11 Secrets of Book Conservators

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Books might contain timeless wisdom, but the objects themselves aren’t immortal. In addition to normal wear and tear, they can succumb to mold, pests, environmental hazards, and other threats if not stored and handled properly. Book conservators are the people who help repair this damage, preserving and protecting books for future readers. We spoke with a few of these experts to learn more about the job, from their favorite projects to the surprising utility of commercial freezers.

1. THERE'S NO SINGLE PATH INTO THE FIELD.

According to Mindell Dubansky, head of book conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, becoming a book conservator requires an intensive mixture of hands-on and academic experience. "It's very challenging because there aren’t that many formal educational opportunities," she says, "and [the route] is not that straightforward."

People may get into book conservation through bench training (i.e. learning on the job as a lab technician), working in a commercial bookbindery, taking bookbinding classes, earning a degree from a handful of specialized trade schools, or going through a book arts, material culture, or library science master’s program. But Dubansky says that where you study—and the collections you have at your disposal—will shape your skill set and determine the course of your career. She herself received an undergraduate arts degree from Carnegie Mellon before studying bookbinding and restoration at what's now London's Camberwell College of Arts. She later earned her master's in library science and a certificate in library preservation from Columbia University. Today at the Met, she works on a collection that includes everything from artists' sketchbooks to Beethoven's funeral invitations.

2. THEY NEED TO BE GOOD WITH THEIR HANDS.

Loving books is great, Dubansky says, but it's no substitute for fine motor skills: Conservators spend lots of time sewing, measuring, gluing, rebinding, handling sharp objects like knives, and treating books with chemicals. She recommends that aspiring book conservators take basic bookbinding classes before deciding whether to pursue a career in the field. The experience should let them know whether they enjoy working with their hands, something they'll be doing frequently once they become full-fledged professionals.

"The process [of bookbinding] is simple but requires great accuracy," Dubansky says. That accuracy becomes even more important when you transition from a bookbinding class to on-the-job conservation.

3. OLD BOOKS CAN BE EASIER TO RESTORE THAN NEW BOOKS.

You might think that centuries-old books are always more fragile than newer works. But Katie Wagner, a rare book conservator for the Smithsonian Libraries, says that's not always the case: "We have books from our collection that are hundreds of years old, and that paper is in better shape than modern paper. That’s because the process of making paper from cotton and linen changed around 1840. They started incorporating wood pulp and they weren’t de-acidifying it first." When paper becomes too acidic, it degrades and turns hard.

As a result, even well-made books from the late 19th century onward can be brittle to the touch. "If a book is pre-1840, it's often easier to restore than a book from 1940," Wagner says.

4. THE MAIN TOOLS OF THE TRADE HAVEN’T CHANGED FOR CENTURIES.

“If a bookbinder from the 19th century walked into our room [at the Met], they would feel very much at home,” Dubansky says. Book conservators have used the same equipment for hundreds of years, from basic hand tools like bone folders (used to make sharp creases in paper and other materials) to thread and needles used to re-sew tattered tomes.

Changing technologies have added new techniques to the mix, of course, “but day to day, it’s the basic tools that we probably use the most,” Wagner says.

5. SOME CONSERVATION TECHNIQUES ARE SURPRISINGLY BASIC.

Even schoolroom supplies can find new life in a conservation department. Take, for example, the humble eraser. Victorian-era volumes sometimes have sooty pages if they were housed near coal-burning furnaces, and according to Wagner, erasers can remove this residue. But since the pressure of a regular eraser’s point can cause streaks and lines to form on the page, bookbinding supply companies sell ground-up eraser crumbs, which conservators sprinkle onto pages and then rub in circles. Once the white eraser crumbs have turned black, they’re carefully brushed from the page, and new layers of crumbs are applied until the stains have faded. (Not all conservationists opt for erasers, though; some prefer to use small rubber sponges called soot sponges.)

Another conservation technique involves an appliance you might not expect: When conservators spot mold growing on a book, they stick the volume inside a commercial freezer, which Wagner says inhibits growth.

6. EVERY DAY ON THE JOB IS DIFFERENT …

No two books (or their materials) are exactly alike, which keeps the job fresh and interesting. "I'm always getting something new to treat," Wagner says. Books from different eras and places vary in their materials and construction, as well as in the kinds of traumas they've experienced, whether it's water or insect damage or mold exposure. Amateur fixes from prior owners—a taped page, for example—can inflict their own kind of damage.

