The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Library has 3.4 million books at its two campus locations, Hamilton and Sinclair Libraries. And if library books could talk, oh the stories they could tell.

“Well, we have a lot of books that come in that people use as coasters, or they put it into the car and they spill chocolate and food and drinks on them, so they come back really messed up,” said Deborah Dunn, who runs the UH Mānoa Library Book Preservation Lab.

people fixing books

Staff and student workers from the UH Mānoa Library’s book preservation lab restore and return damage books back into circulation.

The damaged books—an average of more than 2,000 a year—are restored and returned to circulation thanks to a small and dedicated group of staff and student workers from the library’s book preservation lab.

“They have their wear and tear,” said Dunn. “So they send them up here so we go about analyzing how we can strengthen them.”

Most of the wear and tear is from being borrowed over and over again, year after year. More than half of the damaged books are sent to a professional bindery to be re-cased. But many of the older books are tattered and torn and require specialized treatment.

“If we can resurrect it, we will,” said Dunn. “Some of the things we do is re-case it, or put in new end sheets, clean it, we do a dry cleaning.”

“We do mending for torn pages, hinge tightening if the spine is kind of loose,” said Jasmine Pang, a student assistant in the preservation lab.

The book preservation team uses an assortment of tools, including scalpels—where a steady hand is a must—erasers and a lot of glue. The process usually takes days because the repairs have to set before the staff can move on to the next stage.

“I love doing this,” said Mary Joy Llaguno, who also works in the preservation lab as a student assistant. “I love handling books. I love them. It’s like arts and crafts. You get to cut things.”

When books are really old and or very damaged, enclosures are built to protect and preserve them until there is time to work on them more intensely. The focus is always on getting the most popular books back on the library shelves as quickly as possible, which has been done successfully for thousands of titles over the years.

“It’s a nice feeling to know that you have the ability to fix a book and then make it easier for the person to use,” said Pang.

“There is a huge satisfaction in returning them once they’re fixed,” said Dunn. “So it is very rewarding, book by book.”

“Hopefully our children can handle them too,” said Llaguno. “And read them, physically read them.”