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What is the Best Way to Store Old Books?

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If you are a true book lover, chances are good that you have acquired some old books in a range of conditions. When preparing books for storage, there are some guidelines to implement in order to avoid further deterioration to used books, and protect aged books from handling damage.

Old books can be stored flat, library style, in archival boxes, or in climate-controlled enclosures. Each of these storage types has benefits for particular situations. Some of the factors that affect your choice of storage methods include cost, available space, and condition of the book. 

Read on for some general principles that will allow you to store old books safely without building a climate-controlled archival library vault. Storage methods will also be affected by whether or not you need easy access to your stored volumes.

Storage Preparation for Old Books

Begin With A Careful Inspection

When you are preparing to store your favorite volumes, historical books, and those that have decades of handling, dirt, and wear, each book should be carefully inspected first. Start with the volume on a clean, dry working surface out of direct sunlight. Make sure your hands are clean, or use gloves to avoid skin oils from affecting the condition of the book.

Remove bits of paper or other items used as bookmarks, straighten any dog-eared pages, and realign any loose pages into the proper position. Use a lint-free microfiber cloth to gently wipe down the binding, page edges and dust jackets if they are present. Make sure to identify the difference between existing damage such as old food or beverage stains, foxing, and sun-fading, and ongoing deterioration because of insect infestation, mold, and dampness.

The term ‘foxing’ is used to define the brown spots or blotches which appear in many books produced after the mid-19th century. These books were made of paper from wood pulp which is highly acidic. Acidity is one of the major causes of damage to paper, because the acid eats at the wood fiber, causing it to discolor and become brittle. You can stop initial or further foxing by proper storage in a cool, dry location.

Dealing With Existing Damage

Book bugs come in various types. Some examples are:

  • beetles
  • book lice
  • cockroaches
  • moths
  • silverfish
  • termites

These disgusting and destructive pests can be attracted to and feast on the glue in book bindings, any mildew or mold on the pages, or on the paper itself, The larvae of many of these pests are called bookworms. They often feed on the paper, glue, and bindings of books. Prevention of infestations means keeping the books dry, clean, and free of dust.

You can also try placing an infested book in a plastic bag with a tightly sealed zipper. Remove as much air as possible from the bag before closing. Place it in the freezer for a day or two, but be mindful of humidity to avoid condensation moisture on the inside of the bag.

Books that show signs of mold or mildew can be saved with rapid and specific methods. Use a soft, fine-bristle, dry brush to remove visible signs of mold. Then using a soft cloth or paper towel, lightly dampen the area with hydrogen peroxide or diluted alcohol to prevent regrowth. Allow the books to air dry, or with a fan positioned to blow gently on the dampened area.

Books which have become damp or wet can be dried, but it is a time-consuming process. Remove as much moisture as possible from the book using absorbent paper towels. Several techniques are recommended, depending upon the amount of moisture and the type of binding.

String up paperbacks over a line and allow them to air-dry, while for hardcovers, set them propped open upright and use fans, or rest them flat with paper towels interleaved between the pages. Proper drying will allow for continued use of the volume once the process is complete. It should be noted that it is rare to restore a moisture-exposed book to its original condition.

Organizing Your Collection

It can be very useful (if you have not already done so) to set up a cataloging system which can be as detailed or as simple as you like. Because of organizing the books by size and type, rather than by category, author, or title, a good cataloging system is important when you are searching for a particular book. This information can be helpful in the event of an insurance claim in the aftermath of a disaster.

Some Details About Shelving

Visibility of the volumes you have collected will require a bookcase or bookshelves of some type. The material used for the shelves can affect the condition of the books over time. Options today include wood, metal, glass, and man-made materials. The shelf material which is selected is often a décor decision, but if you are unsure about interactions with your books, use acid-free shelf liners, matte boards, or shelf paper.

Bookshelves, regardless of the material, should not be placed on outside walls of the room, and should not be placed in direct sunlight. High humidity environments can damage the shelves, as well as the books. The best place to put a bookshelf is in a cool, dry location that is not subject to rapid changes in temperature or humidity. The ideal environment for book storage is between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with a relative humidity of 35%.

Wood shelves can be coated with a polyurethane lacquer or other similar finish. Be sure to let it dry and cure thoroughly before placing books on the shelf. Metal shelves have a tendency to rust, particularly in a moist or humid environment. Rusting can damage the binding or stain the books. Metal shelves which have been powder-coated are best. Glass shelves are a low-risk option, so long as they are sturdy enough to support the weight of the books safely.