Repairs can include re-backing books, patching tiny holes and tatters with Japanese paper (it's thin and strong), humidifying paper to separate stuck pages, and deciding which methods of treating stains work best with the book's ink and materials. Some books might be good candidates for washing using de-ionized water—which can remove dirt and debris—although this method isn't conservators' first line of treatment, since it changes the structure of paper.

"You have to look at each object as its own entity and decide what’s best for it," Wagner says.

7. ... BUT LIKE ALL JOBS, THERE ARE DULL MOMENTS.

When they’re not repairing old tomes, book conservators can sometimes be found tackling paperwork of a different sort. “For every rare book I treat, I have to write a condition report,” Wagner says. “When that book comes in I have to photograph it, and I have to note its size, its condition, how it’s bound, and the problems it’s having. That can be time-consuming."

8. THE BEST CONSERVATION JOBS ARE INVISIBLE.

A conservator’s job typically isn’t to make an old book look like new again (unless it’s, say, going on display in a period room), but to make it readable using as little work as possible. “I’m not going to rebind a book because it’s old and beat-up,” Dubansky says. “I treasure the fact that it’s old and beat-up. What I’m going to try to do is repair all the parts that are vulnerable to make it functional.”

9. THEY OFTEN FREELANCE.

Book conservators can be found working at bookbinderies, museums, college and university libraries, public libraries, and other types of institutions. Some, however, also tackle freelance projects on the side, working with clients to restore items like tattered family Bibles, old journals, and heirloom books. Many conservators are also self-employed: Instead of working a 9-to-5 at a single institution, they'll work part-time or with institutions or private individuals on a project-by-project basis.

10. DIGITIZATION HELPS SAVE OLD BOOKS.

Some books are beyond repair, like when they're "so brittle that they're breaking to the touch," Wagner says. In that case, the book may be a good candidate for digitization, since at least then the subject matter will be available to researchers. Conservators will use special copiers or take individual photos of each page ("very, very carefully") to immortalize the words without harming the book itself.

11. THEY SOMETIMES GET TO WORK ON HISTORY-CHANGING DOCUMENTS.

In 2013, a life-changing first edition passed through Wagner's hands: Edward Jenner’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae (1798), which details the English physician's work with what would ultimately become the smallpox vaccine. "That was amazing because he’s the father of immunology," Wagner says.

While rare and influential, the book itself wasn't in great condition. Its inside pages were covered in mold, and its stitching had unraveled so that sections were detached from the binding, among other damage. The first thing Wagner did to treat the book was to stick it into the freezer to blast its mold. Then, after dry cleaning it with a brush, she dismantled the book's text block (a.k.a. the "block" formed by a book's cut and stacked pages), washed individual pages in de-ionized water, and humidified and dried the color plates. Wagner then patched holes from mold growth with Japanese paper before re-sewing them together and re-casing them in their original binding.

Wagner says she still remembers the project because of the amount of labor that went into it—and the importance of the book in medical history, now preserved for future generations to enjoy.

14 Secrets of Food Sample Demonstrators

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Ever turn a corner in your local grocery store or warehouse club and see the aisle backed up? You might be able to blame a food sample demonstrator, those stationary sales representatives who invite congestion in stores by offering up free bites of food products in an effort to raise sales. (The strategy works—one study found that samples can increase sales by as much as 2000 percent.)

The task might look easy, but it isn’t. Sample demonstrators have to endure annoyed customers who can’t navigate aisles due to the traffic, unattended kids, and more—all while adhering to food safety regulations. To get a better perspective on the job, Mental Floss spoke with two former demonstrators. Here’s what we found out about life in the apron.

1. THEY’RE USUALLY NOT EMPLOYED BY THE STORE.

Food demonstrators are often mistaken for store employees, but they're usually not. The people working behind sample trays at Costco, for example, are often employed by Club Demonstration Services (CDS), a separate entity that hires sample representatives to present products endorsed by Costco and usually backed by the product manufacturer. (Companies can send their own reps out, too.) “CDS might have an office set up in the back of the store,” says Jim, a former food sample demonstrator for Costco locations in California. “We’d sign in, go through the warehouse, and get a quick brief on the product we were demonstrating.”

Though CDS is owned by Costco, CDS employees aren’t technically store employees, and don’t migrate to other work areas. But because customers figure the demonstrators work for the warehouse, they’re often asked for directions. “People just assume you know where stuff is,” Jim says. “I usually told them to find someone in a red vest.”

2. THEY CAN SPEND HALF THEIR SHIFT PREPPING.

A man mixes ingredients in a bowl
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It may seem like a sample demonstrator is burning calories at the rate of a Queen's Guard, but they're usually very busy during the course of a six- or eight-hour shift. Food prep—including mixing ingredients for things like chicken salad or cooking steak strips—can take up as much as half of their time. It’s worth it, as cooked food has a huge advantage over ready-to-eat samples like chips. “There’s a kind of anticipation you build up when cooking something like steak,” Jim says. “It could take a few minutes or 45 minutes, and people are standing there asking when it will be ready.”

