Allan Stypeck, owner of Second Story Books in Washington and Rockville, has a shorthand way of explaining how to take care of books: “Treat them as you’d treat yourself.” Among his essentials: “Don’t put them in excessive heat or excessive cold. Keep them dry. Keep them clean. Don’t be rough with them.”
It sounds simple, until you get to the specifics. For example: Do you know you can rough up a book just by opening it on a table? That flattens the spine and stretches the bindings. Better to cradle the book in your hands or lap, or place another book or a rolled-up towel under each cover so the book you are reading opens only partway.
Maybe that seems excessively cautious. Nina Pogorelova Freed, a professional book and paper conservator and owner of Paper & Parchment Conservation in Alexandria (703-548-3507; www.ppconservation.com), says it’s important to remember that books exist mostly so people can read them. “I do read at the table while munching on my lunch,” she said with a laugh. “If I had a book that was really valuable to me or that my family had for a long time, I wouldn’t do that, of course. I would wash my hands. I would open the book carefully. I would keep it away from sunlight. And I would close it and store it behind glass doors.”
So, yes, the amount of care you need to expend on books depends largely on how much you value them.
The two greatest enemies of books are dampness and insects. Floods and drips are obvious problems. High humidity invites mildew growth. Insects — silverfish, beetles and even termites — are most likely to chew into books that are warm, dark, damp and dirty.
Avoid these problems by storing books in rooms you use frequently. A basement gets too cold and clammy. An attic is too hot — and too out-of-the-way. If you keep books where you clean regularly, you’re more likely to notice an insect infestation before it causes extensive damage. Keeping books in main rooms also means you’re more likely to keep temperature and humidity moderate, between 40 and 65 percent. You want it low enough to guard against mildew growth, yet not too dry, especially if you are storing valuable vintage books. “Extreme dryness really affects leather and vellum; they can dry out and crack,” said Candee Harris, co-owner of William F. Hale — Books, a Washington-based rare book dealer that sells online and by mail (202-338 8272; www.abaa.org). Keep bookcases well away from heat sources such as radiators and fireplaces.
Consider the light, too. Ultraviolet light from the sun and from fluorescent and halogen bulbs bleaches color from book covers. It’s worst on paper dust jackets, leather covers and cloth bindings from the 19th and 20th centuries, Harris said. Red fades most. To protect rare and collectible books, she keeps drapes pulled and uses mostly incandescent light. David Ghatan, president of C.M. Kling & Associates, a lighting design firm in Alexandria (703-684-6270; www.cmkling.com), suggests switching to LED lights, which generally do not emit UV.
Store books in bookshelves or cupboards, not in plastic boxes. If you’re storing books primarily to protect them as valuable objects, consider sorting them by size so pressure stays even on the books’ spines. Putting a tall book between short ones can cause the tall book to warp. But if you’re storing books to use for reference or pleasure reading, it makes more sense to arrange them by author, title or subject — whatever system helps you find a book when you want to read it.
Store books upright, or horizontally in short stacks, and don’t pack them too tightly. Consider inserting pieces of synthetic felt (not wool, which could draw insects) between the books to protect the covers.
Some book experts recommend lining up books along the front of the shelf. It’s tidy and allows air to circulate behind. Other experts, Harris among them, push their books almost all the way to the back, so they don’t collect as much dust. Either way, fill shelves completely, or use smooth-sided bookends so volumes don’t lean. Avoid overstuffing shelves.
How best to pull out a book? Don’t pull on the spine top, known as the headcap, or it might break. Grasp the middle of the spine, after pushing in neighboring books, if necessary. Or push out the book from behind. Or press a finger against the top edge of the book and gently tip the book toward you.
Oil from your hands can build up on pages of books that are used often and eventually darken and stain the paper. Book-care experts used to recommend wearing cotton gloves while perusing rare books, but that turned out to increase the risk of tearing fragile pages. The advice now: Keep pages clean by washing your hands first and by avoiding snacks as you read.
If you need to interrupt your reading, use a paper bookmark — not metal or leather or anything that could leave residue, including Post-It Notes. If you’re reading a collectible book with a dust jacket that’s valuable, consider setting the jacket aside while you read. Or add an acid-free clear cover to protect it.
Usually, this just means dusting them. An old-fashioned feather duster works but stirs up dust. Microfiber dusting cloths hold the dust better. A vacuum — which Freed and Harris typically use — whisks away dust. Use a brush attachment, and limit the suction by opening the wand’s bleed slot, if there is one. Hold the brush slightly away from books. Dusting by hand or vacuum is equally effective when books are only a little dusty; if there is a lot of grime, a vacuum works better. But avoid vacuuming a book that’s especially fragile or valuable.
If book pages are dirty, it’s sometimes possible to clean them. But the process is time-consuming and unlikely to remove old fingerprints. And there’s always a risk of ripping the paper. You might want to leave valuable books just as they are. If you’re determined to clean the pages yourself, follow advice published by the Northeast Document Conservation Center, a nonprofit in Massachusetts. Spot-clean with a vinyl block eraser. On margins, use a vulcanized rubber sponge. (Both are available from Brodart, a library materials supplier, at www.shopbroadart.com.) Do not use granulated vinyl erasers, a material often recommended for cleaning paper, because the particles will work into the binding.
If a page rips in a reference book that isn’t especially valuable, it makes sense to repair it yourself. Follow the Northeast Document Conservation Center’s advice for this, too. But repairing books with broken bindings, insect damage and stains from mildew or water is a skilled art, best left to professionals. It’s pricey — often thousands of dollars — and might not be worth it no matter the cost. “If it’s a 16th-century book with problems, I say don’t do anything,” Harris said. “Appreciate it for all the trials and tribulations it’s been through in its very long life.”
Have a problem in your home? Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.