Rare Books 101, Part IV: Handling Rare Books

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:

Part I: Basics
Part II: Editions
Part III: Storage


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.


Pulling the book from the back.
Pulling the book from the back.


Method 2: Grab the book from around its center, with your fingers on either side.


Pull the book from the center, avoiding the weak head of the spine.
Pull the book from the center, avoiding the weak head of the spine.


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.


Imagine this is a rare book, not a catalogue, and cringe.
Imagine this is a rare book, not a catalogue, and cringe.


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.


Holding a book properly in improper light.
Holding a book properly, in improper light. And at an awkward angle. (I took these photos alone, give me a break!)


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.


Reading a book on a table.
Reading a book on a table.


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.


The book cradle, lending gravitas to books for hundreds of years.
The book cradle, lending gravitas to books for hundreds of years.


**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.


Hands-free support using another book. Not my favorite, but acceptable in some circumstances.
Hands-free support using another book. Not my favorite, but acceptable in some circumstances.


**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.



13 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Gothard says:

    Really enjoying your Rare Books 101 posts…and learning a ton! Thanks, Rebecca!

  2. John says:

    Hi Rebecca
    Thanks for those tips on removing books from shelves. I have been doing it from the top of the spine for a long time now. I didn’t know it was wrong on that.

  3. Michael says:

    Hi Rebecca,
    I have been collecting books for years and enjoy when those that are so well versed in the business like yourself take the time to impart the knowledge you have learned. I do have one question…Why do so many dealers (in their stores or at book fairs) pack their books so tightly on the shelves. It seems like they are asking for trouble. I have seen many people struggle to remove the book they want to see even when they are attempting to do so correctly. As for the novices they either give up or worse grab it from the head of the spine.

    1. Michael, there are a number of ways to answer that question. One answer: not all dealers are equally as concerned with such things. Another more polite answer would be that they expect you to pull the book from the back, in which case tightness doesn’t matter as much (leaving aside the problem of tightness itself for long-term storage). But, really, what it often comes down to in that situation is fitting all the books they brought into their booth. In other words, practicalities. It can be easy for any dealer to smudge a little on rules when practicalities are staring them down. I take a pretty hard line here on the blog about handling and storage, but part of that is because my audience is for the uninitiated. Dealers who know their stuff also tend to know when they can bend the rules a little, but I wouldn’t encourage someone without a lot of experience to bend them. So…I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not supporting dealers who make it difficult as you say, but I’m not completely condemning them, either. Case by case.

      1. Michael says:

        Thanks for getting back so quickly. Enjoy the rest of the day!

  4. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy and commented:
    This basically covers a lot of useful stuff:

  5. Eric Stone says:

    Has Part V been published? Great AMA, by the way!

  6. Jeff says:

    Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks for these posts, It’s great information, and I’m learning a lot.

    I stumbled onto these pages looking for a book cradle, but I haven’t seen anything like the one pictured above (the same one Rick has on Pawn Stars?). I feel like I’ve looked everywhere twice, but I’ve come up empty. Where did it come from? I’d love to get my hands on one. Thanks!

    1. Jeff, hello, thank you for the kind words. We have always had our book cradles custom made. You may want to try giving your local university special collections a call to ask if they know anyone locally who makes such things.

      1. Jeff says:

        I’ll give that a try. Thanks!

  7. Bob Caldwell says:

    Rebecca: I had been told that you wear white gloves because of the oils in a person’s hands. That’s the reason I always wash my hands when I go into a guitar shop. Does the oil not affect a book? Or would you just have to handle it so many times to make a difference?

    1. Thanks for the comment. I deal with this question at length in another post (link below), but in short: the difficulty in handling that goes with gloves makes it more likely you will do damage to book wearing them than from the oils on your hands. This conclusion comes from conservators across the globe after careful study, and in fact it’s generally a mark of amateurism if someone handling a book (not other materials, but specifically a book) uses gloves to do so. (Nevertheless: yes, you should nevertheless try to wash your hands before handling them.)


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