Friday, April 29, 2011

“Old family bible”

As I tweeted earlier today, 3 of the most challenging words for this book conservator to hear are “old family bible”. It’s not that I don’t like to hear them, although the truth is I probably don’t, but I find it a challenge to adequately respond to those words.

When people ask what I do and if I feel the need to go beyond “I’m a librarian” I usually add a line about conservation, or fixing old books and maps, or something like that, because I know that usually engages or impresses people. (I seldom reply that I catalog and archive electronic government documents, or manage interlibrary loan – both of which are true, or were, but mentioning them also tends to elicit blank stares.)

The challenge/opportunity when people start knowing you as the book repair guy, is they start telling you about, or bringing to you, their books. (It seems everyone has books, and nearly everyone has old books.) It’s not uncommon for my work phone to ring with one of my colleagues on the other end saying, “There is someone here at the reference desk, or on the line, who would like to talk to you.” I agree, because I’m a nice guy, and then the next sentence I hear begins “I have this…” which I complete in my head, with a groan, “old family bible.” I guess I’m right 75% of the time.

The “old family bible” may be the most ubiquitous object in the United States. Most of the ones I encounter are the late 19th century behemoths. They are large, they are elaborately decorated, they are impressive, and they are, well, everywhere. (Oh, and the boards are always detached.)

I sometimes ponder people’s relationships with these books. It seems these books often come out of a recently deceased grandmother’s house, often stored in a garbage bag, and people seem to assign to them an intriguing value. They have sentimental value but not a lot. (They are not on the top 10 list of things to pull out of a burning house.) They are so large, and ornate, and unlike modern books that people presume they must be of monetary value. (They are usually of insignificant financial value. Here’s a good column about the cash value of these books. )

So, when I get approached by someone with one of these books I am challenged with a variety of responses. Inwardly I do groan, but I also remember the fascination I felt when I first encountered one of these bibles – they are impressive – and I try to express some sympathy for their enthusiasm. I talk a bit about the history of these bibles – how they were often sold by traveling salesmen and you could purchase additional features like sheets for genealogical records, etc. I try to talk gently but realistically about their preservation challenges with the old leather and the heavy weight. Then, my usual response is twofold: it would be best kept in a box, or at least wrapped in acid free paper; and the most personally significant part of the bible is probably any pages that record family names, dates, etc, and I suggest making and mounting good color copies of these pages. I also give them a couple handouts with information, the AIC “How To Protect Your Books” handout, and a sheet I’ve created with suggested websites, suppliers, books, and a list of Michigan binders & conservators. People are usually happy with this response – I think many are happy just to have someone pay attention to their family memorabilia. And, I’m glad when my conversation about another “old family bible” is complete and hope the next conversation doesn’t come too soon.

(Picture of bible from Wonderlane.)


  1. Kevin, while I appreciate your job and its responsibilities, not all of us sigh when first hearing someone has a "Family Bible" in need of repair.

    Thank you for giving the caller a list of those who may be able to help. As a hand bookbinder, I really enjoy hearing "all the dirt" about their relations and also helping them with the many clues found in their Bible about their personal history. I could publish a book on all the things I have found in these old relics... what fun.

    Anyway, I appreciate your perspective and love my job!


  2. Good job Max. Kevin the Word of God is always valuable.