost any more.

The article said that Vass repaired 60 to 80 books a month. If he costs KCLS $120,000 in salary plus benefits (a not unreasonable assumption for a civil employee with his seniority) then the library is paying $10,000 a month (plus materials) to repair 80 books.

How many books are worth repairing at a cost of $130 or more?

Damned few.

You and I can quibble over the number, but one point which is indisputable is that for a lot of books it is cheaper to replace than repair (which is why Vass is short nine coworkers).

Book mending has joined book binding, watch repair, buggy whip making, typesetting, and a double dozen other professions in the Museum of Vanishing Skills.

And that’s no big loss. While the NYTimes laments the fall of book mending, it’s also worth considering what rose in its place: a cheap network of information which can be accessed from almost anywhere.

That is a good trade off, no?

image by Remi Mathis

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nat January 10, 2017 um 9:48 am

Except for those few books that /are/ worth more than $130 to repair, or are irreplaceable. But we’re certainly past the point of every library needing book repairers, and rapidly approaching the point where even a large library system doesn’t have the volume to justify them.

I /am/ a little surprised that King County Library System doesn’t have enough demand to justify the position, but I suppose a public library typically has a lot fewer rare/old books than, say, a large university library. And most of what a public library has that needs preserving is in other formats (they’re often the only repository of local newspapers, frex).

Joseph Sanchez January 10, 2017 um 10:26 am

It is unfortunate that the Times did not explore the nature of the books being mended. In my experience, large urban libraries like King County tend to have historic and unique items where the salary is still justified. It is an iconoclastic element of the profession, but there is a beauty and grace in it – if you have ever had a chance to experience it- that is lost in the modern world. I only wish they were digitizing the unique holdings before repair and sharing the digital copy with the world.

Olivier January 10, 2017 um 12:09 pm

The flaw in your argument is so obvious: what about out-of-print titles? KCLS probably doesn’t have any incunabula but these are not the only books worth saving.

Nate Hoffelder January 10, 2017 um 12:53 pm

Yes, there will always be books which can’t be bought, but that’s where inter-library loans come in. Or, a rare book could always be sent out to be restored.

Miriam January 11, 2017 um 9:55 am

No big loss? Not if the book you want to keep is out of print and unavailable in any format. I have several such books in my collection.

Nate Hoffelder January 11, 2017 um 11:06 am

Then those books really should be digitized, shouldn’t they?

And I was referring to the profession, which is not gone – just diminished. How is a profession like book mending worth mourning?

Nat January 12, 2017 um 3:38 pm

It’s worth mourning when it’s still valuable. We no longer have buggy whips or whale oil lanterns, so the loss of people to manufacture or repair them is a non-issue (outside of certain communities that still use those things, obviously, and which therefore still have people that can make them).

We still have books. Lots of them. And some of them are still quite valuable to society. And a book repairer might also be the only person with the knowledge to restore a book to a state fit for digitizing. Do we need as many as we used to? Heck no. Would we lose something if there were /zero/ book repairers? Yes.

Nate Hoffelder January 12, 2017 um 4:17 pm

Except we still have buggy whips (you can buy them online). We still have horses. We even still have buggies.

They’re not as important as they used to be, but they do exist.

Books will likely go down the same path. In fact, they have already down that path – consider what has happened to encyclopedias.

Miriam January 11, 2017 um 12:06 pm

Oh, you can check "I want to read this book on Kindle," but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, at least not in your lifetime.

Library repair | Making Book December 14, 2017 um 1:39 pm

[…] Reader, following the New York Times‘ lead, tells us it’s all over in a post entitled Book Mending is Going the Way of the Buggy Whip. The article quotes Mr Vass of the Kings County Library system in Seattle, who opines that he will […]

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