Meet the State Library's last remaining bookbinder

Pete, with one of his favourite pieces from the State Library of South Australia, the magnificent 13th century Italian antiphonal.

Peter Zajicek, or Pete as he likes to be called, started working at the State Library of South Australia at age 16, when he took on a four-year apprenticeship in its bindery division.

It was a command from his father to "find a job before I return home from overseas" combined with the lure of an airconditioned office that led him to the role.

“I didn’t know anything about bookbinding, I actually wasn’t even that fond of books or reading, but I had my father’s words ringing in my ear and I wanted to get a job so I could leave school, so I took the first role I could,” Pete says.

In 1977, when Pete first joined the library's bindery division, which helped preserve the books and materials heavily used by the public, it had 52 people working in it.

It was located in the basement of the Bastyan Wing (later renamed the Spence Wing) and had separate quarters for females and males.Image of Peter Zajicek as a 16 year old apprentice at the Library's Bindery

“The first three years were hard, I thought it was the worst thing in the world, because the last thing you wanted to be doing was standing all day at a bench doing a monotonous task,” Pete recalls.

“But you work through that, and you come out the other end, and by then you're a tradesman.”

Fast forward 47 years and Pete is the library's senior conservator, and the bindery's only remaining employee. The bindery, now known as the Preservation Studio, is where the care and preservation of the Library’s collections happens, making sure they are available for current and future generations.

Pete says the purpose of his work is to make sure the Library’s collections remain in the best condition possible and accessible. Today this also includes more than books.

“In the beginning it was pretty much about repairing books, but as the library’s collection has grown to include more unusual materials, I’ve had to grow with it. I’ve had to learn how to preserve and conserve materials, such as cleaning glass plates in preparation for digitisation, photographs, maps, reprographic medias and even skin-based manuscript books,” he says.

“It is more than just repairs, it is also the preventative work too looking at chemical reactions, temperature, humidity and light and how these things can affect the collection.”

The State Library has an impressive and vast collection of materials of both reference books and significant cultural heritage items of South Australia’s history.  It is said that the library’s collection would stretch from Adelaide to Victor Harbor if every book was lined up from spine to spine.

Asked what his favourite pieces are in the library’s collection and three quickly spring to mind.

“One of the most memorable was the process of re-mounting Indigenous artworks, which were drawn by Aboriginal children from central South Australia and made into stained-glass windows at their local Lutheran church,” Pete recalls, his voice wavering as the emotion of that day returns to him.

“An Elder brought down each of those now men, who drew those artworks as children, to see them being restored and they sung the meaning of each picture to me, it was an incredible experience.

“They owned the stories of those drawings, and it gave me a real sense of appreciation to be working on them.”

Another is one of the library’s greatest treasures and its oldest book - a 13th century Italian antiphonal, which contains music for monastic Christmas services with the pages decorated in gold.

“It is a unique piece and the fact that it is a complete book is highly unusual, because quite often these books were disassembled and sold," he says.

“They don’t make books like this anymore – it would have been quite an investment – it’s very large, made from the skin of probably a lot of cows and it is a really unique piece.”

Pete has also been fortunate to take a Don Bradman cricket bat, a blazer and a Royal Worcester Vase, the only one in the world, to place on display at Lord’s Cricket Ground.

Pete also recalls the day he made his mother extremely happy. “She was, a royalist plus her sister was a seamstress for the royal family. oSo, when I was given the opportunity in 1984 to bind a book for Queen Elizabeth, she was very proud.”

Pete says he knows his work is incredibly important.

“The library has a mandate to look after the state’s cultural heritage, and back in the day when people were accessing books regularly, the maintenance of the collection was really important,” he says.

“That remains true to this day – the library has an incredible amount of stuff that tells you a lot about who we are and where we’ve come from – and I, along with others, have had a role to play in protecting those stories on behalf of the public.”

Even in this digital age and the changing nature of our libraries, Pete’s work is like a story that never ends.

“Hopefully, the way I’ve presented and preserved the works, I’ve left it better than what it was before,” he says.

And so, after 47 years working in the State Library, did Pete ever develop a love for books?

“Well…,” he pauses, “I appreciate them more now and the important role they play in people’s lives.”

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