Notes on Repairing Songbooks

tune books lined up

Book hospital at Camp Doremi, 2015.

The connection between a shape note singer and their songbook is always significant. Our songbooks are charged with love and memories and they are our constant companions; as with dogs their condition tells us a lot about their owner. I am lucky to have worked for a decade in the conservation studio of the London Library, repairing battered Victorian and Edwardian volumes. When I started singing in London, and then traveled through Europe and the United States to sing, I couldn’t help but notice the heavy handling and usage these songbooks get, sometimes falling apart in the hollow square right in the hands of a particularly energetic leader. Something had to be done! I started repairing the books, and teaching others how to repair them. Singers have come up with all sorts of inventive ways to repair their books, out of necessity, with varying results… I’ve repaired more than a few “repairs”!

As these books are both beloved and heavily used I teach conservation methods: aiming to preserve the songbooks for generations to come, whilst still getting daily use out of them. I advocate early intervention in order to prevent worse damage from occurring. So, in this essay, I will focus on the repair for the common problem of the text block coming away from the cover. It is quite possible to patch up your songbook at home; all you’ll need is an arts or crafts shop, the right materials, and a little patience. I hope this collection of tips is useful and inspires you to give your songbook the care it deserves.

Anatomy of a Book

Hollow Backs

illustration of the anatomy of a book

Anatomy of a book. Image courtesy of Lit Reactor.

Our songbooks have the same design as you see at right, except they have an oblong shape. This shape causes problems because the weight of the text block pulls on the spine, hence the importance of supporting the spine with care when leading. Recent printings of The Sacred Harp have nineteen signatures, or folded collections of pages. If you open your book to page 17 and look in the gutter (the gap) you will see the stiches of the binding. These signatures can be repaired if they are coming loose by sewing them, but this often involves opening the casing, or cover boards. The most important thing to bear in mind is that our songbooks are hollow backs, not tight backs. This means that there is a space in the spine that allows the book to breathe. Compare this to paperbacks, which are tight backs, and will not stay open unless the spine is broken, whereas ours lie flat. So in repairing a songbook we always want to keep the hollow back open. It’s worth bearing in mind that our books were never designed to be doubled back on themselves; this will very quickly destroy the binding.


Conservation repairs are always reversible. This makes it easier undo or modify your work in case the repair goes wrong, or in case you need another repair in the future. This is where most ad hoc repairs go wrong, as people reach for the super glue thinking “that’ll hold it good.” The general rule is less is more. You’d be surprised how strong a bit of white glue and tissue can be. All of these materials are available at art and craft stores, bookbinders, and online.

NO to Tape

Sacred Harp with spine covered in tape

Not the best.

Sticky tape, Scotch tape, packing tape, and duct tape are not designed for book repair. At first they’ll seem to offer a neat quick fix but over the years the various chemicals in the adhesive will leach into the paper and damage it. Once the acid in the tape has migrated completely into the paper, the tape itself will lose its sticking power and fall off, leaving a permanent stain behind. Tape stiffens as it ages, so the straight edges create a sharp hinge that causes the paper to break away in shards. There is very little that can be done to reverse the effects of sticky tape damage. For paper tears see below. To patch the spine a little linen or cotton painted to match the book and glued on with white glue will look nicer and last longer.

Yes to Elmer’s Glue

books to be repaired and glue

Camp Doremi 2016.

EVA or PVA glue is known as Elmer’s glue or “white glue” by most. It’s great because it retains its flexibility. It can last as long as three hundred years! It contains no nasty chemicals and it can be reversed with the application of water. I like using Elmer’s for spine repairs. Starch paste is just flour (or rice) and water and can even be made at home in a Bain-Marie double boiler. Starch paste is great for repairing any paper tears or to add tissue to hinges. Strong glues such as superglue, wood, shoe, or Gorilla Glue will break down in a similar way to the tape, leaving acid in the book and becoming brittle over time. They’re also permanent and irreversible.


 Japanese tissue or washi is really great because it is lightweight and strong and made of thousands of long strands that bind with the paper you’re attaching it to. It’s also free of chemicals and colors. If you can’t find this locally (or don’t want to pay $10 a sheet) look for acid free, uncolored, lightweight tissue or paper. Take your songbook to a craft store and compare the weight and color of the paper they sell there to the page you want to repair to find a perfect match. Remember less is more: the lighter the paper the less the book has to expand to accommodate it.

Useful Materials List

  • Japanese tissue or acid free paper (lightweight 12, 20 or 30 gsm/8–20 lbs)
  • Starch/rice paste
  • EVA/PVA/White glue
  • A bone folder (can buy at a craft supplier)
  • Acid free linen or cotton
  • A pencil and eraser
  • A cutting mat
  • A metal ruler
  • A scalpel or scissors
  • Blotting paper (heavy weight absorbent paper) and parchment paper

Also useful is scrap paper or a magazine for pasting on and a kitchen towel to dab any excess glue.

