Preserving and Storing Antique Books

In the opinion of a number of book collectors we have gotten worse at carry and storing antique books in the last century. In a culture in which we have grown accustomed to advances of every kind this might seem absurd but they have a point. A number of modern factors have contributed to the general decline of old printed matter. The biggest culprit is central heating but environmental contaminants and modern building materials have done their part as well.

Ideally antique books should be stored in a cool place with a constant humidity of about 55%. In a perfect world the room?s temperature would never get above 68 degrees F. Of those two factors the relative humidity is both the most difficult to maintain and the most important. This is particularly true of documents with layers of paint or gilding.

Modern buildings are built for the comfort of humans not the preservation of antique books. In the old days buildings were often made of stone or brick and were not sealed as tightly as modern ones. Insulation and central heating create an environment that is still with huge fluctuations in the relative humidity, very bad for antique books but excellent conditions if you want to grow mold.

The bookshelf is a wonderful design for organizing and storing books when it comes to the convenience of humans. They are not, however difficult it might be to believe, particularly good for books. In the very old days, before the 16th century, books were nearly always stored flat on their sides. The change to standing books vertically on their bindings was a boon to librarians but was quite literally a drag on books. Gravity pulls the printed pages downward and forward away from their cover boards.

The need to strengthen the binding against the effects of vertical storage changed the shape of books forever. To compensate book spines were increasingly rounded and lined until they obtained the clam-like shape of modern hardback bindings.

The thicker the material making up the lining and covering the more restricted the opening of the book becomes. The boards hinge and suspend the bulk of their weight on the relatively small points of at the very tops of the backing shoulders. The strain is directly on these joints and so books that have bindings that appear to be in excellent condition can actually be coming loose from their boards.

In most cases a collector will be unable or unwilling to do the best thing for the book, which is proper book-boxing. Understandably most people want to have their antique manuscripts and books on display and handy. A few simple things will help keep your shelved books safe and beautiful.

The shelf should be full and employ bookends that match the books size and shape as closely as possible if needed. If the books are not held firmly together it increases the risk of damage to the joints and shifting can pull the printed page block away from the boards. If book ends are required to keep enough pressure on the books it should match the books in general size and should always present a flat broad surface to the book. However the books should also not be crammed together too tightly as this will also lead to inevitable damage to the spine and mars on the book?s covers.

The shelves should be solid and unbending to prevent the books from shifting. In most cases it is wise to cover the surface of the shelves with acid free paper or card stock that has been secured firmly to the shelves. The paper lining protects the books from paint, varnish, and a similar material from wooden shelves and in the case of metal shelves all of those plus oxidation.

Most important of all in protecting shelved books is care in handling. Careless removal of an antique book from its place on a shelf will place unnecessary strain on both that book and its near neighbors on the shelf. Books should be slowly pulled from the shelf and some kind of spacer put in its place to maintain support for the books on each side. There are acid free paper covered blocks available for just this purpose.

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Posted on October 26th, 2006
Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions

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