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We love the digital world, but there's nothing like an old-fashioned book

University of Washington conservators Kate Leonard, left, and Judith Johnson in the UW's Conservation Center at Suzzallo Library. Conservators repair and protect 10 thousand rare books, manuscripts, maps and other paper items every year.
KUOW Photo/Bond Huberman
University of Washington conservators Kate Leonard, left, and Judith Johnson in the UW's Conservation Center at Suzzallo Library. Conservators repair and protect 10,000 rare books, manuscripts, maps and other paper items every year.

In the land of Microsoft and Amazon, a non-digital book almost seems like an anachronism. Why bother with paper and ink when you can download the latest thriller?

Millions of Seattle area residents do just that, at least when it comes to local libraries. The King County Library System reports patrons checked out more than 3 million digital items (including films and music) in 2015, giving KCLS the largest digital circulation in North America.

Seattle Public Library patrons are no slouches; SPL saw a 27 percent increase in digital circulation between 2014 and 2015.

And yet, many readers love the real thing — an ink and paper volume they can hold in their hands.

“Booksellers and librarians will agree that demand for physical books has gone up over the past few years,” says Paul Constant, a longtime book critic and co-founder of Seattle Review of Books.

Constant has written about books for more than a decade; before that he was a bookseller. He sees a strong demand for physical books from younger readers.

“If anything, the reverence for books has gotten stronger,” Constant says.

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So, while most libraries have beefed up their digital collections, they’ve also invested in preserving print materials.

The University of Washington Libraries, the largest library system in the Pacific Northwest, with more than 8 million physical books at 16 sites, takes book preservation and conservation very seriously.

[asset-images[{"caption": "UW Conservation Center intern Sarah Belasco takes a break from repairing a 16th century book. Belasco plans to apply to one of the three book conservation programs in the U.S.", "fid": "127854", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201607/books3.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW photo, Bond Huberman"}]]Last winter, the UW opened a new conservation center, funded in part by a grant from the Mellon Foundation.

More than 10,000 items flow through the center every year; everything from fragile maps that need protective casings to books with torn bindings. Most of the binding work is outsourced to commercial binderies, but in-house conservators tend to the rare books, pamphlets and other delicate materials.

Senior Conservator Justin Johnson came to the UW three years ago. He and his colleagues are charged with finding ways to make aging materials accessible to the tens of thousands of students and faculty who rely on the libraries.

“Conservation is finding a way to present the artifacts for students and users in a way that protects the object, but also provides access,” Johnson explains.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Conservator Kate Leonard shows off a 19th century map of India, encased in a custom-made polyester sleeve.", "fid": "127853", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201607/books1.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW photo, Bond Huberman"}]]

The center comes at that task through centuries-old tools like needle and thread, as well as scientific analysis, microscopy and other contemporary methods.

In a new wet lab, complete with a special floor to contain water spills, conservators can zero in on the molecular composition of a 500 year old binding, for example, then pinpoint the precise materials to protect that book for another 500 years.

But, given the increased demand for digital materials, why go to all the time and expense to repair physical books, maps or manuscripts? Why not simply digitize them?

The head of Preservation Services for the UW Libraries, Stephanie Lamson, says it’s just too expensive to digitize everything. Plus, “both born digital and digitized materials require preservation over time.”

In other words, the library is going to have to spend money to store the materials, whatever the format.

And, like the early days of video, libraries have to cope with a variety of formats, according to Paul Constant.

“Digital formats shift in and out as the technology adjusts,” Constant says. “Who’s to say e-books you can read on any device today you’ll be able to access tomorrow?”

[asset-images[{"caption": "UW conservators Judith Johnson, left, and Kate Leonard look over a selection of book cloth, in the University's newly expanded Conservation Center.", "fid": "127855", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201607/books4.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW photo, Bond Huberman"}]]

But Constant, Lamson and most book lovers agree that, while audiences demand the convenience of digital materials, the experience of consuming information on an e-reader can’t really compare to the intangibles you get from reading a book, particularly a vintage tome.

“When you hold a book in your hand,” says Johnson, “there’s something magic in it. There’s no telling where it’s been, who’s used it. You’re opening a window to the minds of the people at that time.”