How to Repair a Loose or Split Casing

Because our books are heavy they tend to fall out of the covers easily, especially when we lead from them. The most common songbook problems are when the casing (or cover boards) start to come away from the body of the book, causing a loose casing. When the covers break apart completely from the book it’s called a split casing. It’s a really good idea to repair this problem quickly, as the signatures (or pages) risk wobbling loose if you continue to sing from the book.

Loose Casing

person repairing a book

Ed Johnson-Williams gets to work at Camp Doremi 2016.

A loose casing is a small amount of damage to a book that can turn into a big problem later. Most singers will find this problem in their books, that the body of the book is coming loose from the covers, and the book block wobbles like wobbly tooth. If it continues like this you’ll end up with a split casing, requiring a more involved repair. However, a bit of glue will easily fix this problem. You just want to work on the inside of the covers, where the end paper has begun to pull away.

Don’t glue the spine! Remember that the book has a hollow back: that means it wants to open flat, and the hollow or gap is there to enable that. It is tempting to glue the spine onto the book to stop everything from moving around, but this will eventually ruin the book. The only thing that should be glued to the signatures (or body of the book) is the backing material (brown paper), which helps to hold the signatures together.

Prop your book upright, with the boards out, so that you’re looking down the spine of the book and the boards are at right angles to the text block. You should see a gap where the endpapers are coming away.

  1. Use a long thin paintbrush, loaded with EVA, PVA or Elmer’s glue and coat glue onto the grey board where the endpaper has come away. Leave the brown papers on the spine alone.
  2. Turn the book upside down and repeat. Be very careful that the glue does not run out or touch the text block!
  3. Do both sides if needed. Place blotting paper in the hinges, close the book, and let it dry.

Tip: make sure the text block is sitting happily in the covers, with a bit of overlap all the way around.

Split Casing

If the covers have come away completely from the text block but the outside of the book cloth is still intact here’s what to do.

First, check that the spine and backing material are in place. These are the two pieces of brown card—the backing material is the piece adhered to the signatures opposite the spine. If they are loose, stick them gently back into place with a dab of EVA or PVA glue (Elmer’s/white glue). If they are missing, replace them with acid free paper of similar weight. If there are loose signatures sew them back into place or dab glue along the folded part and coax them back into line under the backing material. When it all looks tidy put some scrap paper under the loose flapping part of end paper and coat thinly in EVA or PVA glue, leaving the spine free from glue.

Second, remove the scrap paper and replace it with blotting paper wrapped in greaseproof paper so the glue won’t stick to it. This will prevent the glue from seeping into other parts of the book. Moisture is really damaging so this step is essential.

Third, close the book, joining the exposed grey board on the left with the gluey end paper on the right, and let it dry for at least half an hour to an hour. Make sure that the cover lines up with the text block!

Finally, to reinforce the repair and make the join look almost invisible, add a strip of Japanese tissue or very light weight acid free paper, cut to size. Coat the piece that is going into your book with starch glue, rather than the book itself, and place carefully, smoothing any crinkles with a bone folder or clean fingers. Don’t forget to place the blotting/greaseproof paper absorber into the join and dry with the book closed.

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Torn Book Cloth

The next level of damage after the split casing the book endures is a torn book cloth, visible on the outside of the book as the spine flaps open. There is a method to repair this really effectively, but for the sake of space I will save this repair for another time. I am happy to talk anyone who contacts me directly through the steps.

Other Problems

Signatures Loose or Falling Apart

Signatures are sections of doubled-over pages of which The Sacred Harp has nineteen. If your songbook’s signatures are falling apart and pages are dropping out left right and center, then this is the point at which you might want to send your book to be rebound. If the signatures are just a bit loose then they can be patched back into the spine whilst repairing a broken casing (see above). Warning: this requires patience, good light, and sharp eyes.

  1. Remove the backing material, exposing the clear glue backing on the spine.
  2. Take a bookbinding needle, preferably a curved needle, and thread it with bookbinding thread or waxed thread.
  3. Follow the holes and threads that are already there, and push the needle through the signature until it has passed out of the glue backing on the other side of the spine.
  4. Secure the thread when you’ve finished by pasting it down with EVA, PVA, or Elmer’s glue on the spine, outside the text.
  5. Replace the backing material.

Loose Pages

If a single page has simply come loose and has quite straight clean edges then you can take a clean paintbrush, dab a tiny amount of EVA or PVA glue along the edge, and slip the page back into the gutter (the gap), making sure that the pages line up. Then close the book and let it dry. If there has been more of a tear to the edge you can paste a thin strip of Japanese tissue to the edge and let it dry, gluing it in later. Only glue pages in if the rest of the signature is intact. If all the pages are loose you will need to re-sew them into place or send the book to a bookbinder.

