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Collecting Info: Book Care, Repair and Conservation

Caring For Books

To booksellers it's a too familiar scenario. A caller offers books for sale - a collection or a family accumulation - full of interesting titles and sought-after subjects. The caller says something like, "They're in pretty good shape," and the bookseller makes the house call, only to find damp, moldy, underlined, jacketless, sun-faded, and generally unsaleable books. A disappointment to both owner and bookseller. Too bad. With proper care, books last a long time. Without it, they deteriorate quickly and become an unwelcome donation to the Friends of the Library sale.

Plenty of good advice about how to care for books is available and, in the following paragraphs, I've tried to summarize it and to suggest a few sources for additional information.

Damage to books usually results from careless handling or improper storage so here are some suggestions for avoiding the most common book disasters. Some seem too obvious to need stating, but I've seen so many books damaged by carelessness or ignorance that spreading the word seems worth doing.

Use bookmarks. Never dog-ear a book to mark your place. Well, if itís a paperback of John Grisham or Sue Grafton, dog-ear all you want. It'll probably never be worth anything anyhow. On second thought, someone probably said that about the first editions of Gone With the Wind and Tarzan of the Apes. Both are now worth thousands. But not in paperback, so I think you're safe doing anything you want with paperback bestsellers. Paper clips, rubber bands, locks of hair, rubber bands, string, dental floss, pencils, etc. aren't bookmarks and shouldn't be used as such. Flat paper bookmarks really are best. Archival paper is nice, but if you remember to take the marker out of the book when you decide to quit reading, ordinary paper markers are fine. Pieces of paper, left in a book for 20 years, leave a brown stain so eschew the common practice of leaving bookmarks, relevant newspaper articles, scraps of paper, etc. in the book. Avoid markers, which damage the pages. Leave your grandmother's silver Tiffany marker on display, not in the book. Oh, and, as your fourth-grade teacher mentioned, don't leave the book open and flat to save your place.

Any marks in or on books lessen their value. That includes coffee stains, rings left by glasses, your name and address, grandmotherly admonitions, underlining, highlighting (yellow highlighters ought always to be kept at least 10 yards away from valuable books), and, yes, even the cleverest of bookplates. Unless, of course, you are so important that your bookplate or signature lends value. If that's the case, annotate, underline, and commission a bookplate of your very own. But not otherwise.

Save the dust jackets. A truly collectible book loses appeal and value dramatically when the dust jacket is gone. Protect dust jackets with clear plastic covers. Once you're used to having them on your books, you'll be uncomfortable reading books with naked jackets. Resist the temptation to make your own covers out of brown paper. They discolor the endpapers of the book. Most good booksellers can either sell you covers or suggest a source. I happen to like Gaylord Brothers, but there are others. Ever noticed those tiny tears at the top of the spine of many books? They're a common fault and result from removing the book from the shelf by pulling at the top of the spine (the head cap). Better reach in from the top and slide the book out or push the books on either side in and grasp the spine. Dust with a feather duster (away from the spine) or a hand vac set at a very low power.

Advice for the preservation of leather bound books used to be to use a leather preservative twice a year. The Library of Congress and AIC (The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) now recommend against such preservatives. A clear, plastic cover on a good leather-bound book will help to preserve it and protect it from rubbing. Don't leave it wrapped in plastic for a long period of time though. It needs to breathe.

Store books carefully. The rules are simple but finding the space and creating the correct environment are often inconvenient ---- the result being books "temporarily" stored in bad places that turn out to be book homes for a generation or more.

At the top of the list of things to be avoided are heat, dampness, UV rays, and extreme changes in temperature and humidity. According to the AIC, "a cool, dry, and stable environment" is best for book rooms. For rooms shared by people and books, 70 degrees F and 50 percent relative humidity is recommended. If the books don't have to share their space with people, lower temperature is even better. The best shelving protects books from dust and dirt (glass doors are nice) and allows books to be shelved upright with space both in back and front of the books. Not too tightly packed in please---that leads to the spread of mold and to damage resulting from prying the books loose. Avoid placing shelves on outside walls where damp and mold are more likely to become problems than on inside walls and make sure there's no direct sun on books (UV rays fade bindings and dust jackets in a matter of hours). Really valuable books should be kept cool, at low humidity, and, preferably, in the dark. Not practical? Well, come as close as you can.

Speaking of really valuable books, archival boxes, which may be custom made or bought from any of a number of suppliers, are almost a necessity. They guard against dust, sunlight, and accidental damage. And the much-mocked white gloves are not a bad idea either. If you don't have time for those, do make sure your hands are clean.

A number of websites offer advice on the care of books:
  • The Library of Congress site is good, but brief. It's at

  • More complete is the AIC site at (which includes a brief bibliography)

  • And more fun is the Tappin Book Mine site at
It's worth checking sites like these every so often. Advice on the best ways of caring for books changes as more is known so expert recommendations are worth keeping track of.

Oh, and enjoy your books. Love them. Talk with them occasionally. I'm not sure why it helps, but I know they hate being neglected.
Content provided by Martha Kelly

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