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Maintaining the Condition of Rare Books

One of the most important considerations in maintaining the condition of your book collection is the storage of your books. Most book collectors are aware of the importance of using acid-free paper, but ‘acid-free’ should extend to all surfaces which come into contact with your books over an extended period of time. One of the primary areas to examine, as a collector, is your book storage.


It is no coincidence that libraries and archives often use metal shelving units. Although it might not be an aesthetic decision, metal shelving is ideal because of the material it is made from. If coated with a baked enamel finish, it should protect your books for years to come. At the risk of making your home resemble your local under-funded public library, one may still prefer the traditional wooden shelving as the best solution. It can be. However, as a responsible collector one must ensure that the shelves are varnished with a finish that won’t damage the print or leaves. Protecting your books from the wood can be done by applying a number of varnishes, for example, water-based aliphatic urethane or a two-coat epoxy finish.



How your books are stacked will also affect their longevity and appearance. Simply putting a book on a shelf can change its shape over time, leading to damage which will decrease its value. Firstly, you should avoid letting the books slouch. This can result in curvature of the spine and some warping of the boards. Although this advice may contradict your instinctive desire to have the books stacked pleasingly side by side, books which are wider than 3 inches and taller than 18 inches (heavier folios) should be laid flat. This is because the bindings of such large books cannot support the spine. Over time, if the books are stored upright, the spine will weaken, warping the covers and damaging the leaves.

These volumes should not be stacked more than three high in order to protect the book at the bottom of the pile. Resisting the urge to order your books alphabetically can also help to preserve your collection. It is best to group the works by size, so that they may support one another on the shelf. Additionally, it is important not to stack the works too tightly together in order to prevent abrasion on the bindings.


It is generally recommended that rare and antiquarian books should be kept in humidity between 45 and 60 per cent. In an atmosphere such as this, the books should be prevented from suffering from damp. Excessively bright natural light can also damage books, especially cloth bound volumes. Furthermore, the heat from light can accelerate the drying process which may affect any glue used in the binding process, and will leave the leaves crisp and more prone to tearing. Both our shops have windows coated with UV-filtering film and we recommend that collectors consider using this.

Acid-free UV-resistant plastic book covers will also protect individual books from damage from sunlight, as well as acting as a barrier to oils, dirt and handling.

Because books can attract pests, taking books off the shelves to dust them will help unsettle anything that might be making your books their new home. Bookworms and silverfish are less likely to damage your collection if the books are regularly opened and the leaves turned. To deter rodents such as mice, check around the edges of the shelves for droppings and areas which they may have chewed through. The simple task of regular dusting is also helpful.


If a book has become damaged by rodents, damp or general wear, resist the temptation to fix the book yourself. If the boards have become detached from the book block or there is a tear in the binding, secure the book using cotton tape tied around it, before taking it to a professional restorer.

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If you would like advice about professional book restoration, the Chelsea Bindery and Peter Harrington offer a complete service. Please contact Emma Doyle emma@peterharrington.co.uk

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