How to Keep Books in Good Condition, According to a Museum Conservator
You already know the importance of properly caring for family heirlooms (like your wedding veil) and antiques (like paintings and sculptures) to preserve their value, but there's another treasured item in your home that deserves special care: your books. The way you store volumes of text—everything from hardcover cookbooks to paperback novels—can impact how well they age over time. While you may not care how long your latest book club read lasts, anything with value, whether emotional or monetary, can benefit from special considerations.
To help guide you, we asked Sarah Melching, the Silber director of conservation at the Denver Art Museum and a member of the American Institute of Conversation's board of directors, to share her best tips for keeping books in tip-top shape.
Avoid direct sunlight.
Much like a valuable painting or an heirloom tapestry, one of the most important things you can do to preserve a book is monitor the environment in which it's stored. "Most books are primarily organic material," Melching explains. "Those kinds of components are really vulnerable to breaking down when environmental conditions are not maintained." And sunlight is one of the biggest disruptors, she says. Over time, it can not only cause discoloration, but it can also affect the temperature in the room—another important factor in extending the life of your most beloved books. Store books in a darker part of your home—maybe a north-facing room or one that's windows are shrouded in trees. Alternatively, you can pull shades or drapes closed during prime hours of daylight to help reduce exposure.
Keep an eye on the temperature.
To keep precious volumes away from sunlight and prying hands, many store their books in spaces like attics, basements, or garages, but these areas are generally among the worst places to stash anything worth preserving, says Melching. Why? Because they aren't typically climate-controlled, you risk exposing text to harsh conditions that can cause long-term damage. If you must use these areas, do what you can to stabilize both temperature and relative humidity. This might include adding a dehumidifier in particularly sticky locales; or, conversely, utilizing a humidifier in particularly dry areas.
Consider air quality.
If you live in an urban area with poor air quality, an abundance of nitrogen and sulfur components in the air can speed up deterioration, says Melching. There are some great storage boxes that can seal out these elements (more on that later). Alternatively, placing an air purifier in the room in which your books are stored can help improve the air quality and prolong shelf life.
Don't grab a book from the top of the spine.
If the spine is in good condition, most books can—and should—be stored upright, says Melching. When it comes time to grab the book you want off the shelf, most people go about it all wrong, she explains. Tugging books by the upper lip of their binding can compromise and ultimately damage the spine over time. Instead, push in the books on either side of the volume you want. Then, grasp the desired tome by either side of its spine, gently pulling towards you.
Handle with gloves.
"The oils from your hands can also contribute to deterioration," says Melching, who explains that the experts use cotton gloves to handle valuable text in museums. "This provides a nice, clean layer between your skin and the object you're handling." If you don't have a suitable pair of gloves at your disposal, hand-washing with soap and water is the next best thing, she says. Skip the hand sanitizer, though: "There's some research that suggests hand sanitizer can transfer onto paper and cause it to yellow over time," says Melching.
Make a digital copy.
If you have a book that's already beginning to show signs of wear, do what you can to limit handling of any kind—even with gloved or washed hands. When paper begins to wear and break down, it can be extremely brittle and prone to breakage, says Melching. For documents you need or want access to—like, say, a family cookbook—work with someone who can carefully digitize the book or document in question, she says. If you're not quite sure where to find an expert who can help, contact a book conservator. You can find one in your area through the American Institute for Conservation.
Use wrapping or a storage box.
If preservation is your main goal, consider placing archival wrapping—similar to the plastic film on library copies—on books with jackets, particularly any first editions. This not only the book, but also the jacket, says Melching. A conservation-standard (also sometimes referred to as archival-quality) box can also help. These bins are manufactured to fit a vast array of book sizes and protect your most precious tomes from any unfavorable or unstable storage conditions. To ensure the highest level of protection, look for reputable brands, like Gaylord or Hollinger Metal Edge, says Melching. Just be mindful of how you store volumes inside these boxes. You don't want to find yourself digging through a box to find what you need, lest you risk unnecessary damage, says Melching.