Book Terminology

Tripping Over Lingo in the Language Trap

In the book world, one of the disagreements, or simple failures to agree, is one somebody ought to write a book about: what do you call much of the work that sustains the lives of books, the people who perform that work, and the realms in which they work? No mere academic exercise or cultural quibble, these questions can cause the kind of debate that ends only when objects are thrown, and because the participants are likely to have so many fine books within reach, we hesitate to start the argument anywhere but here. For all we know, there may be ego, turf, or other sensitivities involved, and the odd wag may use some good book words to impress, evade, or obfuscate.

As a book lover, you may be motivated to do all you can to provide your books with basic care and a wholesome environment. But when your books need more care than you can give, or if you’re unsure what the problem is and how, or if, it can be solved, you will turn to the professionals.

As you turn, however, avoid tripping over the lingo and falling into the language trap. It matters less what your book problem is called than that you recognize that there is a problem. You need to define your goals as a book’s owner, the decision-maker for your books. And more important than the words used to describe them are the skills and arts practiced by professional book workers.

We turned to one we’ve known for years, bookbinder extraordinaire Joe Landau of, for some insight into a few of the terms most often used and some of the ways those terms can trip us up. “All bookbinders are conservationists or preservationists,” he said, “but not all preservationists and conservationists are bookbinders.” Landau agreed that “because you are dealing with a specialized field, it’s worth getting the terminology right.” Even so, he conceded, what’s important is getting the necessary work done. What the work is called is secondary. There are bookbinders who conserve and bookbinders who preserve, Joe explained, and beyond the basic physical fine arts of binding, those classic skills that build a book and achieve true beauty, bookbinders may perform the same tasks as those whose main concern is conservation or preservation.

Considered on its own, conservation could be said to focus on the maintenance of books, as individual entities and, of course, as collections. A book lover’s question to a conservationist might be: How do I keep this book from deteriorating? The answer might propose ways to preserve the book without altering it, inspecting and securing the book as it is, and looking at humidity, light, and other housing and handling issues.

Preservation tends to range farther, and includes the correcting of imperfections and repair of damage.

In short, a conservationist might furbish your books; a preservationist might refurbish them. That’s way too simple, we admit, which leads us to another complication, and the services of a book doctor, a usage that seems to be increasingly popular beyond the realm of the specialist who treats the book you’re writing (the edit-medic who evaluates manuscripts, advising on revisions and marketability). And we’ll skip the book you’re hoping to read (there’s a novel by that name). A book wants the services of those practitioners of the book arts who use “book doctor” to describe their function, who often use it in professional and business names. Who determines who can use the term? Are there qualifications unique to its use in the book arts? Does its use suggest a high level of expertise? Does it mean higher prices? Is it reassuring to think that the doctor will see your ailing book now? To the first four questions, the answer is: we don’t know, and we have inquired. To the last point: If your image of the doctor is positive, make an appointment! Chances are you and your book will be seeing a bookbinder, conservationist, or preservationist who has amplified an older job description.

So here are some possible rules for the road of lingo pitfalls.

Don’t settle for a book worker’s title. Ask for a description of the tasks he or she performs.

Be sure you and your professional agree not so much on the terms you’re both using but on the work to be accomplished. Remember that one person’s minor alteration can be another’s unrecognizable result. Whenever there’s an element of preference, that preference should be yours.

When you need to leave a book with a professional, ask when you should drop by. Check on work in progress. If there are many steps to completion, try to view each one. And if you must ship a book somewhere, be sure the professional who receives it has a scanner and fax and e-mail capabilities, and willingness to use them, by which you can follow and approve the work as it proceeds.

Never be afraid to say no, that’s not what I want done to my book.

Never hesitate to question every answer.

Most of all, remember that you and the professional you consult don’t need to agree on terms, except those that translate into invoices. You must agree on goals. When a book’s physical being needs help, the book needs the right treatment. It matters little what that treatment is called.

We’ll return to this topic in the future. Meanwhile, here are a few of the many sites of related interest: Northeast Document Conservation Center ; Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts; Conservation Online; and National Institute for Conservation. There’s guidance in Brodart’s new archival catalog; call 1 888 820-4377 for a copy or visit

1 Comment

  • I am increasingly upset by an apparent lack ofterminolgy knowledge on some book-sites. Read some of these sites, and it’s difficult to determine what they are selling and you may get in return.

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