Where Old Books Find New Life

Sophomore Repairs and Restores Archaic Works for MC Library

Tim Gress, a work study student at Manhattan College’s O’Malley library, stands in the empty computer room on the first floor. The room, with six enormous windows and tons of empty bookshelves around its perimeter, is the space that is being dedicated to a massive collection of rare books, a project that fell into Gress’s lap last year.

For Gress, a sophomore majoring in philosophy and religious studies, this large undertaking involves moving, organizing and shelving thousands of books. On top of this, some of these books have suffered damage and need to be repaired before being put on display.

The first edition of “Purgatory and Paradise” with gold plated front. Tara Marin/ The Quadrangle

Most of these books were donated to MC throughout the years. One of these donors was Cardinal Spellman, the sixth Archbishop of New York, who gave a great deal of books on the foundational work of the Catholic church.

Gress is also restoring a large amount of books on Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet, prose writer and philosopher. He points to three massive, empty bookshelves where they will soon be placed.

“There are about 800 of the Dante books. They’re all from around or before 1930, and the earliest one is from 1902,” Gress said.

Another collection of books is about Thomas More, an English lawyer, social philosopher, author and humanist during the Renaissance.

Gress’s most recent endeavor was transferring two sets of ancient encyclopedias from Memorial Hall, where they were on display in the president’s office, to the cases where they currently reside on the first floor of the library. The rest of the room is empty aside from them.

“In a month, this room will look a lot different. The entire back wall will be the Fales collection, which was donated by DeCoursey Fales in the sixties. It’s over 3,000 books. The earliest books in this collection are from 1715, so they’re over 300 years old. The collection goes from there all the way up to the 1900s,” Gress said.

On another floor of the old section of the library, which was built in 1938, Gress browses shelves filled with more collections of antiquated books.

A book shelf containing books published in the 1700s Tara Marin/The Quadrangle

“A rare book collector donated his entire collection to us and NYU, it’s amazing stuff,” Gress said. “Washington Irving, Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, everyone you can think of, and they’re all first editions. And we have over 100 books that are signed,” Gress said.

Last summer, Gress and a friend were responsible for moving the entire collection of books on the lowest floor of the old library, which is located underground, to a higher floor.

“A lot of the books were damaged, so I learned how to fix them. I moved everything and then I would go through them and repair them. I started noticing how old the books were, and they had just been laying around random places of the old library, and they’re worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Gress said.

Some of Gress’s favorite discoveries are an edition of The English Dictionary from 1756 and a first edition of “Grapes of Wrath” from 1939.

“I’ve gotten to open up every single one of those books, and some of the things you find in them are really cool. Some have the original receipts inside,” he said.

Gress’s workspace is filled with and surrounded by historical works. Behind his desk are two bookshelves, one with works published in the 1700s, the other with works published in the 1800s.

From one of the shelves he pulls “Paradise Lost,” an epic poem by Dante Alighieri, which has a gold plated front, and a copy of an original T.S. Eliot novel, signed by Eliot himself on the inside cover. Gress also has the original card catalogues for the books, which were created in the sixties.

His process for repairing the books includes using a special cloth tape.

“The book would basically be in two pieces, with a front cover and back cover but no spine. I measure the spine and then cut out the cloth to create a new spine, then I glue everything back together. You have to let it sit for a whole day,” he said.

The process to restore one book takes two days, but Gress restores multiple ones in a day.

Gress organizes and shelves books that are centuries old. Tara Marin/The Quadrangle

Some books, Gress admits, are too old to repair.

“They’re so old that if you fix them, the value decreases. It depends, some are cowhide or leather bound,” he said.

There is no other library staffer or work study student who is handling this massive undertaking aside from Gress.

It’s a stressful and tedious task, but Gress expresses that he does garner a great sense of fulfillment from his efforts: “I’m getting there. There’s over a thousand that I have to fix. Everything old and dusty comes to me […] I love this stuff, it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”