May 26, 2024

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fast! Someone get this doctor book.

fast!  Someone get this doctor book.

Not every workplace has a guillotine. In the book preservation lab below the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the office guillotine might be a water cooler or A filing cabinet for everything that bothers employees. “We have a lot of violent equipment,” said Mendel Dubansky, who heads the Sherman Fairchild Center for Book Conservation.

Creepy machines are part of daily life in the laboratory, which functions as a hospital where diseased books from each section of the museum are restored to health. The laboratory's six employees process 2,500 books each year.

These books arrive daily and are evaluated for treatment by preservation staff. As with anything made from organic materials, books decompose over time. Bonds break, pages tear and crumble, and adhesives stop sticking. The decomposition process can be accelerated by pests, mold, moisture, heat, cold, and simple old use, among countless other factors. Some books are rare and valuable. Others are ordinary – for example, a book of European paintings fell to the floor and suffered a broken spine.

“Unlike the rest of the artwork in this building, our work is handled,” Dubansky said. “We have to interfere as little as possible while maintaining the functionality of the book — and making it seem like we were never there.”

Although the Metropolitan Museum has been conserving books in-house for nearly a century, it did not open its doors until 2011, with the current facility designed in close collaboration with conservation staff. With its antique tools, modern touches and interesting patient sessions, the renovated laboratory exudes mad-scientist charm.

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“For people who love books, entering the lab is like being hit by Cupid's arrow,” Dubansky said. “People walk through that door with stunned expressions on their faces, and they want to devote their entire lives to making sure the books are okay.”

Dubansky has advice for readers who want to keep their own books — whether rare or not — in excellent condition. Light, dust and extreme temperature fluctuations should be avoided. (“Bases and attics are not your friends.”) Don't allow books to lean like the Tower of Pisa. Instead, store them in portrait or landscape mode. Consider placing a mylar dust cover on books that require special protection. As satisfying as it is to “open” a book, don't open a book unless you intend to cause spinal injury.

Of course, books are for reading, not just for reverence. When it comes to bookmarks, Dubansky recommended staying away from notes and paper clips, both of which compromise the integrity of the underlying page. Leather bookmarks, although elegant and seductive, are too acidic for the task. When asked about the practice of kissing dogs, Dubanski raised his eyebrows skyward: “Talk about blatant abuse!”

The safest bookmark is the easiest: a thin scrap of plain old paper.