Book Repair: Revelations, Decisions, and Disclosures


Ellen Firsching Brown

Ellen Firsching Brown

I recently did something I never thought I would do: I tore a book to shreds. When my children were little, they routinely received harsh punishments for this sort of behavior. What brought me to commit such an act of destruction? It was not a fit of rage or any form of mental breakdown. It was an assignment for a class in book repair.

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to study book making and repair. Along with my fellow attendees, I shuddered at the thought of ruining a perfectly good book. I nervously sliced into the binding and pulled off the covers. I quickly became engrossed with the task and amazed at how difficult it was to break apart a well made book. Warming to the job, I ripped off headbands, scraped spine linings, peeled the endpapers from the boards, and even cut off the corners of the boards. I finished by removing a few pages from the text block and either crumpling them or tearing them into pieces. The next assignment was the really fun part—putting the books back together.

I signed up for these classes as a bit of a lark, thinking that it would be interesting to learn how books are made and how all the parts come together. I came away with much more. I did not fully appreciate how books are made until I sat down and took a book apart, piece by piece, and put it back together with a trained professional labeling every part and explaining its purpose.

After going through this process, you “read” books in a new way. Only by understanding book construction can you accurately assess a book’s condition. You will know how to spot repairs. You will be able to assess whether a book that looks perfectly fine at first glance has been previously repaired. You will be able to identify books that look hopeless but which are easily fixable.

These courses also broadened my acceptance of book repairs. In the past, if faced with a damaged book, I would tie it up with a ribbon or put it in a protective box. I avoided buying damaged books, even when they presented a great bargain, and rarely recommended that clients spend money on book repairs. My attitude has changed. Whereas I once thought that damaged books were best left alone, I now see that bringing disabled books back into a usable form can be a positive thing.

My own experience bore this out almost immediately. The week after I completed my first class in rebinding, a client asked me to fix a favorite old book of his that was falling apart. I explained that the process would alter the charming aged appearance of his book. I was surprised that he wanted me to proceed. I nervously performed the repair, almost certain that he would be disappointed by the result. To my great surprise, he was thrilled with the transformation and was practically in tears with appreciation that I had brought the book back into usable form. I am not sure why I found this so remarkable. Books are, after all, meant to be read.

While I freely admit to a new found respect for the wonders of book repair, I still find myself a bit squeamish about one issue: to what extent dealers should disclose repairs to their customers. I have encountered several dealers who tout their ability to refurbish tattered old books and make a tidy profit on resale. I’ve often got the distinct impression some of these dealers were not advising purchasers about the repairs.

So, what responsibility do dealers have to disclose book repairs to potential clients? Unfortunately, there is no generally applicable booksellers’ code to say what is required. While there are various guidelines that set operating standards for dealers, few offer guidance on this issue.

Of primary interest to readers of the IOBA Standard would be how IOBA addresses repair disclosure. The IOBA Code of Ethics requires that its members take “responsibility for furthering mutual trust and respect between booksellers and customers by conducting their businesses with fairness and integrity.” Members must thoroughly inspect their books and post accurate descriptions. IOBA also requires its dealers to describe “defects, blemishes, or other characteristics which reduce a book’s quality” and prohibits its dealers from “mislead[ing]” customers. While this language supports the idea of dealers disclosing repairs in their listings, it is not explicitly required. The issue seems to come down to whether a well-performed repair reduces a book’s quality. I suspect some dealers would say that, by definition, repairs automatically diminish value. Others certainly would disagree.

Also of interest to online booksellers may be the listing policies of services such as AbeBooks and Alibris. Neither appears to address the issue head-on. According to the AbeBooks Bookseller Policy, under Performance Standards and Code of Conduct, Section 11(d), dealers may not list “inaccurate or incorrect book information or descriptions…resulting in the misrepresentation of inventory.” There does not seem to be any specific obligation to disclose book repair history in seller listings. Similarly, I found no specific requirement by Alibris that dealers must disclose book repairs in their listings. As far as damaged books go, the Alibris Listing Regulations require only that sellers do not list “[b]ooks with missing pages” or books that are “[m]oldy, smelly, badly stained or unclean…unless specifically described as such.”

One entity that addresses the issue directly is the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. Like IOBA, ABAA requires its members to be responsible for the accurate description of material offered for sale. However, the ABAA goes a step further and specifies that “[a]ll significant defects, restorations, and sophistications should be clearly noted and made known to those to whom the material is offered or sold.” While this statement requires disclosures in certain situations, even here there is some degree of ambiguity. What does the term “significant” mean? What are “sophistications?” Does an ABAA dealer have to disclose erasures or re-glued plates?

Dealers selling repaired books would be well-advised to think through the applicable standards carefully as they prepare their listings. In addition, when buying books, it makes sense to ask about repair histories. Without any uniform standard on this issue, it can only be assumed that dealers follow a variety of approaches to disclosure.

I encourage all dealers to find the time to study book making and repair. I am not suggesting that all dealers need to become master book-binders. That is a skill best left to book artisans. A class or two is all you will need to find new insight and a skill set that will benefit both you and your customers.

Ellen Firsching Brown operates Liberty Hall Books out of Richmond, VA

IOBA Standard, Fall Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 4.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website