How to care for books

If cared for properly, the books in our libraries may outlast us by centuries. Sure, the way the books were printed – how they were bound – affect the rate of chemical deterioration and mechanical stress; but we can still do a lot. A little consideration and a few preventative measures go a long way in extending the lives of our books.

Environmental considerations

Books are made up of organic matter – paper, cloth, leather, paste – which are vulnerable to environmental conditions. Such materials are especially susceptible to light, temperature, and humidity. Books housed in dry, hot conditions will dehydrate and become brittle; those kept in damp conditions will be susceptible to mold. Books should not be exposed to excessive amounts of light. Sun and fluorescent lighting are the most harmful.

To properly consider environmental conditions for your library:

  • Strive for a cool, dry, stable environment;
  • Keeps lights off when at all possible;
  • Block daylight with curtains, shades, or filters;
  • Avoid placing books near heat sources – fireplaces, radiators, etc.;
  • Place books/bookshelves against inside walls; outside walls can transfer cool, damp air;
  • Maintain a temperature near 70 degrees F with 50% humidity, for books housed in rooms that are often in use;
  • Make use of air conditioners, dehumidifiers, and humidifiers as needed – to remove heat or moisture or add moisture.


As you begin to shelve books, there are two vital objectives: maintain good air circulation and protect the spine. Allowing the air to circulate properly prevents the collection of stagnant air which causes condensation and, eventually, mold. Protecting the spine and joints keeps the book together.

To properly shelve your library:

  • Place vertical books squarely upright;
  • Support books, either by neighboring books or bookends;
  • Avoid overcrowding; support should be firm, but not packed. You could be able to slide a book from the shelf without difficulty;
  • Choose bookends that are stable and smooth to protect covers;
  • Lay oversized books horizontally, in stacks of two or three; if you wish, then protective pads – polyester felt, for instance – may be placed between books to prevent rubbing;
  • Position books an inch from the edge, with space between the book and the back of the shelf;
  • Consider additional protection for more valuable or fragile books, including: polyester book jackets and wrappers, wrappers made of lightweight alkaline paperboard, double-tray boxes, and book shoes.


If books must be packed away and stored, do take precautions. Be aware of the environment, protect the covers and spines – and don’t forget humans are not the only ones fond of books. Rats, mice, silverfish, and any number of smaller insects delight in book buffets.

To properly pack and store your library:

  • Avoid wrapping books in common household plastics (plastic wrap, garbage bags, etc.) – as they degrade they emit gases harmful to books;
  • Store books in specially designed boxes made of alkaline corrugated cardboard; these are available from conservation suppliers;
  • Avoid storing boxes in attics, garages, or basements – if at all possible; these places are notorious for temperature and humidity fluctuations, pests, and leaks or floods;
  • Allocate at least four inches of space between boxes and walls, ceilings, and floors;
  • Maintain a clean, dry storage area and keep a diligent watch for any signs of mice or insects;
  • Consult a conservator, should there be an infestation.


Books, for the most part, should be read; and in order to read them, you must handle them. Just remember to handle with care.

To properly handle your library:

  • Wash hands before you pick up a book – even if they appear clean, the oil on your fingertips can transfer to the pages, oxidize and collect dirt;
  • Wear clean white cotton gloves when handling rare bindings – but avoid turning pages with said gloves;
  • Grab the spine in the middle to remove a book from a shelf;
  • Avoid carrying tall stacks of books, for they might fall and harm the joints;
  • Cradle a book in your hands or lap – this puts the least amount of stress on its spine and joints;
  • Protect the covers of a book that must be opened flat (large reference works, for example) by holding the book in a towel with both ends rolled up for support;
  • Never place an open book facedown onto a flat surface – if it must be photocopied, use a copier with an edge platform that requires only an opening of only 90-degrees;
  • Avoid anything that might cause permanent damage to the book’s spine or pages: ink pens, metal or leather bookmarks, paper clips and other mechanical fasteners, food and drink, sticky-notes, cigarette/cigar smoke, or using books as a storage container (for newspaper clippings, flowers, etc.).


Much like anything else you own, your books require a bit of housekeeping. Regular cleaning not only removes dust and dirt, but provides the opportunity to monitor the overall condition of your library.

To properly maintain your library:

  • Wipe with a clean cloth or soft brush, to the side – away from the headcap toward the fore-edge – when dusting. Brushing down will trap dust particles forever;
  • Use a light suction vacuum cleaner, with cheese cloth tied over the nozzle;
  • Rub gently with a white plastic drafting eraser can help with more stubborn dirt particles. Be sure to brush away any pieces left behind;
  • Avoid oiling leather; tests have shown this is for aesthetics only – it can actually do more damage than good (causes stains, sticky leather, and paper degradation);
  • Consult a conservator before choosing applying any dressing to a book.

Emergency care

Unfortunately into every life some rain must fall. The same can be true for libraries. Occasionally even our books face minor emergencies. You have 48 hours – if temperatures are over 70 degrees and relative humidity is over 60 percent – before mold begins to grown. Therefore, the key to recovery is knowing what to do and then taking swift action to do it.

To properly recover your library from emergencies:

  • Freeze wet books to stabilize them: wrap individual books in paper, pack spine down in waterproof container and freeze in a commercial freezer. Note: For large-scale water disasters, consult a company that specialize in the salvage and treatment of books;
  • Air-dry small batches of wet books: stand books up, fanned open, alternating spine to fore edge, with bookends to prevent toppling. Drop the room temperature as low as practical. Use fans to circulate the air and increase evaporation. And use air conditioners or dehumidifiers to reduce humidity.
  • For glossy paper, interleave every wet page with absorbent paper; when absorbent paper becomes wet, exchange for dry until the pages no longer cling to each other. Failing to do so will cause the pages of the book to stick together – damage that cannot be undone.
  • Place dry books flat with a weight on top to minimize warping.