NEW YORK—The oldest book that Jeff Peachey has worked on was a papyrus fragment from over 2,000 years ago.
Rather, the papyrus’s glass protection had cracked, so what Peachey needed to do was replace the glass.
“You don’t touch things from year 3[A.D.],” Peachey told NTD with a laugh.
Peachey has been conserving books for over 25 years. Of course, replacing glass is not what he normally does. This was just one of the more interesting projects he has done in his line of work.
When a book falls apart, it is usually because the boards of the book become detached, which is to say, the outside cover of a book becomes detached.
Reattaching the boards is one of the most common treatments Peachey performs and his favorite thing to do. There are close to 50 different ways to perform the task, depending on what the problem is and where the book is from, you will never get bored, he said.
Books and Bikes
Book conservation was not an area of expertise where Peachey thought he would end up. He started as a poet and fell in love with books after putting together a book of poetry for his college project.
He worked his way through high school and college in bicycle shops. He had always been interested in fixing things. For him, book conservation is about preserving the past.
“I’m really interested in seeing those kinds of granular nuts and bolts details about how they use the hammer to back the spine, or somebody had a mistake,” he said with a laugh.
Peachey’s first choice was to make high-end steel-frame bicycles for a living. After moving to New York and having talked to the three people in the world who were still making steel frame bicycles at the time, he realized it wasn’t a good idea.
“They said, ‘I sell one bike a year, don’t do it, this would be the dumbest thing in the world to do.’ And I listened.”
Peachey left the bike shop and began working at Gotham Book Mart to sell books and work on books, which sparked his interest in the craft.
After a full-time job at Columbia University for six years working on their books, Peachey started as an independent book conservator in 1996.
When he cannot find the tools he needs, he uses his mechanical skills to make new tools for conservators.
“It’s kind of a nice change. Because conservation is a lot of tweezers,” Jeff said. “The tool stuff is more grinding outside with a big grinder and sparks.”
“I like old things. And I like them to look old, but just be preserved and function,” he said. “I want to keep all this context to the text.”
The key to book conservation is knowing everything you do needs to be reversible, Peachey said. People often confuse the terms of book conservation, bookbinding, and book restoration. While these can overlap, they are not the same.
“When I’m conserving a book it’s trying to figure out some way to get the book functioning like it used to,” he said. “[With] bookbinding, people make new books; they might do some repair.”
“Restoration involves trying to make something look like it looked like once before.”
There are aesthetic aspects to conservation, but it is primarily about preserving all the physical evidence there is to a book, including evidence of wear and tear—how people used that particular book.
Studying the craftsmanship on such a level, Peachey was amazed by the skill that went into making the aged books. These are skills that have been lost because books are not made like they once were.
“A well-made book can last a very long time, longer than all of us put together,” Peachey said.
Contrast that to the technology most of us keep in our pockets, and how quickly that becomes obsolete.
“I found this [phone] to be two years old, I was like, ‘Okay, it’s time for a new one,'” he said jokingly.
An old, well-made, book holds its characteristics and the skills of the person who made it. Even though digital things are popular now, Peachey says that in the future, people will start to appreciate books for what they are once again.
“People are going to rediscover what a wonderful thing a book is, as compared to reading digitally or some other way,” he said with confidence. “So I think it will come back at some point.”