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News arrow Features arrow AT 90, BOB LUCUS KEEPS BOOKS IN SHAPE

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AT 90, BOB LUCUS KEEPS BOOKS IN SHAPE

The doctor is in and his patients are stacked up – literally.

Volunteer Rob Lucas, retired scientist and bookbinder, repairs books at the Chetco Community Public Library. With older books showing their age and new books often in disrepair after two circulations, the waiting room – in this case the library work room – is always full.

Most new books are glued together by machine rather than sewn, Lucas explained, as he worked on a book whose spine had detached from its pages. "This is the most common repair," he said. "It's the common cold of a book."

The library has always been a comfortable setting for Lucas, still youthful at age 90. "We had a library at home. It was a complete room, all the walls lined with books. My father never let me ask him a question until I'd exhausted our personal library and then the public library."

Home was Rochester, New York. Lucas graduated from college there, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree with a specialty in electronics from the University of Rochester in 1936.

"I was an old fashioned research scientist," he said. "I had a little bit of knowledge about everything." For several years, Lucas was in charge of the Applied Research Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

During the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, when the United States and Russia were competing for superiority in space technology, he felt scientists should expand their thinking about research.

"As a nation, I thought we were making a mistake using the term "research" to only apply to the new. The word "research" literally means to re-search, to look again. I thought we could be missing something if we didn't go back over old ground and plow it again because time and circumstances change."

Lucas began devouring old science books and reexamining theories for new possibilities. "I began to collect old books," he said. "Anything scientific – physics, chemistry, biology, you name it."

The books he could afford weren't in the best condition, planting the seeds for a second career. "It was an opportunity to learn about bookbinding," he said. "I realized it was a profession I could always do.

"There was a paucity of information on bookbinding at the library, so like the Greeks learned anatomy, I dissected. They dissected cadavers. I dissected books. That way I learned how they were put together."

After relocating to San Francisco, he also apprenticed with internationally renown Edna Peter Fahey for a year. "She had a great sense of humor and drama," he said, remembering how Fahey liked to be called by her middle name so she could enjoy the surprise newcomers registered when they realized Peter was a woman.

Fahey was known as a "Fine Bookbinder," an honorary title that described her outstanding skills. "She was a terrific technician. I was much honored that she took me on."

The avid student soon opened a shop in San Francisco and taught classes in bookbinding himself. "Robert Lucas, Bibliopogist," concentrated on rare books from universities and antiquarian dealers. "Bibliopogist" is the Greek word for bookbinder.

"Now the word for repairing rare books is don't," said Lucas. "The thought is that the wear and tear is part of the provenance, or history of the book. I have to agree."

Lucas recalled working on books "as old as the 11th century and as priceless as $100,000."

First editions were always favorites, including "Principia Mathematica" in which Sir Isaac Newton formulated the basic laws of motion and gravity. Lucas believes the laws have broad meaning. "They are so fundamental to all forms of life. The religion of the day wouldn't have permitted applying to humans, but we are in motion, too. I don't see how he could escape noticing it.

"I made a copy of the title page so I could see it every day. There was something about having it in your hand, something about being in the presence of that book."

Lucas has protected some of his own treasures as well. He crafted a hingeless, overlapping binding for his leather-covered log book, a journal in which he keeps notes, thoughts and drawings. "I made it to illustrate this kind of binding when I was lecturing. It will never wear out from use."

He also handcrafted a box, similar to the hundreds he's made for clients, to protect a childhood treasure. "The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci," a biography of the famous artist and inventor, was the first book Lucas remembers buying. It rests inside a sturdy blue box to preserve its fragile binding and tissue thin pages.

"Leonardo described and invented and foresaw things long before they came to be. I wanted to emulate him. He was the hero of my boyhood."

The bookbinder, trained to never write in a book, broke that rule with an inscription for his family about how much the da Vinci book means to him: "The only book but my bible from my childhood. This I read twice – greatly affecting my life."

While his work at the library doesn't involve preserving rare or historic books, Lucas said keeping books usable for library patrons is his goal now. He takes special pleasure in sharing his skills with library staffer Brenda Jacques.

"What I love most is making a contribution to the future," he said. "I'm there to teach Brenda and, incidentally, I repair books."

"I've always been interested in repairing books but never had time or anyone to show me how," Jacques said. "Rob is very patient, very precise. I tend to rush through things so it's very good for me to do the steps. I've learned to put things in order. It's very methodical.

"I'll ask how should I do this and he'll say how do you think you should do it? His motto is do no harm. Do the least invasive thing you can.

Every time Rob comes in I learn something new."

"Ninety percent of what Rob and I do is new spines," she added. The two craft a simple device called a "tubular hollowback" to reinforce the backbone of a book that's come loose. They fold brown paper into a three-layer tube and glue one side of the tube to the book block and the other side to the spine. The tubes are cut from grocery sacks, which Lucas says are made from some of the strongest, least acidic paper available.

"I read about it and worked out what suited my hands," Lucas said. "I've never had one come back in all these years."

"Rob has very strong fingers and hands," Jacques pointed out. "They're elegant. You have to have strong hands to repair books. He told me he looked for that in his students."

Once a book has been reglued it's encased in an elastic bandage to, as Lucas puts it, "bind the wound." The tight wrapping pushes air out so the book package comes together as closely as possible.

Urging readers to handle books carefully is second nature to Lucas, who offered suggestions for what he calls "care and feeding."

Old, beloved or rare volumes should never be stored on top shelves or where the sun shines directly on them. Heat rises and higher temperatures are more destructive. If possible, and especially if the book is a heavy one, they should sit flat so weight doesn't cause the book to slump or pull the front and back covers out of alignment.

Humidity should be kept low, although Lucas admitted the library standard of 30 per cent can be difficult for homeowners to achieve. A portable dehumidifier is a possible option.

If books get dusty, Lucas recommends the gentle action of an old fashioned feather duster, explaining that stroking the feathers briskly to release static electricity will help collect dust particles.

For book repair services in the area, Jacques suggests Whetstone's Book Bindery in Grants Pass at (541) 479-1210.

For someone who's retired, Lucas confesses he's busier now than ever. "I don't know how to retire. I've tried several times," he laughed.

The book doctor's current read, "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" by physicist Richard Feynman, mirrors Lucas' own philosophy. "People ask me how I got this far. I tell them it's attitude – in the sense that an airplane cannot fly above the earth unless it's climbing. Attitude is everything."

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