Ripped Pages

For ripped pages I recommend Japanese tissue and starch paste. Good Japanese tissue will almost disappear into the page, leaving the repair invisible, important when you need to read the shapes! The best thing about this method is that it’s completely reversible with a little water. Try to find a tissue that matches the weight and color of the paper. It is possible to trace an outline of the rip using a soft pencil on the tissue. You can rip or cut the tissue; just remember that a straight line creates another hinge where the paper could further tear. If your paper is aged or delicate then you’re better off cutting a wavy line or leaving the edges soft.

  1. Cut a piece of tissue large enough to cover the tear.
  2. Place some blotting paper under the page to protect the other pages.
  3. On scrap paper use a broad clean brush to coat the Japanese tissue in starch paste.
  4. Place the tissue on the tear and remove any excess paste.
  5. Place another blotter wrapped in greaseproof paper on top and either weight it or close the book.
  6. Leave for half an hour to an hour.
  7. If you’ve gone to the edge of the page with a repair you can trim it once it’s completely dry.

 Scruffy Corners

If your songbook has beat up corners on the boards (the cardboard is peeking through and peeling a bit) you can fill them in with some starch paste. It’ll bind the cardboard together and give it a bit of strength and also protect the text block. First trim off loose threads, then take a small brush loaded with starch paste and use a flat tool like a knife to separate each layer of card and dab a little glue in place like you’re filling sandwiches with jam! When you’re done, shape the corner how you want it and wipe off excess paste. Let it dry completely.

Wet Book

 This is a common hazard at an all day singing with dinner on the grounds! If your book gets wet then wipe it down with a clean cloth or paper. Sugary drinks might leave a residue. If the spill was on the book cloth you could take a damp cloth and just wipe enough so that nothing sugary remains to attract mold or insects. On paper the best you can do is wipe dry, then pick off what’s left. Sometimes light rubbing alcohol or a rubber cement eraser can help in really difficult cases.

Really Wet Book (!)

book with purple discoloring and moisture damage

Fruit pudding disaster! This one’ll never be the same again. 

If your songbook is really wet you’ll need to act fast to prevent the pages from crinkling permanently. The first step is to take a ton of paper towels and blot away as much water as possible from the covers and pages. Then insert paper towels in between each wet page and place something heavy on top of the book to help squeeze the water out. Keep changing the paper towels as soon as you see they’re wet, as you want to be removing the water as swiftly as you can from the book. Once the pages are only dampish, stand the book upright, fanning the pages and place near a source of cool air such as the air conditioning, a fan, or an open window. Do not add heat to books! Irons and hairdryers will weaken the paper and cause even worse crinkling of the pages. If you don’t have time to treat a wet book on the spot you can put it in a zip lock bag and stick it in the freezer. This will stop the damage. When you’re ready to treat it, thaw and dry in the recommended way.


Given the use these songbooks get, they’re unlikely to get moldy! However, it’s common sense to store your books in a clean dry place away from direct sunlight. Like people, books need to breathe, so somewhere where the air circulates is ideal. Store songbooks upright or flat, but never at an angle. Mold can be cleaned off books by wiping with a soft dry cloth or paintbrush. Do not add water or breathe it in.

Last Words

This is a plea to consider what you stick in your book to mark the pages. If you use any adhesive stickers such as Post-It Notes, just be aware that they also break down over time and become impossible to remove. Paperclips rust and cause paper tears. Personally, I use paper bookmarks. If my book were old or valuable I wouldn’t put anything in it. Newsprint is especially damaging to the pages because of the poor quality of the paper. Memorabilia can be stored in acid free envelopes glued into the front covers of the book. I also strongly recommend using a book bag such as a tote when traveling; it can do wonders to protect the book from spills and knocks.

I hope this guide has been encouraging. Many singers who have taken the step of repairing their own books have told me how much they enjoyed the experience, and through doing so, how they have begun to be as respectful of their physical songbook as they are of the wider Sacred Harp tradition.

two people repairing books

Betsy Jeronen and Abigail Beavin participate in a book repair workshop at Camp Doremi 2016.

Materials and Assistance

Talas is a very professional mail order supplier specializing in bookbinding, archival, and conservation materials. They stock everything! Visit them at

Lauren Bock, of Decatur, Georgia, is my deputy. She has various materials for use in repairing songbooks in the southeastern United States. Please contact her at

For assistance in Europe please contact me, Alison Brown, at I’m also happy to talk through repairs on Skype.

About Alison Brown

Alison started singing five years ago in London, following her family into the tradition. She has sung across the United States, and taught book repair at Camp Doremi. At the moment she is teaching English in Huelva, Spain.
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One Response to Notes on Repairing Songbooks

  1. Ray Rechenberg says:

    Before reading your article, I committed the ultimate sin of glueing the spine back to the book.

    Is there a way to “un-do” this glaring mistake and do it properly?

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