Rare Books 101, Part III: Storage

This is Part III of my Rare Books 101 Series. If you are new to this blog, please check out Part I (basics) and Part II (editions).

This section is about safely storing your books. Librarians refer to this as “preservation” (rather than “conservation,” which often refers to repairs).

Light

  • I covered this in a previous post, but it is worth beating you over the head with it. Store your books out of direct sunlight. Extensive exposure to sunlight damages book bindings just as it does your skin.
  • If you are worried that the artificial lights you use in your library may produce damaging ultraviolet light, consider buying filters for them. Florescent lights are major culprits.
  • Books ideally should not be kept too close to any light sources because of the heat. (The lights in our gallery have filters both for ultraviolet light and heat.)
The dangers of sunlight: the faded red you can see on the spine can change the value of a book like this from around $80,000 to around $25,000!
The dangers of sunlight: the faded red you see on the spine can in some cases change the value of a book like this from around $80,000 to around $25,000!

Shelving

  • Bauman Rare Books galleries showcase some beautiful mahogany woodwork. A lovely wood bookcase seems ideal to store antique books, but be careful in planning this. Untreated wood can actually leak acids onto the books and cause damage. If you choose wood bookcases, make sure they are coated with a lacquer or another finish that will arrest any possible leakage.
  • Unless books are unusually tall, it is better to store them vertically on the shelf. Horizontal storage, especially when one book is stacked upon another, can cause undue pressure on the bindings and eventually wear on the joints.
  • Do not store the books too tightly—this creates the same problem as horizontal storage.
  • Don’t store books too loosely, either. If a book is allowed to rest at an odd angle (i.e. not exactly 90 degrees), over time this will damage the shape and strength of the binding.
The Las Vegas gallery of Bauman Rare Books, with treated wooden shelves and filtered lights
The Las Vegas gallery of Bauman Rare Books, with treated wooden shelves and filtered lights

Temperature

  • The most important aspect of temperature control is to keep it as stable as possible. If you keep your library at 70 degrees while you are in the room, you really should keep it at 70 degrees always. Fluctuations in temperature are hard on books. 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit is best while still being comfortable for you.
  • The basic rule with humidity is not too dry, not too wet. If you want to be precise, that will be around 45%. Humidity and other forms of water are serious dangers to your books!  If you find mold on one of your books, remove that contagion away from the other books, quarantine it like the plague, and contact a professional to clean it.
  • Because of temperature and humidity, you’re likely abusing your poor books if you keep them in your attic, basement, or garage. Please get them out of there!
A shelf of my books in a cool, shady corner.
A shelf of my books in a cool, shady corner.

Cleaning

  • Surprisingly, dust can actually be a danger to your books. It can get in between the pages and cause damage, and can create an atmosphere perfect for mold.
  • Be sure to dust your books regularly. However, use a feather duster (no chemicals!), and dust with a motion away from the spine. Spines can be quite fragile and you don’t want to knock off a piece while cleaning.
  • Fun fact: Besides the obvious reason that adding gilt to one’s book created an aura of luxury, the gilt top edge of books also served a practical purpose: it formed a sort of wall against dust.
  • If you are considering treating your dry leather bindings with oil, consult a professional first. Some oils are not appropriate for certain books, and in other cases the oil can seep into places it doesn’t belong (particularly if applied incorrectly) and cause damage.
Top edge gilt (t.e.g.). Beautiful and useful.
Top edge gilt (t.e.g.). Beautiful and useful.

Boxes

  • Many more expensive or fragile rare books have a clamshell box custom made for them. A clamshell defends against two of the biggest problems in book storage: light and dust. They are highly recommended, but expensive. Here’s a Las Vegas-based box maker’s website
  • If the cost of a clamshell box is prohibitive, a basic archival storage box like this one can be useful.

Other forms of storage

  • Often people will bring me books kept in plastic zipper bags. This is a bad idea for long-term storage. Over time the plastic can release gases that, beneath the zipper, get caught with the books.
  • A cardboard box is not necessarily the best idea, either. Air flow is greatly beneficial to books, particularly to avoid mold and vermin (insects, mice, etc.).
Bad.
Bad.

So I guess you’ll just have to commandeer that guest room and turn it into your personal library. There’s nowhere else to properly store your books!

Final thoughts

Now that you feel confident you know how to keep your books from deteriorating, let me add one more thing. Some books will continue to deteriorate anyway. It’s not you. It’s them.

For example, a book produced after about the 1840’s will often contain highly acidic paper. The acid will continue to eat at the paper. That’s not your fault.

If you want to arrest even these more complex internal time bombs, consult a conservator. There are, for instance, de-acidification agents you can use on paper. But a basic tutorial from a professional is recommended before you let yourself loose on your books armed with chemicals.

This entry has covered only storage of books. Stay tuned for handling and restoration, covered in Parts IV and V.

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris says:

    Do you recommend the use of Mylar covers for dust jackets, and do they provide any protection from UV rays? Thank you!

    1. Yes, I do recommend Mylar for dust jackets (I should add that into this post somewhere…). But no, they do NOT provide protection from UV rays.

  2. I consider myself very lucky to have read and collected comic books as a kid. Not only are children who read comics exposed to great storytelling and a modern mythology where good always triumphs over evil, but they also learn early on the value of protecting a valuable. Even though most of the comic books I read did not become valuable later in life, it was worth it, to me, to keep them out of harsh sunlight, stored in plastic with backer boards and worthy of the “mint condition” assessment raters give. I never had an Action Comics 1 but some are worth quite a bit now that I’m pushing 40 and the preservation lessons I learned with them have translated into rare book collecting quite well.

    1. What a great little kid you were! I’m impressed.

  3. vanbraman says:

    Thanks Rebecca, reminds me that I need to do some work organizing my library to better protect some of my books. Looking forward to the episode tonight with the FDR letter. A nice treat for Presidents Day weekend.

  4. Would you say the same rules or suggestions apply to all paper products ?

    1. For the most part, yes, but paper products have their own set of rules. Many of the same things apply (like avoiding light) but in particular storage can be different. Mylar sleeves and such are useful for paper products. Also, paper products like newspapers generally benefit from de-acidification treatments that you wouldn’t necessarily be inclined to do for a book.

  5. Anton says:

    Hi Rebecca!

    Since humidity is damaging to books, I assume fire-proof safes are out since they tend to get pretty wet inside. Do you have any tips regarding fire-related dangers? Thanks!

    1. Mel says:

      Yes! Please let us know what you might recommend for fire proof storage. I was thinking about getting a safety deposit box, because I read that safes create humid environments.

  6. Holly says:

    Hi. I work for a law library. They have a ton of clamshell book boxes. Is it okay to store books horizontally on top of each other in clamshell boxes?

  7. connie says:

    is there a way to protect books from fire? i have several that were my grandfathers, mothers and fathers that i want to preserve for future generations (family heirlooms they could become and well have become) thanks

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