janette heffernan/disasters/brittle books

Brittle Book Syndrome


The Death of the Library Book


by Janette Heffernan


'Brittle Book Syndrome' three words that should strike fear into every book lover everywhere and yet few have even heard of 'Brittle Books' or realize what it means. After global warming 'Brittle Books' is probably the next disaster that will hit civilization. Unless steps are taken to overcome this syndrome it will mean the death of libraries and books as we have known them for centuries. The world's books are turning to dust before our eyes.


Already 'Brittle Book' Syndrome has meant the total demise of the craft of bookbinding. Twenty years ago technical colleges all over the world stopped teaching this as a mainstream subject, no full apprentices were trained. Because of 'perfect binding‘Libraries closed their binderies and no longer repaired books and consequently twenty years on there are virtually no more traditional bookbinders. Not even enough to repair valuable books which are now stored in archival boxes as only a few specialists have enough knowledge to restore them to original condition.


One only has to glance at YouTube or buy or borrow a book to see the simple binding errors that are turning up because printers no longer know about simple things like the mesh. How to bind so a book lies flat so photographers are not left with a production run that is virtually useless all because the printer did not know and there were no trained binders to advise. 'Rounding and backing' a book seems to be a lost art for without proper backing a book will fall to pieces in a comparatively short space of time.


I realized this first in 1993 when at the age of 45 I found I had a bookcase of books falling to pieces. The cost to have them bound was prohibitive so I went on one of the last bookbinding courses run by the Auckland Technical College. All follow up courses were cancelled and I had to teach myself from a book.


It was hopeless! Trying to teach yourself how to bind in full leather book from a text book was next to impossible and considering the difficulty I did quite a good job now I know I did everything wrong! I was awful! I needed someone to show me!

In 2002 I had the good fortune to go to work for one of the last fully apprenticed bookbinders still working at his craft. Peter Goodwin trained in Nottingham just after World War II. It did not take long to see I was in the presence of a master craftsman who knew his trade backwards. 64 years experience and it looked like it.


Knowing that I was in the company of a true artist I decided to film Goodwin repairing a family bible and I edited it up for my own enjoyment and then it struck me that others might like to see how a traditional book was bound. I was fortunate that Peter Goodwin is not only a superb bookbinder but a natural TV presenter and the hour's DVD passes in an instant. It is a privilege to watch a master craftsman at work.


Little did I realize that as I filmed really for my own use that I was filming perhaps the last master fully apprenticed bookbinder for posterity and these programs will be all that is left of a master craft because bookbinding does not feature in the marketing plan of commercial broadcasters. Too specialized and too expensive and not of great appeal to the 29 year old male.


Whiles I was producing the first four programs I was totally unaware of the 'Brittle Books Syndrome' it was only when I came to sell my DVD's and received my first order that I found out and then only in a round about way. My first big order was cancelled and when I rang to find out why the very charming and helpful librarian told me that rare books were no longer restored. They were now just placed in archival boxes and he could not justify morally DVD’s that taught or encouraged book restoration even by a craftsman. The librarian pointed out that now libraries no longer had binderies or bookbinders.


I was shattered. It seemed all my years of work had gone for nothing. Obviously rare books require a master craftsman but I knew rare books were still being restored. The Doomsday Book had had four re-bindings and one important library was crowing about the newly restored books of Chauser. I knew to that Google was busily scanning the books of the world's most prestigious libraries to the annoyance of the major publishing houses who were intent on stopping it but the penny still had not dropped.


Then I discovered Brittle Book Syndrome. It did not take long. One Google search and I had all the answers. Any book printed after 1830 has a 70% chance of turning to dust within a comparatively short space of time and books printed in the 1960's and 1970's are in the greatest danger of disintegration.


As I read I began to comprehend just what an enormous world problem this is. The world's store of knowledge, was turning to dust. One has to congratulate Google Library Project and the world's major libraries for making a start on saving the books but however exemplary the action it is not the complete answer as digital technology is still unproved in this area. You need a power source and a data reader whereas a good old fashioned book is there on the shelf.


Books are not restored today because what is the use of restoring something that is going to disintegrate anyway. Old books are just put into archival boxes and left to decay. The few binders that are left work on the most precious books printed before 1830 as the linen pulped paper is as good now as it was then. The paper of the First Four Folios of Shakespeare is still as fresh as the day it was printed it is only the leather cover that has perished.

So now I knew. It really does not matter what anyone does to a book printed after 1830 it is going to perish. Must say it made me as an amateur binder feel less guilty about some of the books I had ruined on they way to proficiency. It did not matter asthey were under sentence of death anyway. If anything I had helped them last a little longer.


I had just finished binding the seven first editions of Harry Potter and when I looked I saw to my horror that they were all turning pink. The acid had started to eat into the paper. I made a metal note to never spend hours restoring a book printed after 1830!


The USA is planning a law that will only allow books to be printed on acid free paper. This too although greatly to their credit will not stop the problem as acid free paper has problems of its own. If you look on the acknowledgments page on any recently printed book you can look for the logo which looks like a sideway 8 between two lines. This still does not ensure your new book will last as is has possibly been printed on paper with the mesh running the wrong way and only lumbecked/glued together instead of being sewn, guillotined
and rounded and backed.


My order was restored and the library did Peter and I proud with an official 'launch'.

What surprises me is that Brittle Books is kept such a secret. It is so devastating that personally I feel that everyone should be aware of just how serious this is. Not only libraries but anyone who collects first editions is likely to see their investment disintegrate before their eyes in their lifetime. Newspapers are stored on Micro Fiche which has a good shelf life and the early expensive postage stamps were fortunately printed on linen paper but the animal gum will eat them in the end unless removed.


After you have read this article just take a look at the books on your bookshelf and see how many are turning pink. It will horrify you as it did me. Virtually every book has a nasty pink tinge,

Soon not only bookbinders but libraries and librarians will be obsolete too as the 'Brittle Book' acid slowly eats away at the stacks of library books. Reprinting all the world's books will not be possible and Google's digitized books will be all that is left unless steps are taken now to see that this does not happen.


The world needs libraries and books, binderies and bookbinders and DVD's showing how traditional binding has been done over the centuries so books will last on the shelves. Perfect binding is not the long-term answer. Nowadays if you want a book properly bound so it will last the only way will be to do it yourself.

I have. The books on my shelves look wonderful. I just love the look and feel of a leather bound book. I could never afford to have had this done but I am so pleased that in 1990 I decided to find out what went on under the covers!

The Bookbinding with Peter Godwin DVD series can be purchased from CreateSpace.com which is a subsidiary of amazon.com. CreateSpace.com is a highly reputable distribution house in fact the best so customers have nothing to fear. The DVDs are fully guaranteed and of the highest quality The library license allows for 'fair use' . At US$34.95 DVD they are wonderful social history value as well as an enjoyable watch.

The Leather Book can be download to watch from Amazon.comh for about US$4.

DVD Titles/library licence



Available from CreateSpace.com a subsidiary of Amazon.com

for individual use.



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