3. THEY NEED TO STAY WITHIN A 12-FOOT RADIUS OF THE CART.

Food sample demonstrators may sometimes work in a massive warehouse, but they don’t have the run of the property. Once they’ve settled into their work area—typically near where the product they’re demonstrating is stocked or wherever there’s free space in the building—they’re expected to never be more than 12 feet away from the cart. “The 12-foot radius has to do with the fact that you’re responsible for maintaining your station and keeping customers safe,” says Skyler, a former demonstrator for Costco. “If a kid sees an unattended station with a hot grill running and grabs a sample off of it and burns themselves, it’s a liability.” Demonstrators also need to make sure no one is grabbing a sample and then putting it back, which would be a gross (literally) violation of food handling safety. Once you touch it, it goes either in your mouth or in the garbage.

4. THEY FOLLOW AN ACRONYM FOR SALES SUCCESS.

Vice-president Joe Biden greets food sample servers at a Costco
Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

Food sample pushers don’t work on commission, but they can get bonuses if they sell through their inventory, so it benefits them to make sure people are consuming what they’re offering. One method for enticing customers is what Jim describes as a corporate acronym called SITGA. “It stands for Smile, Invite, Talk, Give Sample, and Ask,” he says. Demonstrators are also free to come up with their own strategy. “I liked to rhyme, like ‘come on by, give it a try,’ that sort of thing.”

5. THEY HAVE TRICKS FOR STAVING OFF BOREDOM.

Speaking with the Yes and Yes blog, Sam's Club food demo specialist Jan said that the hours spent sporadically interacting with customers can require demonstrators to make up their own fun. "I deal with the boredom in several ways. I practice standing on one foot and count the seconds before I lose my balance ... I count and rearrange samples. I reorganize the equipment under my cart. I alphabetize equipment. I grab items off the shelves and read the ingredient and nutrition labels, read slogans on T-shirts, or I try to engage customers in conversation."

6. THEY GET TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME RESPONSES.

A man in an apron looks tired
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Sometimes it's hard to tell what's worse—going for long stretches without customers, or hearing the canned answers they love to give over and over (and over) again. "Customers make stock remarks about certain foods," Jan said. "If you serve sausage, they ask, 'Where are the pancakes?' If you serve a cold drink, they say it would be better with vodka. Coffee samples inevitably get, 'Now I need a donut.'"

7. THEY HAVE TO DEAL WITH “SAMPLE NINJAS” ...

There’s usually no cap on the number of samples a customer can grab from a cart. Still, people can feel a degree of embarrassment going back for seconds—or thirds—and sometimes try to sneak a taste without being seen. Skyler calls these people “sample ninjas” for their attempts to go undetected. “People love free food,” he says. “They don’t want to be seen as freeloaders, they don’t want to hear a sales pitch, they just want snacks.”

8. ... BUT THAT SHAME CAN WORK IN THE STORE’S FAVOR.

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When people are so addicted to a food sample they keep going back for more, they might opt to just buy the product rather than risk being perceived as a greedy shopper. “There have been cases where I’ve been shopping at Costco myself and went and bought something because my overwhelming shame kept me from grabbing a fifth sample,” Skyler says. “The system works.”

9. THEY HAVE A HEIGHT POLICY.

Kids represent a dilemma for demonstrators. If they’re unaccompanied by a parent, it can be potentially problematic to offer up a baked good or other food that could contain an allergen. Fortunately, most kids are aware of their food sensitivities. According to Jim, the unofficial rule of thumb is to give out samples to unattended children if they’re tall enough to see what’s on the cart. “We can’t really determine the age of a kid just by looking,” he says. “They just need to be tall enough to see the sample and discern what it is.”

10. THEY HAVE REGULARS.

Food samples are set out on a tray
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Many Costco demonstrators stick to one store or district, making them a familiar face for people who shop there frequently. “There were definitely regulars,” Skyler says. “I would see old teachers from school, old friends, new friends, and regulars who would know my sales pitch and always play along—for more free samples, obviously.” Others were memorable for other reasons. “I was making cookies once and a woman grabbed the raw cookie dough and yelled at me because it was not cooked.”

