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Bringing books back to life

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Matt Scholtz is doing more than just fixing books, he is conserving them.

It's restoration, preservation, and an attempt to prevent further deterioration.

"I'm not doing, per se, book repair," said Scholtz. "I'm doing book conservation. I want to be able to conserve the book and put it into the condition, roughly, the same as it was when the last person used this without it falling apart. I want to conserve it so that people can use it again."

Scholtz was working on two bibles last week including a Celtic bible of uncertain date with extremely small type and acid-free paper, published some time in the 1800s. And a 200-year-old King James bible, according to an inscription inside was dedicated for a baptism in 1810.

"At some point this was readable. And then it started to fall apart. It must have been used a lot because you can see it's worn. That's how it got damaged. The paper itself is not bad, it's legible although I don't know any Celtic."

Scholtz started his recent book conservation efforts when asked to work on two bibles from St. Paul's United Church. Scholtz was contacted based on his extensive 40-year career as librarian at the Tillsonburg Public Library.

"They figured I must have repaired books, which I did, and I always enjoyed doing it. So I did that and they were very happy with them."

A few weeks ago he was approached by a woman who had a book her mother used to enjoy as a child.

"It wasn't a text book as much as it was a storybook with different stories in it. It was falling apart. She wanted more than to just have the book and say, 'that's my mom's.' She wanted to look at the book the way her mom did. And it was very important to me because I knew the family, I knew the mom."

So Scholtz worked his conservation magic, bringing the book back to the point where it could be opened and read at any time, and it could be shared with her children.

"It was usable again."

Scholtz picks up a hard-cover book on his desk, noting he was inspired by Australian author Geraldine Brooks. People of the Book is the story of a book conservationist in Sarajevo, who is trying to conserve books in a library that was bombed. What intrigued Scholtz was the stories that could be told about minute details during the conservation process - a hair found in the book, a creased page.

"When you conserve a book, you retain all of the history of a book - the history of the people who actually used it - and that's what really fascinated me. To be able to bring a book back to a point where people can see, not just the history of the book but the history of the people who read the book."

As he randomly turns pages in the Celtic bible, he finds a Republic of France stamp.

"Oh, what is that?" he asks, his curiosity piqued. "Why is that there? A page marker? There's a story behind that stamp. I may not know the story, but... I'm going to leave it there. If I was 'repairing' this book, I'd take this stamp out and throw it away because it's not part of the book. But I see the story behind all these pages."

Scholtz can spend hours just repairing pages and his best tool is Filmoplast, a transparent, acid-free mending tape suitable for book repairs and documents. Common everyday adhesive tape, he said, is absolutely not used because it dries up and leaves stains.

"This doesn't dry up, it doesn't split, but the important thing is it's really thin. If it wasn't thin, by the time I was finished it would be twice the thickness it was before. I take a very sharp knife (to separate each page), and each page is dealt with individually. It's expensive, but it's dynamite stuff."

The binding often needs attention, and he can use cheesecloth to reinforce it.

"The spine is still here but I need some way of anchoring these (cover) pieces so they turn."

Although it varies, a typical books can take up to a couple of weeks following the 'stitch in time saves nine' philosophy.

"It's painstaking work because you can't do it all in one shot. You have to do a piece and let it sit for a while. It has to be piecemeal because if not, as soon as you repair 'A' and move on to 'B', then 'A' is falling apart. If you disturb the alignment, pages will stick out. You have to make sure 'A' is good. Basically, it's 'cured.'

"The best books to repair are the ones that are basically intact. Like the bibles at St. Paul's, they were 'together' but had become unhinged. And there were a couple pages that were torn as well."

To bring back books that are virtually unreadable and give them new life, makes Scholtz smile.

"It feels very satistfying. Actually it feels like I am now part of this book."

Scholtz (519-842-5584 usually charges a flat fee for his work.

"It depends on the book. Roughly about $50."

Book storage

When storing books, said Scholtz, store them where you are comfortable.

"That's a basic rule. It's how you avoid stuff like this where the book starts to fall apart. Books want to be where you are. They don't want to be where it's hot and humid, or cold and freezing. That's the simplest way of dealing with it. So the last place to store books is an attic - that will wreck the book faster."

You also want dry storage, he said.

"Water is what kills books."

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