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.

17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Bookstores

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For book lovers, there’s no more magical place than the local bookstore. Endless shelves of stories and characters, all at your eager fingertips. And while most of us have probably spent a significant amount of time wandering the aisles, few of us know what goes on behind the scenes. Here are some insights into the life of a bookstore, gleaned from the people who keep the shelves stocked.

1. EMPLOYEES WANT YOU TO ASK THEM FOR RECOMMENDATIONS.

“A person will say, ‘I have a really strange question, I’m sorry, but can you recommend a book?’” says Phyllis Cohen, owner of Berkeley Books in Paris. “That is the most normal question. It is my favorite question in the world! Give me some clues. I’ll ask them some pointed questions and then I make a pile for them. When they discover it they’re over the moon—it’s like they have a personal shopper in the bookshop.”

2. BUT BOOKSELLERS ARE NOT MIND-READERS.

They want to help you find your book, but they can’t if you don’t know the book’s name, author, or what it was about. This happens all the time, and it drives them crazy. “Customers will say ‘I don’t remember the name or what it was about but it has a blue cover. I think it had this word in the title,’” explains Katie Orphan, manager at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Sometimes the questions are so vague that no amount of Googling will help, and then the customer leaves unhappy.

Even a botched title is better than no hints at all. “One funny thing that happens with customers is they get the titles totally wrong,” says Marissa Rodriguez, who has worked in a bookstore for two years. “High school kids will say ‘I’m looking for ‘How To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Angry Grapes.’”

3. THEY CAN SPOT THE BOOKWORMS FROM A MILE AWAY.

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Just browsing? Bookstore workers can tell. “Cookbooks is one of the sections where that happens the most,” Orphan says. “Art books and cookbooks. The people who are going to buy books, I can tell by the way they look at them, touch them, start carrying them around in a stack. I can always tell when people come up who is going to buy a book and who isn’t.”

4. THEY KNOW WHEN YOU’RE “SHOWROOMING.”

In recent years, many brick-and-mortar stores have fallen victim to online outlets like Amazon, which often offer the same books for a lower price. Some customers will browse for books they like, only to buy them later online, and they’re not very sly about it. “They’ll come in and use their phone to take a picture of the cover and barcode and just use the bookstore as the Amazon showroom,” says Keith Edmunds, a former bookstore owner. “It was awful. Seeing people do that was the height of ignorance.”

5. AND WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING THE SYSTEM.

“Some regulars would buy books one or two at a time and then within the two-week return window bring them back and be like, ‘I bought the wrong book,’” said Kat Chin, who worked at The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto for five years. “You’d know they read them because you could see the book was a little bit worn or the spine was cracked.”

6. THE GOAL IS TO GET BOOKS IN YOUR HANDS.

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One trick to get customers to commit to a book is to physically put the book in their hands and have them flip through it. “You can direct them to a part of the store, but that’s only half of selling a book,” Rodriguez says. “It's important to get merchandise in people's hands so they feel there’s already some ownership happening. They say ‘I like the way it looks and feels in my hands and I like the way it smells.’”

7. YOU HAVE TO HUNT FOR THE COFFEE SHOP.

Many bookstores, particularly the bigger ones like Barnes & Noble, have incorporated cafes into their layout. Alex Lifschutz, a London-based architect, told The Economist that putting the coffee shop at the back of the store or, if there are multiple stories, on the top floor, “draws shoppers upwards floor-by-floor, which is bound to encourage people to linger longer and spend more.”

8. THE KIDS SECTION IS STRATEGICALLY LOCATED.

According to Edmunds, the kids books are almost always located at the back of a store. “If the parents want to get a book for the kid they have to go through the whole store,” he says. “They’re hoping the parent will see something they want.”

9. SOMEONE PAID FOR THAT PRIME SHELF REAL ESTATE.

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In many big-box stores, publishers pay for good placement on “front tables, end caps and window space, in the same way General Mills and Procter and Gamble buy space for their breakfast cereals and dish detergents in the supermarkets,” Andy Ross, a literary agent, told The Book Deal.

10. AUTHORS, BEWARE THE “SOCIOLOGY” SECTION.

No author wants their book tucked away in the “sociology” section, claims veteran publishing insider Alan Rinzler. It’s “a catchall section for ambiguous titles, and the kiss of death for book sales,” he says.

