Pratt division devoted to repairs BINDING UP WOUNDS OF READER-RAVAGED BOOKS

September 26, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

The Enoch Pratt Free Library's copy of "2,850 House and Garden Plants" only has pictures of 2,847 plants.

A vandal sliced out the other three.

It's Barbara Bennett's job to put them back.

"We have a terrible problem with that kind of stuff," said Ms. Bennett, head of the Pratt's bindery department, the library's surgical unit. "We have to find another copy of the book, photocopy the missing pages, and tip them back in."

Beaten and broken books from the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library and its 28 branches are spared the trash heap thanks to the third-floor bindery at Pratt headquarters on Cathedral Street.

The work saves the Pratt thousands of dollars a year -- a book costing $35 to replace might be repaired for less than $5. It also helps guarantee the availability of books in an age when publishers are printing fewer copies of individual titles.

HTC Ms. Bennett said: "I can get a book that's falling apart in the morning and have it back on the shelf by afternoon."

With a $300,000 annual budget, the nine-person staff replaces missing pages, makes new covers out of book cloth and cardboard and reinforces new paperbacks so they'll stand straight on a shelf. Workers restitch spines, build snug "clamshell" boxes for books too rare or fragile to survive restoration (like "The Last Hours of Sheridan's Calvary" by Henry Edmund Tremain), moisten and flatten wrinkled pages and make binders for periodicals such as the Congressional Record.

In August, some 750 books arrived in baskets for "mending" and were returned to the shelves as good as new -- or nearly so. More than 1,000 paperbacks were reinforced, and 75 other books received the full treatment with new bindings.

To do this work you need patience, good eyes and good hands. To endure the monotony -- brushing page after page with glue, cranking down heavy iron presses onto freshly glued books -- you have to enjoy it, the way some people find contentment wrapping presents.

"It's detail work," said Lucille Smith, a 14-year veteran of the bindery. "You take out staples, reinforce the book, put a new cover on the outside, and restaple it."

Across from her, Linette Harris lays out Japanese tissue paper and traces a new cover onto cinnamon-colored book cloth for a 1957 Harper's edition of Richard Wright's "Native Son."

Now and again, disasters demand the attention of the whole department: Three years ago a leak sprang in the H. L. Mencken room, and dozens of books from the Sage of Baltimore's private library were damaged. A few years before that, moisture and temperature fluctuations in the Pratt's heating and air-conditioning system gave birth to mold that began eating 26,000 books in the stacks.

"It took us six months to clean them," said Ms. Bennett, who can be seen strolling through the Pratt, pulling wounded books from the shelves.

When she came to the bindery in 1980, the work was mostly patch-up stuff, with almost no focus on preservation. But as what amounts to entire libraries slowly turn to dust on shelves around the world, the salvation of books lies in removing acid from their pages.

"Before we weren't using acid-free paper or acid-free adhesive. The books were basically destroying themselves," she said. "We want to save things so they can be used. We're doing most of the basics now, but it's primitive compared to what we could have."

What the Pratt could have -- a state-of-the-art preservation laboratory with fumigation hoods and drying racks and a humidifying chamber; a lab like the one at Cornell University where Ms. Bennett apprenticed in 1990 -- is being sought in a $36 million state grant.

The money would renovate the plumbing, heating and air-conditioning systems at the central library and build an $8 million annex connecting it to the Maryland Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped on Park Avenue.

The annex would provide climate-controlled space for the Pratt's Maryland department, a haven for the Mencken and Poe collections and new space for extensive African-American works, said John Sondheim, chief of the Maryland department and point man on the annex project.

"Other libraries deal more with best sellers, things that get used up and discarded. The Pratt has a collection to protect for future generations," said Maurice J. Travillian, the state librarian.

"We'll build that annex at some point; the only question is when," he added. The General Assembly could approve $1 million in planning money as early as 1996, although construction wouldn't begin until at least 1998.

Even with a new annex, there are so many books to be saved that state-of-the-art technology won't rescue them all.

"We know how to preserve an individual book, but what do you do with a collection the size of Pratt's?" asked Mr. Travillian. "We need to figure out how to de-acidify 5,000 books at a time."

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