The Colgate Scene
September 2001

The book carpenter

"It's really a cross between sewing and carpentry," says Merle Cassel von Wettberg '73, Colgate's library conservation technician, as she peels a loose hard cover from an old book in her airy lab on the ground floor of Case Library. "My husband (Norman von Wettberg '69) is a builder, and he calls me a book carpenter."

Stripping off flyaway threads from the broken spine, von Wettberg prepares to create a new cover, known as a recasing -- one of the many processes in her repertoire.

Established in the mid-1980s, the library's conservation lab operates on a use-driven basis. When a patron returns an item, a circulation staff member determines its condition and, if necessary, passes it to von Wettberg for repair. Books get recased, rebacked, stiffened, reglued. There are spines to replace, torn pages to be taped, loose signatures to be tipped in.

Her neat, orderly space features a mix of old and modern equipment. An iron and wood Jacques board shears, with its massive four-foot blade, hunkers near an electric machine that will trim a two-inch volume in a single chomp. Handmade wood and factory binding presses sit on countertops and wheeled carts. A speckled green Corian-topped worktable runs the length of the room. Along the walls, wooden cubbies house stacks of precut cloth spines and paper. Huge bolts of library buckram and C cloth in magenta, teal, blue and purple hang horizontally on racks. Storage cabinets, a fridge to preserve glues and a sink for cleanup line the kitchenette.

After gluing new end sheets to the front and back of the naked book with a cloth spine strip (all of the materials she uses are non-toxic and acid free), von Wettberg moves to the board shears and slices off two pieces of hardcover material, called Davey board. Selecting a blue C cloth, she cuts a piece slightly larger than the footprint of the book as it lies open, and begins measuring and marking.

Merle first came to Colgate after meeting Norman, when she was an undergrad unhappy at Tulane and he was in grad school there. She transferred, majored in education and sociology and, after graduating, took courses to complete her certification.

"But after doing student teaching and subbing, I decided it wasn't for me. After we married in 1974, we ended up back in Hamilton."

In 1981, von Wettberg began working at Colgate part-time in the library's circulation department. After several years, she became the assistant in Special Collections. Her move into conservation work was gradual, as Colgate's program evolved under the direction of then-department head Melissa McAfee.

"In a college library, every volume is selected because it contributes to the curriculum or research," von Wettberg explains. "When something is damaged, it is important for it to be replaced or repaired, and because many items are out of print, replacement can be difficult and expensive. An in-house lab can repair and often prevent the damage caused by normal use and aging, saving the institution replacement costs and enriching the collection as a whole."

Von Wettberg trained with McAfee as well as John Dean, head of the program at Cornell, and Peter Jerman at St. Bonaventure, who invented and built several of the presses she uses today. Grants from the Culpepper and Mellon foundations helped expand and furnish the lab. Currently, von Wettberg reports to Carl Peterson, who's been head of Special Collections since 1993.

Cutting off the cloth's corners diagonally to create a miter and using a round brush to spread glue evenly over the surface, von Wettberg presses the Davey board into place and turns the excess fabric over the edges to the inside, using a bone folder to rub out air bubbles and crease the edges. When she glues the book into the cover, the end sheets disguise the rough seams. Looking like new, the book will sit under a weight until the glue sets.

Over the years, von Wettberg has adapted certain procedures into her own techniques; that freedom to innovate is one of her favorite parts of the job. She has invented her own method for stiffening new paperbacks (and used ones in decent condition) that more than doubles both shelf life and borrowing life and makes them easier to use.

"I glue on a new end sheet, because you always lose your first and last pages and then the book falls apart. Then I glue Davey board between the end sheet and the original cover." After drying overnight, the edges get trimmed smooth the next day, and the once-flimsy paperback has the near-heft of a hardcover. "Judy Noyes, the university librarian, is always saying, `you should get this patented!' I don't know, but I'm sure no one else in the world does it exactly the same way, because I actively experimented to figure it out," von Wettberg says humbly.

Noyes herself remarks that "Merle has become a great resource for other libraries in the region, serving on the Central New York Library Resources Council Preservation Committee, responding to calls for advice and providing training."

Preserving brittle books is another major focus. "We have an amazing collection of older books still circulating," von Wettberg remarks. "Sometimes Colgate has one of the best copies that remains, and they are important research tools. Value in rare old books is determined by original condition, so even if a valuable book is in bad shape, you don't want to mess with it. Also, it's not efficient to try to fix them, because they crumble, so what we do is make boxes for them to prolong their life spans." Called marginal materials cases, these boxes are constructed of two long rectangular sheets of map folder stock, criss-crossed in the center, folded around the book, and secured with mesh tapes that weave the pieces together and then tie around the entire structure. Fancier, custom-sized clamshell boxes out of Davey board encased in library buckram are built to hold rare books and other valuable materials -- another favorite part of her job.

A number of students work for von Wettberg each year. "I find my math and science people like to make the boxes because they have to deal with measuring. My humanities people like to do other things, like recasing.

"I love to work with the students," she remarks. "They keep me up to date on what's going on in the world and at Colgate. When they say, `I don't know what I'm going to do with my life,' I tell them I had never heard of book conservation when I was an undergrad. Things find you."

Special projects, such as mounting, matting and labels for Special Collections exhibitions, or preserving government documents, get dovetailed into the ongoing book repairs. A recent project involved creating protective covers, called encapsulations, for a group of about 200 drawings done by the father of Professor of Music Joscelyn Godwin, who donated them to the library.

"This is what we do with flat paper materials that we want people to be able to look at and handle," von Wettberg explains as she demonstrates a remarkable machine fondly dubbed `Sonic the Hedgehog' (after the cartoon character) by one of her students. The sonic welder uses sound waves to seal rectangular sheets of clear archival plastic together along adjacent edges, creating an "L-velope" that leaves the other two sides open for easy removal of the material.

Von Wettberg keeps meticulous statistics of her department's activities. Her annual report reveals that more than 6,200 items received care and feeding in the book conservation lab last year, from book recasings (1,185), paperback covers (1,645) and encapsulations (1,369) to more unusual entries like "Wet books" (27), "Dogs" (5) and "Vandals" (0).

"When I worked in circulation, it bothered me to see materials falling apart. Now I get to fix the problems. It's very satisfying to be able to fix the `broke' ones."

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