In the digital age, rare books Conservator Mark Esser repairs and maintains centuries-old volumes

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

As conservator of rare books at the John J. Burns Library, Mark Esser feels a special kinship with his grandfather, a shoemaker with whom Esser often worked while growing up outside Chicago.

"I respected his talent as a craftsman," Esser recalled. "He seemed happier at his job than most other people."

The cobbler's grandson today draws a similar joy from his vocation.

"It's very satisfying," he said, thumbing a centuries-old volume freshly restored in his Burns basement shop. "When done properly, a book has almost an organic feel to it. The cover and the pages become integrated in a unit that moves as one."

His job at Burns includes mounting exhibits, maintaining disaster-preparedness plans for protecting the library's rare books against flood or fire, and - in something of a departure for an artisan devoted to the printed word - assisting on the library's World Wide Web page.

Cyberspace has its advantages, Esser said, but for him, the laptop will never replace a finely-bound book.
Mark Esser uses a loom-like machine to rebind a rare book.

"With something like this," he said, flipping the pages of a leather-bound edition of the Sermons of St. Vincent printed in 1490, "there are the textures, even the smell. You can feel the type pressed into the pages, hear the turn of the pages and the texture and rattle of the paper.

"You probably would never get any of this in a digital format. You'd get the information in a convenient fashion, but never the aesthetic elements together."

Awaiting Esser's attention one recent morning were varied projects. An archive photo of the 1916 BC football team with slight water damage was in need of a protective folder. Diplomas from the collection of the late University Historian Charles Donovan, SJ, awaited treatment in a humidifier before being unrolled and stored flat. An 1896 edition of the Catholic Dictionary and Encyclopedia of Religious Information had come loose from its cover and needed re-backing.

One particularly detailed project involved the restoration of an incunabulum , a book produced at the dawn of printing in the late 15th century.

This particular edition of Sermones Sancti Wincentii , or the Sermons of St. Vincent , was missing its original cover and needed a new binding as well as a thorough conservation treatment to clean and preserve its 500-year-old pages.

Esser had immersed the book's 136 pages in de-ionized water to wash out stains, then bathed them in a protective chemical solution.

The inner folds of the pages had been mended with Japanese tissue and wheat-starch paste. The pages were then to be re-sewn into a binding similar to what the book would have had in the 15th century.

On this morning, Esser was using Irish-made linen cord and sewing thread and a heavy needle to sew 16-page sections of the book together on a loom-like sewing frame, an ancient piece of equipment seen in illustrations from the 11th century.

He estimated the sewing would take perhaps two hours. Finally the book would be laced into a new cover of binding board and leather, the ends of the sewing cord sealed under the decorative raised vertebrae of the spine.

Awaiting similar re-sewing in the shop recently was another incunabulum , a 1481 edition of Pliny's Natural History that Esser describes as a "treasure" because it contains margin jottings by Giorgio Vespucci, the uncle and tutor of the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci.

"What I do is obsolete, in a way, since bookbinding became entirely mechanized in the early 20th century," said Esser.

But Esser's skills will be in demand as long as there are antiquarian books that can't be re-bound by a machine, and as long as there remains an appreciation for fine craftsmanship, like the green quarter-leather "clamshell box" with an inner portfolio and drawer he fashioned to hold an 1886 first edition of W.B. Yeats' poem "Mosada."

"The place of the hand-bookbinder is similar to the place of the cabinetmaker," said Esser.

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