Don’t be afraid. Be careful, but don’t be afraid.
This is Part IV of my Rare Books 101 Series. If you are new to the Series, you can read the other articles here:
I often see a contradictory mix of emotions on a person’s face when I hand him a first edition copy of his favorite book. Joy, elation, sure. But also surprise (you’re letting me touch this?), and fear. Friends, I understand and even appreciate the impulse not to want to touch an object worth thousands of dollars that you do not own. But I’m giving you permission. And you can be sure I won’t let you do anything to hurt that baby.
First, let’s get the white glove silliness out of the way. We don’t wear white gloves. They lead to more damage than protection. Relatively clean hands will work just fine. (Though if you just walked down the hall from the burger joint, a quick hand wash would be appreciated.)
Now to practicalities. There are two rules of handling a book that will immediately reduce the risk of you hurting it by about 90%. (The other 10% involves less likely scenarios like dropping the book, or vainly trying to open a folding map on your own.) If you’re doing these two things, and otherwise acting with deliberate care, you are qualified to handle most rare books.
1. Avoid pulling the book down by the head of the spine.
The part of a book that is visible when it is on a shelf next to other books is called the spine. The top of the spine is called the head. Seems like a perfect little tab to pull down the book, doesn’t it? Do not use it.
The head is extremely weak, and will flake or break off if consistently used to pull the book down. Instead, you can grab the book by one of two methods:
Method 1: Pull the book down from the back, keeping your finger against the paper of the book itself.
Method 2: Grab the book from around its center, with your fingers on either side.
2. Avoid placing stress on the joints of a book.
The joints of a book are where the spine meets the front and back covers (we call them “boards”). In opening the book, the board pivots at an angle controlled by the joint. Try to avoid opening a book more than 90 degrees (and even less for some books).
As a student I used to lay my textbooks out with both boards resting flat on the table. Now I know this is one of the worst strains to put on a book. (Ah, youth.) The boards of a book will slowly become detached from the rest of the book if strained like that.
Instead, there are four ways to open a book safely:
Method 1: Hold the book in your hand, with the palm of your hand set against the spine, your thumb against one board, and your fingers against the other board. That way, when you open the book, either your fingers or your thumb are controlling the angle of the joints.
Method 2: Better yet, set the book on a table and use your left hand to hold up the front board at a safe angle. As you look through the book, you simply gather more of the pages into your left hand.
Method 3: When handling extremely large books, it’s admittedly a bit of a strain to hold up the front board and all those huge pages. That’s where a book cradle comes in. A book cradle protects the joints of a book without requiring hands-on support, so you can page through larger books.
**Keep in mind that a cradle should really only be used for larger books—the shape of the cradle is meant for the angle of larger books, so smaller books will not fit as well and will receive strain on their joints if placed into that shape.
Method 4: If you really need both your hands when looking at a smaller book that won’t fit appropriately in a cradle, you can set an object (perhaps another book) just to the left of the book you are opening. The right object will hold the book’s angle for you safely, leaving your hands free.
**Keep in mind that this method will work only with books that can comfortably open to a bit more than a 90 degree angle—books whose bindings are not too tight, nor too loose from mishandling. As such, it’s not ideal, but can sometimes be necessary.
If you’re following these two rules, you can safely handle the vast majority of rare books.
But yes, yes, there are some times when these rules aren’t quite enough. There are extremely expensive or fragile items that even rare book dealers avoid handling as much as possible. But it’s my responsibility to let you know the difference, not yours. Bauman Rare Books does not put any of those types of books on open shelves, so any you can pull off the shelf yourself are fair game. As for the books in the showcases, just ask. Most of them are perfectly fine to handle, and we are happy to get them out for you. You came all the way down to our gallery to see some rare books, right? How can you leave without holding a first edition of your favorite book?
Books are engineered to take a lot of wear because books are meant to be handled. Don’t miss the opportunity to touch a piece of history.
Stay tuned for the next parts of the Rare Books 101 Series, on investments and restoration.
And for more ways to ruin your books, check out this post.