August 01, 2004

Caring for Your Library

by Alan Beatts

We're frequently asked by our customers how to store and protect their hardcover books.  Though most avid readers (myself included) don't really think of our books as an investment, a good hardcover SF and Fantasy library that covers the past ten or twenty years is worth a respectable amount of money (i.e. thousands if not tens of thousand of dollars) if sold to a specialty bookseller.  This is even more true if you have been collecting works from various small presses or avidly collect horror fiction.  However, the value of a book drops sharply when it is damaged.  Even damage that seems perfectly acceptable to a reader will reduce the value by as much as twenty-five to fifty percent.  So, I have written the following suggestions that, if followed, will help preserve the value of a collection without interfering with the enjoyment of reading one's books.  

In general, there are five things that damage books -- damp, heat, sunlight, pests and abuse.  Here's how to prevent a good portion of each type of damage along with a few do's and don'ts.
1)  Damp will damage books directly by causing the pages to swell, which damages the binding and destroys the glue at the spine.  Secondarily it can cause mildew and rot which can spread like wildfire to other nearby books.  Finally, dust on the top edge of the pages will absorb moisture which leads to spots of brownish discoloration called "foxing".  So -- Don't keep your books in basements, near windows (especially in cold climates where condensation will produce astonishing amounts of dampness) or anywhere else where there is an unusually high level of moisture.  Dust or vacuum the tops of your books every few months to prevent foxing.  And don't read hardcovers (or paperbacks that you care about) in the bathtub.

If you must store your books for a long period, use plastic storage boxes instead of cardboard boxes and for an extra level of security, wrap precious books in saran wrap to keep them dry (warning -- plastic wrap will do just as good a job of keeping moisture IN as out so make sure to wrap your books on a day when the humidity is low and, if you live somewhere like New Orleans or Florida forget about plastic wrapping entirely).

2)  Heat dries out the binding, the glue (especially for paperbacks), and the paper.  In all these cases, drying leads to stiffness and, eventually, cracking.  Heat will also accelerate the normally slow progression of acid (from the manufacturing process) yellowing of the pages.  This is called "tanning" in collector's circles and is an unavoidable result of age in paper that is not "acid-free".  Most small presses use acid-free paper as do most major US publishers for their hardcovers.  However, British and older US hardcovers, as well as most softcovers use less expensive papers.  Like most chemical reactions, tanning happens much faster when heat is applied.  How much faster?  Based on my own experience it can accelerate the process by a hundred-fold.

Like dampness, the cure is to keep your books away from sources of the problem -- like floor and wall heater registers and fireplaces.  But the biggest culprit for heat damage is . . . 

3)  Sunlight. Sunlights hits books with a one, two punch.  First it causes all the damage associated with heat.  In addition, it will cause the ink on the dustjacket to fade --  sometimes very rapidly -- and curl as the outer surface dries faster than the inner one.  I have seen book covers fade significantly after only a week of exposure to intense sunlight.  The actual boards of the cover can even curl as a result of uneven drying.  Again, the solution is simple.  Don't put your books were they'll be hit by direct sunlight.

4)  Pests, though not terribly common, can cause catastrophic damage to not just one book but an entire collection.  The obvious risk are rodents.  I know of one case where a collector passed away and a bookseller went to make a bid on the collection.  One long shelf held many thousands of dollars of modern first editions.  Upon removing a volume from the middle of the shelf, the bookseller (and the collector's widow) discovered that there was a two inch hole chewed entirely through the book from the front cover to the back cover.  Almost every book on the shelf had similar damage.  It seems that mice had been using the shelf as a highway for months if not years.  

A less obvious risk are little insects called (at least in my part of the world) silverfish.  Paper seems to be one of their favorite meals and they can do huge amounts of damage to books in a very short time.  The remedy to both of these pests is obvious enough to not bear mentioning.

5)  Abuse is the most common form of damage.  Obviously one should treat books gently.  Don't drop them or fling them around.  Don't open them so far while reading that the spine creaks or develops creases.  Don't put them down open and face down to mark your place.  When they are on the shelf, make sure that they are either standing straight up with the bottom edge of both covers (or "boards") fully in contact with the shelf or lying flat on their sides.  Any other position can caused a spine "lean" where the binding is cocked or skewed to one side or the other.

But most importantly, put mylar "jacket protectors" on the dust jackets of all your hardcovers.  They protect against moisture, rubbing and tears.  There are several brands on the market but we use the ones made by Brodart ( ) at Borderlands.  Finally, if you are a smoker (like me), don't do it around your books.  The smell gets into the pages and never goes away.  Either put the books in plastic bags like the ones used at comic books shops or smoke in another room.

In closing, let me make one disclaimer -- the preceding is meant as a rough guide for reasonable care of modern books.  The precautions mentioned are designed for the average reader not the serious collector.  For more detailed information I suggest you contact your local library and peruse the catalogs of companies like Brodart.

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