11. BOOK THIEVES LOVE THE BIBLE.

At The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, “the Bible was the number one stolen book of all time,” Chin says.

Other frequently stolen books? Japanese comics (a.k.a. manga), expensive medical books, and Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Chin also says Haruki Murakami books were so frequently stolen that her bookstore had to take them off the shelves, only bringing them out when they were specifically requested.

12. EMPLOYEES HATE WHEN YOU LEAVE BOOKS WHERE THEY DON’T BELONG ...

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“Neatening up a bookstore is a daunting process,” says Demi Marshall, a bookseller in Austin, Texas. The next time you pluck a book from its designated shelf slot, put it back when you’re done. Otherwise, “it’s like if you go to a clothing store and unfold all the clothes and then put them back on the shelf but don’t fold them,” Chin says.

13. ... AND WHEN YOU TREAT THE STORE LIKE YOUR LIBRARY.

“It’s nice to be able to go in and read maybe a chapter to see if you’re gonna like the book,” Chin says. “But then when you sit and read the whole book and put it back on the shelf, it gets grubby.” You’ll know a bookstore is trying to nudge you out the door if multiple employees drop by to ask if you need any help. “We would quietly pester people,” says Caleb Saenz, who used to work at Barnes & Noble. “I was at my peak passive aggressive phase when I was working at a bookstore.”

14. THE INTERNET HAS ACTUALLY BEEN A GOOD THING.

A brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore in Seattle
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Before the internet became ubiquitous, the process of looking up a book for a customer was daunting. “We had to look it up in 'Books In Print,’ which is a multi-volume, 4-inch thick, hardcover book,” says Liz Prouty, who owns Second Looks Books in Maryland with her husband, Richard Due. “It was a slow and cumbersome process and if anything was indexed wrong or a customer had the first word of a title wrong, you were out of luck.”

15. IT’S ALSO MADE US LOVE BOOKS MORE.

Some thought the e-book would surely spell the death of the bookstore. But many independent sellers say digitization has actually made people crave physical books more. “I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, so many people come in waxing rhapsodic about the smell of books, the feel of books,” Prouty says. “And they say it more now because the alternatives exist. People are deeply attached to the old-fashioned books.”

16. SOME BOOKSELLERS CAN IDENTIFY BOOKS BY THEIR SMELL.

Especially used booksellers. “These Penguins have their own particular odor,” Cohen says. That odor? Vanilla. Others might smell like almond or coffee.

17. BOOKSELLERS AREN’T IN IT FOR THE MONEY.

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In fact, most of them have second jobs or need monetary support from family members. “It is definitely a work of passion for everyone that I know,” Marshall says. “We don’t do it for the money, we don’t do it because we have any power or prestige. It’s genuinely just that we love books and we love getting them into people's hands.”

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

13 Secrets of Crime Scene Cleaners

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It’s a profession that few people realize exists—until tragedy strikes, and suddenly they have to deal with the unimaginable. That’s when they call a select group of iron-stomached, steel-nerved workers known as trauma scene restoration specialists, biohazard remediation technicians, or simply crime scene cleaners.

Until a few decades ago, the task of cleaning up after a loved one died fell to family and friends, potentially adding trauma on top of an already terrible event. In the 1990s, a small group of companies and entrepreneurs sprang up to tackle the problem, specializing in the removal of blood, fluids, human tissue, and hazardous substances. By 2012 (the last year for which reliable data is available), crime scene cleanup was a $350-million industry in the United States, and included more than 500 companies. Here’s what these hazmat-suited heroes want the world to know about their work.

1. THEY AREN'T LIMITED TO CRIME SCENES.

The phrase crime scene cleanup brings to mind police tape and furrow-browed detectives. In reality, only a fraction of the calls these companies receive—which can come from family members, property managers, hotel owners, or anyone with a dead body on their property—are the result of a major crime. Unattended natural death (i.e., a person who dies alone and isn’t discovered quickly) and suicide are the most common scenarios. Glenn Cox, general manager at Southern Bio-Recovery, which has four locations in the Southeast, says that only about 30 percent of the 60 to 100 death scenes his company handles every year are homicides.

