From Iceland — The Islanders: An Old Book Collector On A Rescue Mission

The Islanders: An Old Book Collector On A Rescue Mission

Published September 8, 2023

The Islanders: An Old Book Collector On A Rescue Mission
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Did you know that to restore old books, they are submerged in water?

There are very few things that can help us look back at history better than an old book. How was it made? Who owned it? How long did it take them to handwrite these letters? While Eyþór Guðmundsson’s day-to-day job may not reveal his hidden passion, his home office certainly does – Eyþór finds, collects and restores old books. With a personal collection spanning several hundred volumes, Eyþór gives us a glimpse into the restoration process – it isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

I’m a security specialist and close protection officer by profession. I have been working in this field for almost 20 years. I first got interested in old books as a child. I grew up on a farm in Borgarfjörður, where two or three hundred years ago, there was a printing press. After learning about that I got interested in old books.  

When I started collecting old books, I thought it was useless to only collect them – put them on a shelf and let them collect dust. I learned on my own how to restore and protect them. By reading books, watching YouTube videos, talking to people with more experience, asking questions, practising a lot and making my own books, I got kind of good at it.

Antique book hunt

There are two companies in Iceland that specialise in antiquarian books. One is Bókin on Hverfisgata where two specialists, Ari and Eiríkur, work. The other is Bókakaffið on Ármúli, where Bjarni and Jóhannes offer really good consulting about old books. 

After doing this for many years, people are now contacting me on their own – that’s how I find and restore old books. There are a lot of old Icelandic books all around Iceland, many thousands probably. I just haven’t found them all, yet. 

“There are a lot of old Icelandic books all around Iceland, many thousands probably. I just haven’t found them all yet.”

I prefer to collect old Icelandic books from the early 1900s and older, especially, from the old Icelandic printing locations, like Hólar, Skálholt, Hrappsey, Leirárgarðar, Beitistaðir and, of course, from Viðey. I actually grew up in Beitistaðir. Books from Leirárgarðar and Beitistaðir are the most rare books that you can find in Iceland. That’s what I specialise in today. The books that were printed there were mostly non-religious, primarily handbooks for farmers.

Biblical treasures

I have a lot of Bibles in my collection. The mission of many book collectors in Iceland is to collect the oldest Bibles, like Guðbrandur’s Bible, Steinn’s Bible or Þorlákur’s Bible. I don’t look at those books. I collect other old Icelandic Bibles and I also have a lot of foreign Bibles. The oldest book that I have is an English Bible, printed in 1595. I have Bibles printed on Viðey and in Reykjavík. There were 1400 books of that type printed in Viðey and I have seven of them. My mission is to restore them all. But it takes a long time to restore one 1400-page Bible because you have to take it page by page, wash each page in water, and then dry them. When I did that, it took me eight days, eight hours a day.

Bringing books back to life

When I find a book that is maybe 300 or 400 years old, it’s not always in the best shape. The first step in the restoration process is pouring water over the pages or washing the pages. This is good for the pages because the pages from the old days are about 80% cotton. Pouring water on them helps to clean the paper. The cotton is restoring itself, and the pages will be much stronger after the cleaning process. The water that I use can be warm. It won’t affect the pages in any way other than restoring them. 

Photo by Art Bicnick

The next step is to dry the pages and proceed with the restoration process. When I’m restoring torn pages, I have to glue them with a special Japanese paper that is really thin. This will prevent the pages from tearing further. I take a little bit of glue and put the Japanese paper on top. The glue that I use is a special bookbinding glue with no acid. Everything that we use in old book restoration has to be acid-free. Every time I work with a book, I have to clean my hands thoroughly with soap to wash away any acid residue.

Then I bind the book together. I wouldn’t say it looks like new, but almost. How long it takes to restore depends on each book. If it’s not in a bad condition, it might sometimes take one day. When I’m restoring a book, I want to do as much as I can, but also as little as possible. I want to have it as close to its original condition as possible.

Unexpected finds

I found pieces of skin in a book I was restoring, and these fragments are likely around 500-600 years old. We don’t actually know what they say but it looks like they are rhymes. It’s written in Old Icelandic, or Old Norse. In the same book, I also found a rescript from the old Icelandic lawbook named Jónsbók. The letters are so beautiful. It’s hard for me to read it but I can understand a few words.

“When I’m restoring a book, I want to do as much as I can, but also as little as possible.”

There’s one book I got in the middle of COVID – an Icelandic book from 1837. The reason I bought this book was because of the cover, which was quite unique. While going through the book, I came across a letter that had been laying in the book since 1907. You can see the name of the person who wrote the letter and the place where he lived. It’s really common to come across letters like this in books. Often, I can’t resist and have to track the book to find out who owned it 100-300 years ago.

In that particular letter, the person was asking people not to come by his farm as a measles outbreak was going through Iceland. Opening this book and finding this letter in the middle of COVID was a pretty special thing. One hundred years ago, the person who wrote this letter was actually talking about a similar situation.

Too many books

I don’t sell the books that I collect and today I only have a few books that I’m restoring for others. Collecting old Icelandic books and restoring them is a kind of a rescue mission that I’m on. It’s a time-consuming hobby. There are many books that I haven’t started with yet – if it’s going to take me eight hours a day, it might take me a lifetime. 

Follow Eyþór’s rescue mission on Instagram: @oldicelandicbooks. Follow our YouTube channel to see his book restoration process in more detail: @rvkgrapevine.

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