Preservation Week: Taking Care of Books


I went into the Poetry Center building a couple of days ago to do some housekeeping and the second I opened the door, I was hit with that smell. You know--the book smell: paper and glue and occasional leather and a teeny-tiny bit of dust. 

I've been working at the Poetry Center for nearly a decade, and those books are deep in the fabric of my life. I miss them. I know many of y'all do, too. 

Books are friends. We always knew this, and we know it with especial urgency and clarity now. In their honor, and in honor of the American Library Association's Preservation Week,I offer a few tips for extending the life of your book-friends at home. 

There are plenty of fancy tools--and some less-fancy ones--used by book conservators to repair volumes that have been loved a little too well. Here, though, I'm not going to focus on repairs. Instead, I'll focus on preservation: the things we can do to prevent the need for book repairs. Most are refreshingly simple:

  • Fill your shelves so that books stand upright, but don't fill shelves so tightly that it becomes difficult to pull books out. Bindings may become damaged when books lean to one side or the other; covers may be damaged by friction when books are shelved too tightly.
  • If a book is too tall for a shelf, you can lay it flat on the shelf OR shelve it length-wise, spine down (with the spine resting on the shelf). See the short film "Murder in the Stacks" (a classic in library-school preservation classes) for a good demonstration.
  • Keep food and drink away from books.
  • Regular house-cleaning (dusting, vacuuming) will help keep your books free of both dust and pests.
  • House books in a stable, climate-controlled environment, free of big seasonal swings in temperature and humidity. Books don't need anything elaborate here: the general rule for paper-based collections is "if you're comfortable, they're comfortable."
  • Store your books in a location away from windows, if possible. Both visible light and UV radiation are harmful to books; the darker their storage location is, the better.
  • Try not to grab the tops of books as you pull them off a shelf (you've probably seen the damage this can do to the tops of older hardcovers). Instead, grasp the book at the middle of its spine and pull it out gently. 
  • For books, there is (usually) no need to use gloves. Just wash your hands with soap and water before handling your books. (Gloves tend to de-sensitize your fingers. It's scarily easy to tear paper when you have gloves on.)
  • Try not to dog-ear books, and try not to use whatever's in your pocket as a bookmark. (I have a tendency to use receipts as bookmarks--I'll try to stop!) Bookmarks should ideally be made of acid-free paper or cardstock. 

Books are meant to be read and loved! I hope your own books may comfort, cheer, and transport you for years to come.