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Rare Books 101

Rare Books 101: Caring for Your Rare Books

While collectors worry a great deal about caring for their rare books, the good news is that most rare book maintenance is common sense. Happily, we live in one of the best times for rare books. For books from the 19th century or earlier, our dry, pest-free, climate-controlled homes must seem like Eden. Nevertheless, books are fragile. There are a few small things you can do to ensure that your books last for a few more centuries.

One of the greatest dangers to rare books is where you store them. Too often, people put their books in damp, flood-prone basements. Moreover, many people think nothing of keeping books in rooms where they smoke. If you wouldn’t put your most treasured family photos in a certain location, don’t put your books there. The best place for books is a dry, climate-controlled location that is safe from both the vagaries of nature and pollutants.

There are also certain unseen hazards to books. One of them is UV light, including direct sunlight. If you’ve seen a leather binding with a toned spine, you’re familiar with the effects of direct light. Light can also dry out bindings over time. Fortunately, UV-filtering window film and light covers are cheap and readily available on the internet.

Temperature is another unseen concern. Books enjoy a consistent temperature. Try to keep temperature fluctuations within 10 degrees, no matter the time of year. Rooms with books don’t need to be inordinately cold. While cold can be a useful preservation method at institutional libraries, a room that stays around 70 degrees is just fine for the vast majority of books.

If you have a valuable collection, you’re most likely storing it on bookcases or similar furniture. Most bookcases are just fine. Coated wood, for instance, is a great choice of material for a bookcase. Not all wood is ideal, though. Avoid plywood and unfinished wood, which may leach small amounts of destructive acid onto the books and turn them brittle. If you’re just beginning to outfit a library, consider bookcases with adjustable shelves. Ideally, your books will stand up on the shelf unless they are heavy enough (e.g. large folios) that standing them up will cause the text block to tip forward and eventually break from the binding. Like you, books like to be cozy but not crammed into spaces. Shelve them so that they all stand squarely upright, but not so tightly that you’re scraping the covers. Bookends can be very helpful for shelves that aren’t full, since they guarantee that books will stand straight.T

The best thing you can do is use common sense. Dust your books regularly and gently, avoiding the spine. If your books need repair, seek out a professional rather than using non-conservation materials like tape that may harm your books. Many of the books you purchase from Bauman will come with dust jacket protectors, boxes, and/or slipcases. We carefully choose our storage methods and those items can help protect your books from years to come.

No matter how large or small your collection, taking certain reasonable steps can help your books to stay safe and in exceptional condition. If you have any questions about caring for our books, we are, as always, happy to help.

Jessa Feiler

Long-time rare books and manuscripts librarian at Bauman Rare Books, medium-time bookbinder in my home studio.

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