11. THEY DEMO NON-EDIBLE PRODUCTS, TOO.

While Jim estimates that 90 percent of his time was spent demonstrating food, CDS also handles accounts for a variety of indigestible products, like Ziploc bags. “I’ve done dish soap and laundry soap, which is hard to demonstrate on the floor,” he says. “You have to give someone a sample and hope they try it and then come back.” Another time, Costco charged him with selling prefabricated outdoor tool sheds. “No one is buying a $3000 shed on the spot. They take a flyer. We didn’t get a sale the entire week.”

12. THEY HAVE A PLAN TO MAKE SURE NO FOOD GOES TO WASTE.

Food sits in a trash can
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Toward the end of their shift, demonstrators start to estimate how many more samples they’ll need to meet remaining demand without setting out food that will wind up going to waste. “I do what I can not to waste anything,” Jim says. “We’ll usually make sure we’re done cooking by a certain time so nothing is left over.” Sealed food might go to a food pantry, depending on store policies, but prepared and unused food goes into the garbage. And no, it's not going to the demonstrators: They’re prohibited from taking the excess home.

13. NOT EVERYTHING THEY MAKE IS APPETIZING TO THEM.

Sample demonstrators are usually expected to taste their supply so they can make informed comments when a customer presses for details. While most everything is intended to be delicious, it may not necessarily be the demonstrator's own personal preference. "[I served] horrifying steak chimichangas, microwaved," Jan told Yes and Yes. "When cut into bite sized pieces, [they] squirt out a nasty brown liquid. Worse yet, lots of people liked them."

14. THEY APPRECIATE A LITTLE CUSTOMER ETIQUETTE.

Food samples are set out on a tray
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While free food can cause some of us to abandon civility and manners, food sample demonstrators always appreciate when customers acknowledge they have a job to do—and it’s not to hand out free stuff. Listening to their sales pitch is the polite thing to do in exchange for the eats. “Just try to remember that it’s a sales job and that final sale number is being held over the sample demonstrators’ heads,” Skyler says. “They’re not just someone being paid to hand out food to boost customer morale.”

17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Bookstores

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For book lovers, there’s no more magical place than the local bookstore. Endless shelves of stories and characters, all at your eager fingertips. And while most of us have probably spent a significant amount of time wandering the aisles, few of us know what goes on behind the scenes. Here are some insights into the life of a bookstore, gleaned from the people who keep the shelves stocked.

1. EMPLOYEES WANT YOU TO ASK THEM FOR RECOMMENDATIONS.

“A person will say, ‘I have a really strange question, I’m sorry, but can you recommend a book?’” says Phyllis Cohen, owner of Berkeley Books in Paris. “That is the most normal question. It is my favorite question in the world! Give me some clues. I’ll ask them some pointed questions and then I make a pile for them. When they discover it they’re over the moon—it’s like they have a personal shopper in the bookshop.”

2. BUT BOOKSELLERS ARE NOT MIND-READERS.

They want to help you find your book, but they can’t if you don’t know the book’s name, author, or what it was about. This happens all the time, and it drives them crazy. “Customers will say ‘I don’t remember the name or what it was about but it has a blue cover. I think it had this word in the title,’” explains Katie Orphan, manager at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Sometimes the questions are so vague that no amount of Googling will help, and then the customer leaves unhappy.

Even a botched title is better than no hints at all. “One funny thing that happens with customers is they get the titles totally wrong,” says Marissa Rodriguez, who has worked in a bookstore for two years. “High school kids will say ‘I’m looking for ‘How To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Angry Grapes.’”

3. THEY CAN SPOT THE BOOKWORMS FROM A MILE AWAY.

A woman browsing near a sign for half-price paperbacks at a bookstore
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Just browsing? Bookstore workers can tell. “Cookbooks is one of the sections where that happens the most,” Orphan says. “Art books and cookbooks. The people who are going to buy books, I can tell by the way they look at them, touch them, start carrying them around in a stack. I can always tell when people come up who is going to buy a book and who isn’t.”

4. THEY KNOW WHEN YOU’RE “SHOWROOMING.”

In recent years, many brick-and-mortar stores have fallen victim to online outlets like Amazon, which often offer the same books for a lower price. Some customers will browse for books they like, only to buy them later online, and they’re not very sly about it. “They’ll come in and use their phone to take a picture of the cover and barcode and just use the bookstore as the Amazon showroom,” says Keith Edmunds, a former bookstore owner. “It was awful. Seeing people do that was the height of ignorance.”

5. AND WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING THE SYSTEM.

“Some regulars would buy books one or two at a time and then within the two-week return window bring them back and be like, ‘I bought the wrong book,’” said Kat Chin, who worked at The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto for five years. “You’d know they read them because you could see the book was a little bit worn or the spine was cracked.”