To pay the bills, it's common for companies to supplement with other kinds of biohazard removal, whether that's removing tear gas from a property after it's been used by law enforcement or getting rid of meth labs. Cox says that Southern Bio-Recovery also cleans up hoarding situations and decontaminates homes after viral or bacterial incidents—think MRSA or hepatitis outbreaks.

2. MANY OF THEM ARE EX-MILITARY OR LAW ENFORCEMENT.

Former Marine John Krusenstjerna founded Des Moines-based Iowa CTS Cleaners after serving two tours in Iraq. “Just experiencing things out there left me kind of wondering what happened in these situations back in the United States, who takes care of it,” he tells Mental Floss. Peruse executive bios of many trauma restoration company websites and you’ll find similar military, law enforcement, or paramedic backgrounds. Exposure to death—and the chaos it wreaks on family members—also provides valuable experience in the emotional and physical challenges inherent in cleanup. "Being able to compartmentalize in your mind, to stay focused on the task, to have integrity … all of those are attributes I believe I learned from being a soldier," Cox explains.

3. THEIR TRAINING MIGHT INVOLVE PIG BLOOD.

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The certification requirements for crime scene cleaners range from nonexistent to uneven, so most training happens in-house. James Michel, CEO at Bio Recovery—which has 22 branches around the country—says all of his company's employees are taken to a special training facility at their headquarters in New York state. "We stage crime scenes there using organic and non-organic types of fake blood: stage blood, pig blood, all different types. We recreate crime scenes with sheet rock, toilets, tile, and [trainees are] able to break it down. We have decontamination stations that are permanently set up so they can walk in and out of and really grasp how to do this on a day-to-day basis." All in all, Michel says, four weeks of such training are required before their techs are even let out on a crime site.

4. THE DEATH SCENE CAN SPREAD BEYOND THE BODY.

“All of our scenes are chaotic, and there's multiple things to do,” says Nate Berg, founder and president of Scene Clean, based in Osseo, Minnesota. “For example, in a decomposition [when a body has been left undiscovered for a long period], you've got strong odors and you've got all their personal property, which now have absorbed the strong odors.” The work becomes a matter of peeling the layers of contamination—bedding and linens, furniture, carpeting, floorboards, subfloor or sheetrock. And what’s visible to the eye (say, a small bloodstain on a carpet) may actually indicate a large pool underneath.

“A bad day is when we get called to a really bad decomposition or unattended death,” Krusenstjerna says, “and find out they’ve not only decomposed in a kitchen or bathroom but it’s dripping into the basement. We had an apartment building where it went from the third floor to the first floor.”

5. THEIR CLEANING SUPPLIES ARE NEXT-LEVEL.

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As you might expect, cleaning up the blood, fluids, and tissue left in the wake of a violent death or long-undiscovered decomposition takes more than bleach and elbow grease. The first step is detection of every spot, splatter, or shard. “We use an indicator similar to hydrogen peroxide, but it’s a much, much stronger version,” Cox says. “When it [comes into] contact with bodily fluids, it foams up and turns a very bright white color. It’s also a very strong disinfectant.”

When dealing with brain matter—which tends to harden to a cement-like consistency—Berg prefers to use an enzyme cleaner that, when absorbed by the tissue, softens it just enough to allow it to be removed with a scraper. For stubborn brain tissue, or fluid that’s seeped into the cracks between floorboards, it might be time to break out the demolition tools: crowbars, weighted hammers, circular saws. It’s also not uncommon for techs to have to dismantle furniture, remove sheetrock, or rip up flooring to get at the contaminants that have seeped in or gotten stuck.

6. THEY CAN MITIGATE THE SMELL ... SORT OF.

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There’s nothing like the smell of death. And while some techs get used to the odor, “when a body’s been there for 60 days, in moist air, you walk in and breathe that smell, and you just go, ‘This is going to be a long day,’” Michel says. Every technician wears personal protective equipment (a.k.a. PPE; think lined suits, booties, layers of gloves and respirators) to guard against blood- and air-borne pathogens, but it can be hard to avoid a quick waft now and then. “I don’t care how good you are,” Michel says, “when you twist your head in a certain way and break that [respirator] seal, that smell is coming in the mask.” To cope, and to deodorize the home, techs employ HEPA filters, air scrubbers, ozone machines, and hydroxyl generators—which use concentrated UV light to target and destroy pollutants.

