The tools of Brad Koplowitz's work are few and simple. The reward his work brings to others is great.
Koplowitz, 65, restores books and documents, one of few people in the profession, and he said the designation gives him plenty of job security.
Koplowitz, a Norman resident, works at the University of Oklahoma Library, where his work calls for him to restore books in the general collection.
He also works from his home to restore documents and books brought to him by individuals, churches and colleges.
His work requires a combination of knowledge, experience and patience. With much of his work he uses an X-Acto Knife, a straight-edge ruler, paste and cloth to repair or stop the ravages of time and neglect.
Koplowitz holds master's degrees in library science and in history. He received additional training in his field at the National Archives Modern Archives Institute in Washington, D.C.
He worked as an archivist at the state archives office, and at the Western History collection at OU, where he was curator. He retired but returned to work part-time at OU.
“I have basically lived in libraries since 1976,” he said. “I grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and I was never in a library as a kid, other than the school library. My folks didn't have a lot of books in our home.”
The items brought to Koplowitz have sentimental and historical value. There are ornate family bibles, deeds and certificates. And the documents of life relating to birth, baptism, marriage and death.
He has worked on business documents, diaries, vintage advertisements and maps.
“Documents began deteriorating at the advent of the industrial revolution because of chemicals in the paper making process,” he said. “I worked on a 17th century certificate of indenture, and it was in great shape because it was on vellum.”
He sees damage caused by water, rodents, and often by folding or rolling. He evaluates the condition of items brought to him and is clear about what can and cannot be done.
The desire to preserve
“There are many people who have a reverence for old documents and they care about their preservation,” he said.
He recalls a 17th century map of Manhattan brought to him by a man whose father was a collector. The map had a small “x” marking the site for a proposed city hall.
A late 19th century wall hanging called, “The Tree of Methodism” was brought to him for repair. It was a meticulous project to re-back the wall hanging with muslin, all the while working from the backside of the piece.
One of his most difficult projects was a full-size 1890s newspaper.
“I have nightmares about it,” Koplowitz said. “The pages were so brittle the project went on for several years.”
Most of the items brought to him are not in that category and he is able to go through the process of humidification to de-acidify the paper, mend rips and then encapsulate the document so it can be handled and read without further damage.
He also uses rice starch paste and Japanese paper in his work.
“This is all very low-tech and done by hand,” Koplowitz said.
He said his work is quite affordable with most repairs $20 or less for a single item. Projects requiring many steps cost more.
Italian baptismal certificate
Susan Proto recently brought five family documents to Koplowitz.
“When my mother passed away in 1992 in New York, I was given my father's baptismal certificate from 1903, and also my mother's. It was handwritten in Italian in 1913.”
She also has her mother's naturalization papers showing her arriving in the United States in 1923, and becoming a citizen in 1944.
“There is a story behind these documents,” Proto said.
She said she moved to Oklahoma from New York in 2002, and put her belongings in storage in Long Island. A month later she called to make arrangements for delivery to her new home.
She was shocked to learn there was a fire in the storage unit and everything that was salvageable had been sent to New Jersey for sorting and cleaning. Water, mildew and mold ruined most of her belongings, but the documents survived.
“I know I am lucky I still have them,” she said. “It's a good feeling to have them preserved. There are just so many questions I wish I had asked my mother and father.”