At Home with Books : How Booklovers Live & Care for Their Libraries by Estelle Ellis & Caroline Seebohm

Moving on to William Blades’ next two ‘Enemies of Books’, we have Gas & Heat, and Light.

3. Gas and Heat

Treat books as you should your own children, who are sure to sicken if confined in an atmosphere which is impure, too hot, too cold, too damp, or too dry.


Blades, writing about the twin dangers of gas and heat, had witnessed the damaging effect his gas lamps had on books stored on upper shelves. The sulphur in the gas fumes had turned them into the consistency “of scotch snuff.” Today, air-conditioning and protective cases are the best guards against chemical treats.

Though chemicals such as sulphur dioxide and other air pollutants are a potent danger to books, heat alone can damage the books by drying out and destroying their bindings. Heat, Jane Greenfield says, increase the deconstructive power of acid that may be lurking within a book’s paper or ink, and causes a lowering of relative humidity.

Designer Jack Lenor Larsen recalls visiting an elegant library years ago and being told that four maids would apply Vaseline to all the leather bindings twice a year to prevent them from drying out. For those without four maids or a lot of free time, the best preventative to heat damage is to maintain a library temperature of between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, preferably at the lower end of the scale, and to keep books away from radiator and other heat sources.

4. Light

The electric light has been in use in the Reading Room of the British Museum, and is a great boon to the readers. However, you must choose particular positions if you want to work happily. There is a great objection too in the humming fizz which accompanies it …. and there is still greater objection when small pieces of hot chalk fall on your head.


Though Blades foresaw the downside of electric lighting for the reader, he did not foresee its particular dangers to the books themselves. “Light,” Dorris Hamburg writes, “causes changes in the paper structure itself as well as leading to bleaching, fading, darkening, and/ or embrittlement.” The ultraviolet rays in fluorescent lights can be damaging, explains Elaine Haas, president of TALAS, a professional resource center for libraries. If you have very valuable books, she suggests you slip special ultraviolet absorbent material over the fluorescent tubes.

But in addition to artificial light sources, sunlight can be equally or more damaging. Even indirect sunlight can lead to fading. An unpopular but simple way to protect your collection is to draw the blinds in your library. Food book collector Richmond Ellis uses window shades on the bookshelves themselves.


Having four maids to apply Vaseline to leather bindings is definitely out of the question for me. But maybe having window shades on bookshelves is something worth keeping in mind. ;)