Conservators preserve old books for posterity

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March 1, 2022

BEIJING – Shi Wenlan said that the only thing he was interested in was dealing with smelly, moldy and centuries-old books.

“I don’t want to drink, I don’t want to eat or move. I like to sit alone under the warm lights, mending holes and cutting pages. I’m a boring person, but I’m doing something interesting,” she said.

If ancient books can be read and used, their life span is lengthened and the value is extended.

Shi Wenlan, restorer of ancient books at Hunan Library in Changsha

Over the past 26 years, the 51-year-old ancient book restorer at the Hunan Library in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, has brought about 100,000 pages of ancient books back to life, sometimes from chipped remains. His work helps ensure that ancient knowledge can be retained, read and enjoyed by people today.

Shi has great confidence in his little-known work. “Ancient books are valuable and non-renewable documents and important achievements of Chinese civilization. To restore them is to save endangered cultural relics,” she said.

Books age and degrade over time. Although technology – such as precisely controlled temperatures and humidity levels – can be used to slow the process, a number of old books are on the verge of perishing forever, experts have said.

At the Hunan Library alone, a third of its 680,000 ancient books are in urgent need of restoration, meaning each of its eight restorers must complete 3,000 pages a year, said Liu Xueping, director of the Department of library special collections.

“Yet the pages are deteriorating rapidly, which puts a great strain on our work,” Liu said.

Renowned personalities

Ancient books held in the library include the writings of well-known Hunan historical figures, such as Zuo Zongtang, a general of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The volumes include poems, calligraphy and paintings, the only copies of old newspapers that record important historical events, as well as books related to the genealogy of local families.

The series Shi is currently working on is known in English as The Collection of Ancient and Modern Books, published during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1678-1735) of the Qing Dynasty, who wrote the preface.

It is an important encyclopedia to research ancient documents and information on various industries or activities. One of the 11 books that make up the library’s collection was badly damaged by insects, according to Shi.

She remembers a book that turned out to be a puzzle: a register of accounts of a prestigious local family dating from around 1849-53.

“The paper pages looked like cotton lint at the time, so I had to hold my breath while restoring them or the pieces would have been washed away,” she said.

Although it took six months to complete the restoration work, Shi enjoyed the process. “It’s an interesting book. The accountant recorded every detail of the income and expenses of the family of his employer, a wealthy landowner,” she said.

Books also surprise her from time to time. “Sometimes we find small objects like stamps or letters in a book. While restoring a herd book on a family named Chen, I found two paper patterns used to make a pair of shoes. It touched my heart. That’s nice!” she said.

A book awaiting restoration is on display along with the tools Shi uses in his work. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

out of the dust

Although she is now a dedicated and renowned restaurateur, Shi didn’t really want the job in the first place.

As a child, she often played around the library, where her father worked. One day, when she was 13, she walked past the open door of a bedroom on the fourth floor. A quick glance revealed pots, pans, and bowls lying on the table. This must be the canteen, she thought at the time.

At 22, Shi was transferred from the provincial information center to the library to help create a digital catalog database. After a year, the human resources department asked him to join the book restoration team because one of the five members was soon to retire.

“The first time I entered the ‘canteen room’, I understood that this was my future office. I was desperate. The air had a musty smell. Five workmen sat around a shabby desk, fingering tattered books. One of them was to remove insect droppings with tweezers,” she said, adding that the team’s daily items, such as thermoses and bowls, covered everything. available space.

Shi binds a restored volume. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

So this is the end of my bright and promising future, I thought. Seeing me frowning and gaping, a worker said, “How about trying? I never thought I would do this all my life.”

At the time, Shi was the only young member of the team, as all of his colleagues were around 50 years old. For the first three years, she learned from retiring employee Tan Guo’an, who is now 79 years old. Shi, a film advertising graduate, was a neophyte who had to learn all the basic skills.

“The hardest part was aligning the restored pages before binding the book. The trainees must have practiced hundreds of times,” she said. “It takes great patience not to spoil anything.”

Work affects his health. Mold and bacteria from books cause skin diseases, while years of office work have caused her neck and shoulder pain.

The immobility can also make things worse for Shi, who limps in his right leg due to a childhood illness. Despite this, she wants to stay with the job. “I feel the beauty of ancient Chinese culture. I believe this is the best job,” she said.

Shi said most of the old books in the library are available for borrowing. The only prohibitions are very special and precious. Readers include students, researchers, and seniors.

Shi checks a restored page by holding it up to a lamp. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Many elders, in groups of three or four, asked to use books to trace their eventual family trees, and some of the books were scavenged from a cultural relics market.

Some readers leave comments in the guestbook. One, surnamed Luo, wrote that he felt excited when he read the materials about his grandfather and great-grandfather.

Another, named Yang Xiang, the great-great-grandson of Yang Yuebin, a late Qing period general, wrote that he wanted to thank the library for giving him the opportunity to learn how his ancestors contributed to the development of the Northwest. China.

Meanwhile, after consulting the genealogy related to his ancestors, Ma Zhiyong – a descendant of Ma Yin (852-930), an emperor of the Southern Chu Kingdom, who existed in Hunan during the Five Dynasties and Ten Dynasties period Kingdoms (907 -960) – wrote: “Every piece of history, whether of a country or a family, counts.”

Shi said, “If ancient books can be read and used, their lifespan is lengthened and their value is extended. I feel honored to contribute.

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