Preserving books for generations to come

It?s like a crafter?s dream. Paper in different textures and sizes, scissors, glue sticks and paintbrushes cover two large tables that serve as a workstation for Rita Mackintosh, a library academic technician, in Torreyson Library.

Though her work area stirs fond memories of primary school, Mackintosh is charged with a task that is far more complicated than the glue sticks might let on. Her craft is one that requires skill and precision because she is charged with preserving the more than 400,000 books, some of which are centuries old, that fill Torreyson Library.

Decades of students, faculty and other library patrons tugging books from the shelves, cracking their spines, tearing pages and underlining passages can lead to substantial wear and tear. For nearly a decade, it?s been Mackintosh?s job to erase the markings, replace lost pages and repair the worn bindings of the university?s literary treasures.

?What we do is unique in Arkansas,? Mackintosh said. ?Most do it [preservation of collections], but not to the extent that we do. Our focus is the entire main collection of the library.?

The librarians who receive books at the circulation desk and the student workers who return books to their rightful places on the shelves are taught to look for worn books that may need repair. Once it is determined that a book is in need of some tender loving care, it is sent to Mackintosh in the Technical Services Office.

What started in 1993 as a job mostly doing copy cataloging, has evolved into a craft for Mackintosh. Her craft can be tedious, such as erasing pencil markings from the margin of a book, but it is most often rewarding such as when she creates a new cover for a book that is literally coming apart at its seams. Sometimes she has to track down a copy of a torn page through inter-library loan and restore it to a damaged book, and sometimes she merely has to tighten a book?s hinge before it can be returned to circulation.

Mackintosh can?t always make a necessary repair. Sometimes she sends books to a bindery in Ohio. A bindery is a place that specializes in book preservation. ?I do an evaluation of all the books and decide what goes to the bindery and what we can do in-house,? she said. ?It depends on what needs to be fixed and how fast we need to get it done.?

Since 1996, Mackintosh and her student workers have preserved more than 11,000 books through in-house repair. Mackintosh said it?s often much cheaper to repair a book than it is to replace it with a new edition. ?The book budget is tight, new books are expensive and many of the older books are out of print. Even sending books to the bindery for repair costs less than purchasing a new book. You can just look at the prices students are paying for textbooks at the bookstore to see what the price of replacing a book might be,? she said.

Mackintosh was careful to point out that her job is to preserve books and not to restore them. There is a difference. ?Restoration is what you would do if you were trying to make books look like they did originally,? she explained. ?That would require buying materials that were used during the period when that particular book was printed. That?s a very expensive thing to do. We just try to do preventive repair.?

Volumes of information at Torreyson Library remain preserved for generations to come thanks, in part, to Mackintosh, who spends her weekdays perched on a padded stool diligently piecing frayed books back together with a touch delicate enough for the fragile likes of Humpty Dumpty.

-Jennifer Boyett