Repurposed Books: Yea or Nay?

On a recent trip to Kansas City, MO, I dined at a trendy, downtown gastropub where the server brought the check to the table not in one of those ubiquitous pleather folders or on a tray, but rather, tucked between the pages of a cloth publisher’s binding ca. 1910.  I was simultaneously charmed and aghast.  The experience recalled the mix of emotions I feel every time I see books repurposed, whether as objets d’art or as alternatively functional items.

A cloth publisher’s binding from the turn of the 20th century holds the check at Gram & Dun, Kansas City, MO.

As a book conservator, my mind is ever bent toward protecting the book not only as a container for intellectual content, but as a physical artifact which holds evidence of material culture.  I feel strangely torn to see books cleverly repurposed as purses, coasters, and furniture, valued neither for their textual content, nor for their binding structure, but merely as raw material.

Photo credit: Design Every Day Blog. Click image to visit original post.

My inner dilemma arises from the fact that such projects destroy the primary function of a book, and as a conservator, my role is always to preserve and protect that function.  I feel torn because I often genuinely appreciate the result of such projects, and somehow, a project constructed of books still speaks to the constructor’s love of books, albeit for aesthetic rather than informational purposes.  And let’s face it — if a book is no longer valued as a work of textual transmission, if its binding is not unique or rare, then why not give it a second life as some other type of artifact?

Photo Credit: Rookie Magazine. Click image to visit original post.

My devotion to the history of the nineteenth century publisher’s binding (a category of book I consider “medium rare” — not quite Special Collections material yet, but heading in that direction with the passage of time) motivates my strongest caveat in the repurposing of books.  Many of these significant bindings have been lost over time, particularly as a result of commercial binding practices at academic libraries.  While not every publisher’s binding from ca. 1830 to ca. 1920 may be significant as an historical exemplar, the popularity of this type of binding for repurposing chafes my conservation ethos.  And yet… I am still tempted to make myself one of those nifty book purses — with a modern, mass-printed discard, of course!

The BookBook Shelf from design firm Not Tom. Click to view article at Design Buzz.

Preservation professionals, what’s your take on the repurposing of “old” books for new DIY projects?  Librarians? Artists/makers?

Click image to visit the website of artist Brian Dettmer, who transforms books into narrative sculptures.


  1. Nay. Even disregarding the conservation concerns, this aesthetic is an arts & crafts thing that seems too precious and overdone.

    Where’s my puff paint?

  2. I feel the same way! What I’ve been seeing a lot lately as a decorating device in stores are books with their boards ribs off exposing the spines, lining, and cardboard and then adorably tied with ribbon or stacked haphazardly on a table as a centerpiece or, heck, even shelved in a bookcase. I was recently in a store called Arhaus and I mentioned it to the designer and she said it bothered her, too. Supposedly, these were books that had been discarded from a public library in Ohio where they are headquartered. I also saw this in the Restoration Hardware catalogue a couple of years ago.

    1. Oh my, the binding equivalent of artfully ripped jeans? Will we look back on this trend as something embarrassingly dated? (And yet… I saw an undergraduate in the library recently sporting this “style”…)

      I love books. I find it comforting to be surrounded by them. Somehow, books glued together as a bookshelf do not give me that same cozy feeling. So, why do I love holding onto a book I have already read and may never read again? Is that somehow different than a book which *can’t* be read ever again?

      1. Sadly, pre-ripped jeans will never go out of style and they’ll cost you twice as much, too!

        I love books, too! My son and I just got our library cards recently and the reason it took so long is that when I get a book I want to KEEP it even if I might not ever read it again. Having to give a book back is tough!

        If I don’t ever open a particular book ever again, knowing that I can or even having the ability to share it with someone else is way better than just propping their naked bodies on a table for some designer’s idea of a fancy tablescape.

  3. Like you I am conflicted about some of this, but also believe that not every book is sacred, nor is every book good, and if a book is wasted I doubt that G*d will be that irate… For me it comes down to issues of scarcity, value, … however we choose to define those.

    Working in libraries we know that a great many titles are withdrawn for any number of reasons. While some will find good homes, others will receive none. The same happens at antiquarian booksellers, after friends of library sales, Goodwill…

    Personally there are many craft ideas I like, bedside lights ( or, walls (, or headboards and shelves… as shown in your post. I once tried to grow flax in Dard Hunter’s Papermaking but that didn’t grow. Even cold hardened the seeds and kept it damp… ( Oh well. May try again.

    I personally would prefer to see books re-purposed in artful/creative ways than simply pulped/composted. That may well be their fate at a later date, but these give them one last moment to shine. Some wonderful examples are collected at

    My thoughts.

    1. Good thoughts, and thank you for sharing them. It’s good to know I’m not the only one conflicted about these things. Thanks for the links to some of your favorite project ideas, too! I’ll be adding Bookshelf Porn to my list of favorite sites.

  4. My enjoyment of altered book art started 4 years ago when my library did a huge stacks purge due to loss of space. As a librarian, seeing so many beautiful or useful books hitting the recycled bin broke my heart. I started taking home stacks of discarded books for no other reason than because the paper was a lovely texture, the size felt nice or the spine title was amusing. That year I created a whole slew of ornaments and garlands for our library’s Christmas tree out of 2 old Dorland’s dictionaries. An old 1950s mini Dorlands donated to our library was in very poor condition. I repurposed it into an adorable tree topper. They turned out beautifully and we still use them. Most patrons enjoy our book decorated tree.

    I’ve been associated with too many stacks purges to be sentimental about every single book a library collects. Sometimes you assess a book and wonder why in the world we bought it to begin with. Zero to 5 loans in 10 years is pathetic; that book ‘needs’ a new purpose. I see no harm in destroying a book to make it into something else if that book was already destined for a trash heap. Now, if it was beautiful leather bound antique I would weep at the loss.

    1. The holiday decorations sound like a lovely way to give new life to withdrawn books! (Are there any images online we could link to, perhaps in Duke’s Instagram account?) It seems to be a common theme among those of us working in libraries that an alternate use is better than the trash heap, but the choice of book is key.

  5. Don’t forget the anonymous artist who left tiny sculptures made from discarded books around various libraries in England.

    I’m conflicted, too, but agree with much of what Peter said above. I think for me it (as all art) comes down to intent, execution, and context. A lot of altered books are, let’s face it, terribly executed with little thought and skill. But, as Peter pointed out, there are some that are truly remarkable and rise to the level of Art with a capital “A”.

    1. I agree, Beth. It’s one thing to create something beautiful with an object that is going to end up in the land fill. It’s totally different when something done without any consideration of the object itself.

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