6. THE GOAL IS TO GET BOOKS IN YOUR HANDS.

A red sign advertising bestsellers at a bookstore
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One trick to get customers to commit to a book is to physically put the book in their hands and have them flip through it. “You can direct them to a part of the store, but that’s only half of selling a book,” Rodriguez says. “It's important to get merchandise in people's hands so they feel there’s already some ownership happening. They say ‘I like the way it looks and feels in my hands and I like the way it smells.’”

7. YOU HAVE TO HUNT FOR THE COFFEE SHOP.

Many bookstores, particularly the bigger ones like Barnes & Noble, have incorporated cafes into their layout. Alex Lifschutz, a London-based architect, told The Economist that putting the coffee shop at the back of the store or, if there are multiple stories, on the top floor, “draws shoppers upwards floor-by-floor, which is bound to encourage people to linger longer and spend more.”

8. THE KIDS SECTION IS STRATEGICALLY LOCATED.

According to Edmunds, the kids books are almost always located at the back of a store. “If the parents want to get a book for the kid they have to go through the whole store,” he says. “They’re hoping the parent will see something they want.”

9. SOMEONE PAID FOR THAT PRIME SHELF REAL ESTATE.

A red sign advertising bestsellers at a bookstore
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In many big-box stores, publishers pay for good placement on “front tables, end caps and window space, in the same way General Mills and Procter and Gamble buy space for their breakfast cereals and dish detergents in the supermarkets,” Andy Ross, a literary agent, told The Book Deal.

10. AUTHORS, BEWARE THE “SOCIOLOGY” SECTION.

No author wants their book tucked away in the “sociology” section, claims veteran publishing insider Alan Rinzler. It’s “a catchall section for ambiguous titles, and the kiss of death for book sales,” he says.

11. BOOK THIEVES LOVE THE BIBLE.

At The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, “the Bible was the number one stolen book of all time,” Chin says.

Other frequently stolen books? Japanese comics (a.k.a. manga), expensive medical books, and Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Chin also says Haruki Murakami books were so frequently stolen that her bookstore had to take them off the shelves, only bringing them out when they were specifically requested.

12. EMPLOYEES HATE WHEN YOU LEAVE BOOKS WHERE THEY DON’T BELONG ...

Long rows of books at a bookstore
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“Neatening up a bookstore is a daunting process,” says Demi Marshall, a bookseller in Austin, Texas. The next time you pluck a book from its designated shelf slot, put it back when you’re done. Otherwise, “it’s like if you go to a clothing store and unfold all the clothes and then put them back on the shelf but don’t fold them,” Chin says.

13. ... AND WHEN YOU TREAT THE STORE LIKE YOUR LIBRARY.

“It’s nice to be able to go in and read maybe a chapter to see if you’re gonna like the book,” Chin says. “But then when you sit and read the whole book and put it back on the shelf, it gets grubby.” You’ll know a bookstore is trying to nudge you out the door if multiple employees drop by to ask if you need any help. “We would quietly pester people,” says Caleb Saenz, who used to work at Barnes & Noble. “I was at my peak passive aggressive phase when I was working at a bookstore.”

14. THE INTERNET HAS ACTUALLY BEEN A GOOD THING.

A brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore in Seattle
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Before the internet became ubiquitous, the process of looking up a book for a customer was daunting. “We had to look it up in 'Books In Print,’ which is a multi-volume, 4-inch thick, hardcover book,” says Liz Prouty, who owns Second Looks Books in Maryland with her husband, Richard Due. “It was a slow and cumbersome process and if anything was indexed wrong or a customer had the first word of a title wrong, you were out of luck.”

15. IT’S ALSO MADE US LOVE BOOKS MORE.

Some thought the e-book would surely spell the death of the bookstore. But many independent sellers say digitization has actually made people crave physical books more. “I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, so many people come in waxing rhapsodic about the smell of books, the feel of books,” Prouty says. “And they say it more now because the alternatives exist. People are deeply attached to the old-fashioned books.”

16. SOME BOOKSELLERS CAN IDENTIFY BOOKS BY THEIR SMELL.

Especially used booksellers. “These Penguins have their own particular odor,” Cohen says. That odor? Vanilla. Others might smell like almond or coffee.

17. BOOKSELLERS AREN’T IN IT FOR THE MONEY.

A blue sign with white letters spelling out the word "books" and a hand pointing
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In fact, most of them have second jobs or need monetary support from family members. “It is definitely a work of passion for everyone that I know,” Marshall says. “We don’t do it for the money, we don’t do it because we have any power or prestige. It’s genuinely just that we love books and we love getting them into people's hands.”

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

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