Vol. LXI, No. 38
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
(Photo by Linda Arntzenius)
Bill Strong, Book Restorer
Bill Strong describes himself as a “serious volunteer.” He certainly fits the description. In the attic workroom of his home on Maple Street he has all the tools needed to repair books from the third floor children’s section of the Princeton Public Library. He’s been honing his book repair skills for the last twenty years, first in Pennsylvania, where he led a volunteer effort and now in Princeton. Also a veteran community activist, Mr. Strong, together with his wife Nancy (the couple just marked their 50th wedding anniversary), jumped at the chance to buy a home on one of Princeton’s tree streets in 2001. Their daughter Laura and her family lives nearby.
Pinned above his work bench is a quote from woodblock printer Fritz Eichenberg: “The hands, those precious wonderful instruments, ask for some creative occupation.” It’s a sentiment that Mr. Strong applies in the service of the library and one that, as a “fitness nut,” he looks forward to continuing for a long time.
We were the first to see the house and thought it a wonderful location but we didn’t fully appreciate how wonderful it would be living in Princeton. There are classes to audit at the University and Nancy and I are members of the Friends of the Princeton University Library. I attend luncheons at the Latin American Studies program and tutor graduate students from Latin America. I just finished three years with one who is going back to work for the Central Bank of Brazil and I’m looking forward to tutoring a student from Peru, where Nancy and I worked for three years and where our son Tom was born.
As you can see from my front door [where the death toll of soldiers in Iraq is recorded and updated] I am interested in peace and justice. I was also on the board of HiTOPS for five years and I’m a donor to Planned Parenthood. My major occupation was working throughout Latin America and the Caribbean on women’s reproductive rights. I worked for Church World Service [a relief, development, and refugee assistance ministry founded in 1946,] and other organizations. The satisfactions of my work were enormous. When you belong to a board or a committee and sit in a room with 12 other people for two or four hours, sometimes when you walk out the door you have a “what was that all about?” feeling, but when I finish restoring library books that sometimes look as new as when they were acquired, that’s very satisfying.
This is fun. I got started over in Bucks County at the community college when the head of the library introduced volunteer programs. Now I’ve done well over 10,000 books. I am a serious volunteer, not a fair weather activist.
I got some training in book repair program at Johns Hopkins through a National Endowment of the Humanities program. Then I volunteered at the conservation department at the University library every Wednesday for an entire school year. Before I knew it, I was offering adult education courses on the subject. Camini College in South Eastern Pennsylvania offered me a fee to talk to librarians. The demand was so great they had twice as many as they expected. Librarians often get drafted to do repairs even though they may lack the fundamental skills and tools — all the necessary and occasional materials: a variety of weights to hold a book in position (I use an old iron and bricks wrapped in paper and cardboard), buckram for spines, brushes for glueing, scissors and blades for cutting, clamps, and a saddle stapler for certain jobs. Without the right materials at your fingertips, it’s a tedious job, but once you are set up as I am here in my home studio, it becomes a pleasure. I can knock off four books an hour. Even if the library had a space for me, I probably wouldn’t accept it. In a public place people will borrow your tools, so the first thing you need to get is a lock box.
For the Love of Books
Here’s an example of a rare old book — it’s a privilege to have this book in your hand. I always put my initials and the repair date inside the book, so you can see that its been six years since I last worked on this 75-year-old children’s cook book. The paper is deteriorating and the whole book has sprung from its boards. I’ll remove the rusty staples with a spatula and replace them with fewer new staples. I’ll put one-inch invisible book tape over the tears and use a ‘bone’ to smooth the tape firmly in place for the full benefit. An Exacto knife removes the excess tape.
Sometimes an old book will have paper tears on every page and it might take me 15 minutes to complete. In this case, I’m going to use 4-inch tape to cover the boards to prevent further damage. It’s a great little book. It’s had a life of 75 years and now it will have even more. That’s a fun thing to do. This little cook book belongs to my wife, who was cooking with our grandchildren. Cook books get a lot of wear and children’s library books, especially, suffer a lot of rough usage. I’ve even had some with chewing gum. I have a fine blade that does the job every time.
When individual people bring me books to repair, I do it because they are friends or because the book is interesting, especially if it’s a family relic, a cook book or a bible. If they offer me a fee, I suggest a donation to HiTOPS or Planned Parenthood.
Today, I brought two bags with at least 25 books from the library. I’ll do about 20 books a week. I have just passed the 800 mark. The library has given me a card so that I can use the staff/service elevator up to the third floor children’s section. Here’s a library book that needs a plastic cover, one of the simplest and most enjoyable repairs; an easy way to extend the book’s life. Apart from a few paper tears — the most common problem — this book is in perfect shape.
One of the worst repairs I’ve ever come across was a book of poetry in a retirement community in Pennsylvania. The spine had been repaired with the only material at hand: duct tape. When that comes off it takes the whole spine of the book with it. In a case like that, I’ll put a whole new spine on using buckram.
In a public library, this work extends the life of the book for another five, ten, or fifteen years. Here’s a paperback that has been turned into a hardback by adding boards inside the covers. This is really binding, which I don’t generally do. I am a repairer and a restorer. I did, however, work on this 1920 book of poems by Robert Bridges that had been damaged by book mites. Once I made a phase box for a book that needed to be removed from the air. It was a painstaking job for a rare book. Here’s a repair to a Dictionary of American History that I worked on at the University. At a university a book is forever. Princeton University stores them in a warehouse across Route 1 for scholars to come along and find new amazing things from the past.
I love books. After college I felt that one of the things I should do was to read the 100 Greatest Books. In college you are exposed to a lot of reading material but you don’t have the time to really read. So I did a lot of reading and I’ve kept track of the books I’ve read for 55 years since then. When I came home from college, I met Arthur Rushmore who was designing books for Harper & Brothers and had his own printing press, The Golden Hind Press, in Madison, New Jersey. He set the type for all of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems. He was a great friend.
I’m particularly fond of an old book that belonged to one of my ancestors, William L. Strong; an 1804, eight-volume edition of The Spectator Papers. It’s of no great monetary value, but what really matters is that the set has been in the family for 200 years. I’m a bit of a Luddite and I handwrite all my letters. I have no computer and I don’t need one.
I’ve been doing this for 20 years all together. The Princeton Public Library is very appreciative and I’m very comfortable there. The people are just wonderful. I turn in a quarterly report showing the number of books I’ve restored, and the number of hours I’ve worked. Since June of 2003, I’ve restored over 800 books. In the first quarter I did 51 in 16 hours. Three and a half books an hour. Not bad. If you estimate a replacement value of between $10 and $20 per book, that’s a serious contribution.
I like to give my time. I don’t like to waste it. People have suggested that I write my memoirs but there is always more to do and so much good stuff around here that I’m too busy to write. Memoirs can wait until I’m in a wheelchair and even then I’ll still be able to repair books. When you don’t have high expectations for the next years in your life, that’s the time to start writing memoirs.
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