Old Books, Their Care and Preservation

As a dealer in used and antiquarian books, I am often asked how best to care for old books. This short article will explain some simple procedures to protect your books (old or new) from harm.

The general rule of thumb is to treat your books like children.

GIVE THEM A HOME. Most important, in books or kids, is that they have a comfortable home. For books, this means in a climate-controlled room-not the porch, not the shop or outbuilding, not the unfinished attic or basement or garage, not an unheated storage unit. You don’t want the books to experience extremes of temperature, nor do you want the temperature to fluctuate wildly during the day.

Keeping books on bookshelves is ideal because it is more likely that you’ll pick up the book and start reading it! Be sure to place the bookshelf so that it is out of direct sunlight, or else your spines will fade. Also, if you are a smoker, try keeping your books in a room that you infrequently smoke in. Although the odor will eventually go away, the discoloration to the covers and pages is more difficult to remove.

If you need to box your books, be sure to lay the books flat in the box. The worst thing you can do when boxing books is to pack them spine up or spine down-especially if you’re going to stack another box on top! It’s also a good idea to put some packing material between books. Oftentimes, once books are in a box, they are moved or even shipped without repacking. Visually check the boxes every once in a while to make sure mice or other pests have not discovered them.

KEEP THEM DRY. Let’s say you live in a mild climate that is usually between 50 and 70 degrees. You are more able to store books outside the home, but for crying out loud keep a roof over them! Water damage is the most common damage I see. I have also seen books water-damaged by being placed in a bookcase along with houseplants-when watered, some of the water would splash or spill and damage the books, so just because your books are inside doesn’t necessarily mean they are safe. Humidity is another concern, as it can cause foxing or discoloration to the pages. Again, keeping the books indoors will help. If possible, a dehumidifier will keep the books much happier.

KEEP THEM CLEAN. Although they hopefully don’t get as dirty as boys on a summer afternoon, books do tend to accumulate dust. Frequent dusting of the tops of the books and the shelf they’re on is recommended. Regular vacuuming of the room they’re in is also highly recommended. If possible, vacuum the books themselves with a low-powered vacuum (such as a hand-held one) with a brush attachment.

TAKE CARE OF THEM WHEN THEY’RE SICK. Just like children, books get scraped, scuffed, broken bones, infected, bitten by the dog, beat up, flaky skin, and more. Even though our store doesn’t do extensive in-house book repair or restoration, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been shown some poor old book that is in desperate need of help (or that needs to be put out of its misery!) Depending on the emotional or monetary value of your book, you should consider getting any damage repaired by a professional bookbinder. Repairing even moderate damage can prevent it from getting worse. If you have mildew or insect damage, be sure that the infection is dead, or else it (the bugs or mildew) might spread to the rest of your collection. (Separate article on that coming soon!)

SPEND TIME WITH THEM. Most book collectors are also readers. Be sure to read your books! Gentle reading is good for books. If you have leather books, the oils from your hands help keep the leather supple. Reading your cloth or paperbound books ensures they aren’t getting eaten by insects or dust-bunnies.

DON’T WRAP THEM IN PLASTIC. Most of us don’t seal our kids up in plastic bags, even if we occasionally want to, nor do we need to do the same to our books. Books need to breathe. (Sealing a dust jacket in a paper-backed mylar sleeve is okay.) A sealed plastic bag can keep in moisture and possible mold, and hasten discoloration. Additionally, a fragile book that is pulled in and out of a plastic bag can get damaged each time. If you have something exceptionally fragile, talk to your bookbinder about making a custom clamshell box for it.

ESTATE PLANNING. Yes, we all go sooner or later, and you are probably not planning on being buried with your books. Be sure your spouse, kids, family, friends, lawyer, etc. knows the value of your books. I hate seeing a big or good collection be sold at an estate sale for fifty cents apiece…but I hate even worse hearing about kids who just throw out their parents’ old books, magazines, and papers. If you have good books, and if your kids do not want them, you might consider selling them (that is, selling the books, not the kids) while you are alive, or at least making contact with a reputable dealer who is willing to go through your book estate and pay well for them.

These simple guidelines will help you keep your books in good condition for years to come. Since the value of books is so dependent on condition, taking care of them is a financially wise decision as well as the best way to get the most enjoyment from them.