7. THEY HATE SEEING CATS ON-SITE.

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That's because cats could mean cat pee. “Cat pee is my fricking nemesis,” Berg says. “Most of the time we have to pull up floors or walls and make physical contact with the cat urine because it crystallizes.” Michel agrees: “When you leave a dog by himself and they [defecate] or urinate, you can clean that for the most part. Cat spray is the hardest odor to remove.”

8. THE TURNOVER RATE IS PRETTY HIGH.

Even the toughest clean-up doesn’t compare to the emotional stress of working with grieving families or glimpsing the violence people inflict upon each other. "We only go to the worst of the worst," Michel explains. He's seen professionals in his office and around the industry turn over at a rapid rate. “We’ve had hundreds of employees come in and out of these doors throughout the years and the psychological toll is extremely difficult. Some of the tough cases, where there’s children involved, there’s a somberness in the office for days.” He says that most employees, and even owners, only last about five or 10 years, max.

9. TECHS OFTEN FUNCTION AS COUNSELORS ...

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Because everyone deals with grief differently, a crime scene cleanup tech has to be prepared for every kind of human interaction. Usually, it’s the owner or senior tech who deals with loved ones, and that might mean listening to detailed accounts of the deceased or protecting customers from seeing the worst. “Customers tend to want to tell us the whole story, starting two months back,” Cox says. “They need to vent. I have to talk with them, and sometimes I have to give them a hug and let them know that we’re here to help. We understand their situation and let them know that time heals. This is part of the healing process as well.”

10. ... BUT THEY SOMETIMES NEED HELP THEMSELVES.

Experienced techs and owners talk about the importance of separating their work and home lives. Still, not everyone is gifted with the ability to disengage (and even those who can may find the toll adds up over time). Several of the people we spoke to said their companies provide paid counseling for techs on a confidential, request-by-request basis. "All they have to do is submit a request. We take care of everything," Michel notes.

11. THEY MIGHT BLAST THE RADIO—OR WORK AS QUIETLY AS POSSIBLE.

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Techs have to find a way to work amid all that emotion. While on site, that might mean keeping things light among themselves. “We have radios in our truck,” Krusenstjerna says. “We bring the radio in the house, to help break up the time. We’ll talk amongst each other, joking about what we saw on TV the night before or what’s funny on Facebook. But the last thing we want, and where we draw the line, is if the family is in the house. Not to sound like we’re gross or gruesome but we’re not going to say, ‘Grab the tooth off the window ledge,’ because we don’t know if they’re sitting there with their ear to the bedroom door. So we’ll be quiet, and use body language and signs and stuff like that.”

12. A CLEAN-UP CAN COST $10,000.

Based on region, type of cleanup, and number of techs, the cost to customers varies wildly, from around $1000 to over $10,000. Generally, the more dispersed the fluids and tissue in the home, or the longer the decomp, the more manpower it will take and the longer the job will be—leading to higher costs. (While insurance and victim compensation will cover some of the cost, at least part of the bill still falls to the customers.) Depending on the number and type of jobs undertaken, owners of crime scene cleanup companies can clear hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, in profit every year. Techs themselves can make anywhere from $25 per hour to over $100 per hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual compensation for a hazardous materials removal worker hovers around $41,500, but the top 10 percent earn more than $75,000.

13. THE FACT THAT THEY'RE HELPING PEOPLE MAKES IT WORTHWHILE.

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If there was a common thread in all the conversations we conducted with crime scene cleaners, it was the immense satisfaction they take from their jobs. Despite the smells, the gore, and the grief, these individuals find great reward in the help they’re able to provide to others in their hour of darkness. “When I have a family member who’s just lost a loved one give me that hug—because they could not have done this for themselves—there is no greater satisfaction in my life,” Michel says. “If I were to die tomorrow, that would be one of the greatest things I've ever been a part of. You can't describe in words. The only way I can say is, it's the beat of another human being's heart against yours, thanking you for helping them on the worst day of their lives."

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