A new leaf for battered books

One library volunteer has saved about 42,000 volumes over 14 years

August 16, 1999|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Abe Koblin's glue-smeared thumbnail smoothes the Pacific Ocean, scratching past Oahu.

His bespectacled eyes are fixed on the book splayed on the table in front of him. "I do cover up some of the design, but this is what must be sacrificed," the 81-year-old explains. "Day of Infamy," Walter Lord's historical account of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, is in good hands with Koblin, a volunteer at Randallstown Library who has logged 12,000 hours repairing dog-eared, gummed-up and ripped-apart books.

That accomplishment led to recognition recently by members of the Maryland Library Association, who named him "Volunteer of the Year."

"My job is to try to get them back together so they will survive circulation," Koblin says, sounding more like a surgeon than a retired chemist who worked for 30 years at Edgewood Arsenal.

It bothers him that people batter books.

"If they were more considerate, our books would be in better shape, but we have some books that come back with their corners chewed off," Koblin says. "A dog did that."

Koblin doesn't act like a volunteer, says Glennor Shirley, the Randallstown Library branch manager.

"He comes in every day like it is a work day," she says. "He is always there in the morning, you can hear him. Sometimes he will show me a book he has saved. He takes a lot of pride in that."

On the job, Koblin starts the coffee brewing every morning and keeps his inner sanctum in the library basement spotless. Notes posted throughout the room warn visitors not to touch books wet with glue, or borrow tools without returning them.

Amid the broken books, glue pots, magazine reinforcement tape and double-sided binder paper that inhabit his world, Koblin is boss.

With a pair of scissors, he snips a thread of webbing, all that binds the cover of "Day of Infamy" to its spine. With a ruler, Koblin measures the width of the spine. He cuts a matching length of double-sided binder paper and with a paintbrush covers both sides of the paper with glue. When he's finished, text rejoins hardback.

But before the book returns to the shelves, Koblin wipes damp cheesecloth along its fresh seams. He worries about glue globs. He blacks out a name and phone number scribbled inside the front cover with a felt-tipped marker. "Big Nick is not going to be available," he laughs.

Koblin laughs a lot. His sides shake when he recounts how he began repairing books.

He was working the library's front desk more than a decade ago when a woman came in from the rain to return a stack of water-spotted books.

Upset by her carelessness, Koblin teased her that he would have to fine her 10 cents for every wet book. She balked, and complained to his boss.

"The next day, he called me over and said, `Abe, how would you like to learn how to mend books?' " Koblin recalls. "That was my last day at the front desk."

Fourteen years later, Koblin figures he has mended about 42,000 books. Sometimes, he replaces plastic cases for audiotapes and videos, too.

Items to be fixed pile up on a shelf near the door to Koblin's basement lair.

Downstairs, a book's popularity -- measured in inky due-date stamps -- can mean the difference between recirculation and the trash.

"If it's a nice book that children check out, I'll fix it," Koblin explains.

His motto is, "If it's worth reading, it's worth repairing."

Still, on a recent morning, Koblin proclaimed a book called "Curious George at the Ballet" dead on arrival. "It's just too far gone."

It's a different story for the "Day of Infamy," though.

Repaired by loving hands, it's set for reshelving.

Pub Date: 8/16/99

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