How to Shelve Your Old Books

Now that you have prepared the books for shelving and placed the bookshelves in the best position to avoid bright lights, moisture, dust, and insects, it is time to place the books on the prepared shelves. Old books can be quite fragile, so you should be aware of the book size, the materials used in the book covers, the orientation, and issues of overcrowding or lack of adequate support.

Don’t overcrowd the books on the shelf. Too many books packed tightly into a space makes them difficult to remove and can cause excess wear to the bindings or dust jackets. The books should support one another comfortably.

There are some beautiful leather bound volumes which come under the heading of old books. They should not be stored next to books bound with cloth or paper. Some leather bindings can cause stains on the cloth or paper books, and inks or dyes in the bindings can stain the leather covers.

Also, remember to periodically remove your books from the shelf to dust the cover, page edges and the surfaces of the shelving. A soft brush is the right tool for this purpose.

Book Sizes

Books come in many different sizes, which will affect how they are placed on a shelf. Folios are the largest and measure more than 13 inches in height. These books can be placed flat on a shelf, but because of their size and weight, should not be stacked more than three high. To avoid placing undue stress on the binding, a larger book should not be placed on one which is smaller. The key element in stacking is that the binding is fully supported across its length and width.

Other common book size terms are:

Quarto (4to) – 10 to 13 inches tall

Octavo (8vo) – 8 to 10 inches tall

Duodecimo (12mo) – 7 to 8 inches tall

Sextodecimo (16mo) – 6 to 7 inches tall.

There are many smaller miniatures (64mo), but most hardbound books will fall within the Octavo or Duodecimo range.

Books which are smaller than Folio size can be aligned upright, as you would see in a library, but certain guidelines apply. Books of a similar size should be placed together to support each other. Books of all sizes should be placed at a 90-degree angle to the shelf. When books are not fully supported, it can affect the strength and alignment of the spine, causing damage and warping if not addressed quickly. Books can be supported using bookends, so long as the bookends are large enough to keep the volume aligned at 90 degrees.

When Your Library Outgrows the Available Space

Most book lovers and book collectors will tell you that they never have enough space to hold all of the books they would like to read. When this happens, you may want to store books in a manner that is a little less accessible. At the same time, you still want to protect the quality and condition of the bindings and pages. Some of the above tips also apply to boxing up books for a more compact storage arrangement.

For long-term storage of your books, you will follow many of the same steps to prepare your books for time in the storage unit. Begin with a careful cleaning and dust removal process. Straighten spines and brush off the dust jackets. Use a soft, fine brush to eliminate any type of foreign material from the dust-jacket, book binding, and pages. Never introduce any moisture into the process. Air out any books that smell damp or musty. Check the books for any evidence of insect pests and treat them rigorously using freezing and air drying.

If you are a book collector and have intentions of selling off part or all of your collection at some point in the future, the condition of the book and the dust jacket are both critical. Pristine condition not only protects the value of the volume, but keeps it in clean and unmarred condition. Using acid-free paper or mylar to protect the dust jacket is a popular solution to wear and tear on the book.

Use boxes that are sized appropriately and that are sturdy enough to hold the weight of the books without collapsing. Use archival type boxes if you want the best protection against acid. You can use regular boxes for paperbacks and other volumes that are only intended to be in storage short-term.

It is not a good idea to use plastic containers to store books, as when such containers are closed, any moisture which is trapped inside can cause problems with mold and mildew. If plastic is your only option, do some preparation by ensuring the contents of the tote or plastic bin are as dry as possible. You can stop condensation from appearing inside the storage totes by packing in moisture absorbents, or desiccants, to soak up moisture.

*Silica gel desiccant is a very good moisture absorbent and it is available at most hardware stores.

Packing your books into storage boxes should be done in a way that there is no pressure placed on the spine or binding. If you align the books in the same way as you would place them on a shelf, with the spine against the outside of the box and the books supporting each other, there is less likelihood of damage due to wear and warping. Be careful not to overfill the boxes, so that the books rub against each other, causing wear and staining.

*Any empty spaces in the boxes should be filled with acid-free paper so that there is less opportunity for rubbing or wear. Do not use newsprint, as the ink can cause damage to the books.

Label the boxes carefully so that you know where to find that volume you are searching for six months in the future. Finally, seal each box carefully with tape that will help provide a complete line of defense against insects.

When looking for a place to put your boxed books, avoid any place that has extremes of temperature or direct sunlight. Of course, you will want to avoid damp basements or dusty attics as well. Never place your boxes on the floor, as that is an open invitation for damage, should the storage unit or other location flood. Place the boxes on shelves, or on other furniture for best protection.

Safely maintaining your collection of old books can bring years of enjoyment as you revisit treasured volumes and share your favorite titles with friends and family. These tips should allow you to be confident when storing your books, whether on shelves or in boxes.