Many of our customers have asked us: How do I protect my collection?
In this post we’ll try to encapsulate some of the answers we’ve provided over time – as well as the thinking behind these answers.
Book collectors are generally a fastidious lot. And with good reason. These objects embody time and place and encapsulate distilled perspective from the essentially human quest for understanding that links generations. In more tangible terms, books are assets and heirlooms, often with substantial worth.
The books we collect are also inherently and vexingly perishable. Use will diminish their condition of course. Even if they survive the rigors of human contact, the ambient environment itself will take a slow, inexorable toll. And often the very materials with which the books are made will betray them, as slow, complex, and consumptive chemistry occurs. All of the things that provide for life – light, air, moisture, basic biology, and chemical reactions – besiege the book and bedevil the collector.
Nonetheless, properly treated, nearly any book can look forward to a much longer life than any single collector. That makes you a steward as much as you are an owner. Your job is to ensure that your most precious books pass from your hands to the next with as much defiance of age and injury as possible.
Moderation in all things
So, how do you make sure that happens? “Moderation in all things.” This is a quote variously attributed to everyone from ancient Greek thinkers to modern poets. In a less deeply philosophical sense, it applies well to the task of book collecting.
Moderate temperature, moderate humidity, moderate light exposure. These simple measures will do much to protect your collection.
Temperature. Excessive heat can make paper and bindings brittle, accelerate spotting and fungal growth, and increase the rate of chemical reactions, such as the breakdown of glue or the deterioration of non-acid neutral paper stock. Likely you prefer the inside of your home to be a relatively constant, moderate temperature. So do your books.
Moisture. Water is essential to the growth of the wood and fiber materials from which so many books are made, and the industrial process of transforming these materials into paper and bindings. But after that, water becomes the enemy. Dampness can cause warping, oxidation, and fungal growth. Reasonable humidity is good. Dampness is deadly to books. Unfortunate are books which, like suffering characters in a Dumas novel, are kept in dank, below-ground cells where they slowly expire from withering consumptive disorders. Don’t keep your books in a dungeon.
Light. Light is the luminous energy that makes it possible for those of us with sight to read. Light is also a form of radiation that breaks down the colors and materials and eventually the corporeal integrity of a book. You wouldn’t leave yourself out all the time in direct sunlight. Don’t do it to your books.
Keep your books on clean and tidy shelves, either standing upright or lying flat. This way there is no differential pressure on the binding. For the same reason, when shelving the book, try to place it beside books of a similar size. Try to locate your bookshelves in a place with fairly constant and reasonable temperature and humidity – like the inside of most modern homes. Make sure your shelves are out of direct sunlight.
Every book with a dust jacket that we sell comes fitted with an archival quality clear cover. These covers have clear mylar on the front and acid-neutral paper backing. They fold neatly around a dust jacket with no need for adhesives of any kind and are easily removable. We strongly recommend that you protect all of your dust jackets thus. Brodart and Gaylord are two companies that sell such protective covers. Similar clear mylar cover material can be used to protect bindings that lack dust jackets.
For extra protection on the shelf, bookcases with glass doors help keep out dust and insulate from normal swings in temperature and humidity. These can get pricey, but there are lower cost options too. IKEA is one company that offers a variety of relatively inexpensive cases with doors.
For really precious volumes, a custom box should be considered that will fully encase the book. This option offers fairly comprehensive protection from dust, sunlight, and air pollution. “But,” you might say, “then I won’t get the attractive look of my books on the shelves!” If that’s a concern, a good binder can make sturdy book boxes that have curved and hubbed leather spines, just like a fine binding, so that the boxes will both look great on the shelf and protect the book within. Note the emphasis on “a good binder.” Ask us to refer you to one, which we will be happy to do.
How to handle your books
We’ve talked a lot about how to shelve and store your books, but of course you’ll sometimes want to actually take them off the shelf.
When taking a book from the shelf, always take it from the middle, not the top of the spine, and pull it straight out to prevent damage to the spine and rubbing to the edges. Always support the book at the spine when opening it and be careful not to bend the covers back too far as this may crack the hinges, especially in older books.
And remember that humans are messy creatures. You know how people leave fingerprints on nearly everything they touch? That’s from the oil in our skin. When you touch a book, it’s the same. But unlike the clever villain wiping down a crime scene, you can’t readily remove the oil and dirt you inevitably and indelibly leave on the porous cloth or leather binding you handle. That’s why dust jacket protectors and mylar covers are important, as are clean, dry hands.
DIY for damaged books
Torn dust jacket? Cracked hinges? A loose page? Don’t DIY. Before you try to repair a valuable but damaged book, count to ten. While you are counting, step away from the tape, put down the glue, and call a professional.
Why? Let me ask you this: did you do your last biopsy yourself? Did you self-sew your last round of stitches?
Use of non-archival, non-professionally applied materials – particularly adhesive materials – is usually an irreversible disaster that permanently diminishes the value of your book.
A word on “foxing” and “spotting”
Rust colored spots which occur on paper – most typically seen on endpapers and page edges – are often called “foxing” (so-called for the usually reddish-brown color of the stains) or “spotting”. Informed consensus appears to be that these spots occur on the paper as a result of oxidation of both organic and iron impurities residual from the paper making process. Given the right temperature and humidity conditions, these latent factors cause spotting to occur. Other theories are that some form of fungal growth may play a role. Irrespective, it seems clear that high temperatures and humidity enable and accelerate spotting. Spotting does not impact the integrity of the paper, but does affect aesthetics and, when pronounced, affects value as well.