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Caring for Your Books Properly

In order to maintain the integrity of book collections, it is imperative to take time to look at the causes of damage and deterioration. Improper handling, storage materials and storage conditions can take their toll on any book. By taking necessary steps to mediate these issues, a book’s lifetime can be greatly extended.

Maintaining strict handling standards can keep books from experiencing unnecessary damage. Prior to handling any book, hands should be washed thoroughly. Oils from your hands can transfer easily to the cover and pages of a book and attract dirt. Cotton gloves can be helpful, but it is essential to take care, as there will be some loss of dexterity and brittle pages may be more easily damaged. Any extraneous materials, such as paper clips or bookmarks, should be removed. Because books are intended to be held in your hands or lap, it is important to make sure the book has support to prevent damage to the spine. Book cradles are recommended if the book needs to be set on a table. Books can be severely damaged during photocopying on machines with a flat platen. It is vital to never press the spine down to get a good image. Investing in a copier made specifically for books or limiting copying to trained staff can protect the spines of your books.

The conditions of the storage location can make or break your book preservation efforts. Books are composed of a variety of materials and are extremely vulnerable to the environment in which they are kept. Avoid exposure to excessive amounts of light. Light damage is irreversible – daylight and fluorescent lighting have high levels of UV radiation which causes rapid deterioration and damage. Never keep books in a basement or attic. A stable temperature and relative humidity are crucial. Hot, dry conditions can cause paper and leather to become brittle and warm, damp conditions can encourage mold growth and pests. A cool, dry and stable environment will keep your collections safe.

For large book collections, storage on powder-coated shelving can be a more economical choice. When storing books on shelving, it is very important to ensure that the books stand vertical and have firm support on either side. Any leaning will put stress on the entire structure of the book and can deform the spine. Book supports can be used but they should be stable and have a smooth surface to avoid damaging book covers by abrasion. While books should be upright, they should not be so tightly packed that they are difficult to remove. Leave an inch or so of space behind shelved books to promote air circulation. Volumes that are taller than 18” or have a spine more than 3” wide should be stored flat. Do not stack them more than 2-3 volumes. Using protective pads between each book can prevent damage from the covers rubbing.

For smaller collections or books that are rare, fragile or damaged, storage in individual boxes can be beneficial. All storage materials should be acid- and lignin-free. Do not wrap any books in common household plastics because as they degrade, they emit harmful gasses. Custom boxes tailored to fit your rare books offer the best protection. If this is not possible, choose the closest size box available and pad the extra space with crumpled archival quality tissue.

If you are repairing books, choose archival quality materials and adhesives which will remain flexible over time. For rare books, leather bindings and special collections, it’s recommended to consult a professional bookbinder or book conservator. Locate a conservator near you with the Find a Conservator tool via AIC.


For Further Reading:


Download Our Bookcraft Book Repair Guide >

"Caring for Your Treasures: Books." © American Institute for Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works.

"Proper Care and Handling of Books." © Library of Congress.

"Basic Care - Books." © Canadian Institute of Conservation.