Turning a New Page: Book Repair at King Library

by | Aug 8, 2023 | Campus Life

SJSU King Library student assistant Hannah Underwood, ’24 Music Education, learned to repair books in the library. Photo by Luke Makinson, ’24 Radio-Television-Film, King Library Marketing team.

Did you know that behind the circulation desk at San José State’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, there exists an entire world of book restoration and repair?

Deep in the belly of King Library’s lower level is an office space lined with rows of old books, some with cracked or missing spines, others looseleaf with pages beginning to sever and fall out. The books sit as if in a doctor’s waiting room, biding their time until a librarian or student assistant can diagnose their condition and treat them with binding glue and special tape.

“What we do here is book stabilization for the shelf,” says Jill Strykowski, cataloging and metadata analyst. She holds up a book with a repaired spine to show that its structure is once again strong enough to hold its pages together to be circulated once again. “With a shift to eResources across the library industry, physical book repair hasn’t been a priority.”

But since King Library exhausts every effort to use its existing catalog, Strykowski believes it’s important to fix the books that need a little TLC. Many are long out of print, and some are rare, with copyrights ranging back to the days of the San José Normal School

Though she’d gained the basics of archival and book repair in graduate school, in 2021 Strykowski signed up for a course on book repair to help her revive a previously existing SJSU book repair program. She learned the subtle difference between the niche art of book restoration for collection and display, versus book repair for functionality, form and increased circulation. Given the resources, tools and training required for the former, Strykowski’s focus at SJSU King Library is to increase the life of its books so future Spartans can continue to read and learn. She hired a team of student assistants to help restart the book repair program.

Many of the materials in need of repair were scores of music, as well as music history and related textbooks, so she reached out to the School of Music and Dance through the College of Humanities and the Arts. And that’s how she found trumpet player and aspiring middle school music teacher Hannah Underwood, ’24 Music Education. Also a student assistant for the school’s music library, as well as the SJSU Marching Band student librarian, Underwood discovered she had a knack for the subtle art of book restoration.

A true book person at heart, she can’t help describing the process of repairing books in literary terms. 

“It’s definitely weird to rip a cover off a book — it’s like ‘Fahrenheit 451,’” she says, referring to the dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury. “But then you get to put it back on and you realize, I’m doing a good thing.”

When she notices that she has to remove a page in order to fix a broken spine, or rip off a cover to reinforce it with cloth tape, she feels a tiny pang.

Hannah Underwood repairs a book at King Library. Video by Luke Makinson, ’24 Radio-Television-Film, King Library Marketing Team.

Underwood adds that her experience repairing books has also taught her to view the library in a new way. She has a newfound appreciation for the depth and breadth of SJSU King Library’s more than one million books — and this knowledge has come in handy when it comes time to write term papers.

“There’s definitely a lot more in the music collection than I expected,” she says. “I’ll be looking through the stacks and realize I didn’t know [that catalog] existed. One of the books that was recommended in my classes was hard to get because it was out of print, but I knew to look here.”

She gestures to the books on her desk, sorted neatly in piles by status of repair, as well as to the eight floors of collections, exhibits, galleries and study spaces above her. She mentions that she’s also spent time in the Ira F. Brilliant Beethoven Center on the fifth floor.

“I like seeing what I can use from the library as a resource,” she says. “It’s really cool knowing that we have different music scores and books here as well.”

She shares a few tips for readers of well-loved books: Avoid Scotch tape; it yellows with age. Choose cloth tape instead and reinforce any loose or broken covers with liquid plastic, a special form of acid-free glue. Don’t add binding tape unless it’s truly necessary; otherwise it can affect the book’s overall quality and shelf life.

Strykowski adds that even though libraries are increasingly focused on digital books and collections, the demand for book repair services will actually go up because those books left on the shelf will continue to age. 

“As the bulk of our collections keep getting older and older, the more sense it makes to come down here” to get books repaired, she adds, nodding to Underwood’s desk. 

Underwood could be playing double duty this fall, when the marching band joins the library in the celebration of the 20th anniversary of its joint partnership with San José Public Library. Until then, she’ll be busy in the library’s lower level, glue and cloth tape at the ready.

Learn more about SJSU King Library.