Caring for rare books
Here are a few suggestions on how to store your rare books correctly and how to prolong their life.
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Treat with care
All books should be handled and stored with care, in order to preserve their good condition or to prevent existing damage becoming even worse. Remember that books printed from the mid-19th century onwards are usually printed on mechanical ground wood pulp paper, which often has a high acidic content and can quickly become discoloured and brittle if not kept in the right conditions.
Storing your rare books
Large heavy folio-size books are best stored flat. Other books on shelves should be kept upright at 90° to the surface of the shelf and should be supported on either side by books or book stands of similar size, to prevent the covers becoming warped. Do not pack the books in too tightly or the covers will be damaged when you attempt remove books from the shelf.
Pulling a book by the top of its spine to take it from the shelf will damage it — as will leaving it face down and open for any length of time.
Improving the environment
Two factors can improve environmental conditions for your books:
- Temperature and humidity
Books should be stored away from direct sunlight, which can bleach spines and paper and can lead to an increase in the acid content of paper.
Temperature and humidity
The temperature and relative humidity in a room where books are stored are also very important. Taking the following basic steps should help preserve your books.
Try to achieve a constant temperature and humidity within the book storage area and ensure that there is a regular circulation of air — a cardboard box in the attic is not usually the best location to store valuable books. If the room is too hot and dry, leather bindings can dry out and crack; books should therefore be kept as far away as possible from heat sources such as radiators and fires. However, a low temperature in itself does not hamper the growth of mould. It is important therefore to avoid storing books in damp conditions to prevent spores of fungi (mould and mildew), which are always present in the atmosphere, from blooming on your books.
Books should be kept away from sources of moisture and condensation and from water pipes in case they burst or leak.
Wherever possible try and keep the room temperature within the range of 16°C to 19°C (60-66°F); if you can measure relative humidity, it should be kept as constant as possible, within the range of 45% to 60%. If you are sufficiently concerned about the conditions in which your books are being stored you can measure them by acquiring a portable electric thermohygrometer, which can give you accurate digital readings of temperature and relative humidity; costs range from £20 to £80 for basic models. Alternatively, if you just want to measure humidity, you can buy a humidity dial (hygrometer).
Cleaning your books
Check and clean your books regularly, as dust can quickly accumulate on books. It is very important to remember that, if the conditions are right, dust can be a food source for mould and mildew, leading to an infestation which can weaken and irreversibly stain books and paper.
To clean rare books:
- Remove the book from the shelf.
- Hold the book closed.
- Carefully brush off the dust with a soft paint brush in an area away from the shelves. This prevents the dust settling back on the books.
Books can also attract pests such as mice, and insects such as silverfish and bookworms, which will leave tell-tale traces of frass (larvae droppings); this is usually found under the spines of books.
Don't repair books yourself
If you buy or own a rare book which is already damaged and has torn pages or covers, worm holes, a cracked or loose binding, etc., it may be tempting to try and repair it yourself. Think again! In attempting to carry out your own repair you may be inflicting even more damage on the book and reduce its value.
Sellotape, Post-It notes and common household adhesives should be avoided as a means of marking or repairing pages and bindings, as the adhesive will dry out, discolouring paper and leaving a permanent residue on the book.
If you have loose covers or boards on a binding, do not use elastic bands to keep the book together as they too will dry out and become brittle and crack. To keep the book together, use cotton tape tied around the top and bottom of a book.
Specialist advice for Britain and Ireland
If you want to get your rare book repaired it is worth contacting a specialist bookbinder and conservator who will use special archival materials to carry out repairs. 'Bookbinders' in your local Yellow Pages is a good place to start. You can also use the Conservation Register as an online source for finding a local conservator in the United Kingdom and Ireland, or you can phone 020 7721 8246 for practices in England and Wales or 0131 668 8668 for practices in Scotland.
Bookbinders and conservators can also supply archival-standard acid-free storage boxes for loose material.
Advice from NLS
At the National Library of Scotland, we can:
- Give initial conservation advice on dealing with mould or insect infestation
- Provide contact details for conservators and bookbinders
- Advise on possible treatment methods
However, we cannot offer to do conservation work for non-National Library collections. See the Preservation and Conservation section for more information.
If you are thinking of having books repaired, it is worth bearing in mind that the professional conservation of books and paper items can be a labour-intensive, expensive process which may cost more than what you paid for the book.
Whatever you do decide, it is better to leave the book alone in its damaged state rather than carry out a botched, unsympathetic repair.