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

Having already learned what the first four elements considered to be “Enemies of Books” as listed by William Blades are, we now come to the final three “enemies”.

5. Dust and Neglect

Dust upon Books to any extent points to Neglect, and Neglect means more or less slow Decay.


For those who hate to dust, there are storage options to avoid the problem. Jack Lenor Larsen adopted Japanese design practices and found that “if fabrics are hung up from ceiling to cover the books, I don’t have to look at a lot of stuff all the  time. It also reduces dust and therefore cleaning and breakage.” Window shades can also protect books from dust and other pollutants. Make sure any material you use is acid-free. Protective book boxes can preserve rare books from dust or pollution.

There is no formula for how often a library must be dusted; it depends on the environment. Anthony Trollope dusted his library twice a year. Frequent vacuuming and/or sweeping will reduce dust buildup. A feather duster is the classic implement for removing dust but a vacuum cleaner is better. A portable mini-vac, or Dustbuster, though less powerful, may be easier to use in small spaces between books. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett uses something in between – a Service Vacuum Cleaner she ordered through Contact East, Inc. North Andover, Massachusetts. Designed for cleaning delicate office equipment like computers, disk drives, and printers, this vacuum is portable and relatively light, weighing a total of nine pounds.

Regardless of the method you choose, Jane Greenfield recommends you begin by cleaning the top edge of the book. Dust and vacuum away the spine and hold the book tightly so the dust does not work its way down into the pages. You can use saddle soap on leather bindings to remove dust, dirt and grime, but not on gold tooling or turn-ins (leather-bound books whose binding extends within the inside edges of the covers and spine). Any moisture can cause blackening and cracking of deteriorating leather, so clean them only if you have to. If you decide to clean your leather bindings, form a lather with the saddle soap and rub the lather into the leather. Wipe off the excess with a clean, damp sponge, drying the binding with lint-free cloth. Let the book dry completely before putting it back. For cloth bindings, you can use Bookleen Gel, available from library resources. For rer paper bindings, expert help may be required, such as described in Anne F. Clapp’s book, Curatorial Care of Works of Art on Paper : Basic Procedures for Paper Preservation. 

6. Ignorance.

Ten years ago, when turning out an old closet in the Mazarine Library, of which I am librarian, I discovered at the bottom, under a lot of old rags, a large volume. It had no cover nor title page, and had been used to light the fires of librarians.


Even the best educated bibliophiles, like author and journalist Roger Rosenblatt, are torn between their respect for books and their desire to enjoy them to their fullest, for instance, by engaging with the text through scrawled commentary. “It’s shameful to admit: I deface books all the time,” he says, referring to his penciled scribbles. “And I enjoy seeing the scribbling of others. There is a communicative and emotional value in a record of another human being’s thoughts and feelings left for future readers to happen upon. Of course, though this harms a book, if the scribbler happens to have been Henry James or James Joyce, the book becomes much more valuable.”

Books can also be damaged by people’s well-meaning efforts to repair them, particularly by using nonrestoration-quality material such as transparent or duct tape to repair torn pages or bindings. Bookbinders have to use Unseal Adhesive Releasing Solvent to remove such tape from books. If you do not wish to take a damaged book to a professional restorer, binders Wilton Wiggins and Douglas Lee advise you to wrap the book in acid-free paper and tie it up with library tape, a flat cotton string that can be used to hold the book together if the spine or binding is loose. There are also special tapes available in a first-aid kit from TALAS in New York and other resources.

7. The Bookworm (and Other Vermin).

There is a sort of busy worm
That will the fairest books deform,
By gnawing holes throughout them.
Alike, through every leaf they go,
Yet of its merit nought they know,
Nor care they aught about them.

Their tasteless tooth will tear and taint
The Poet, Patriot, Sage, or Saint,
Nor sparing wit nor learning.
Now, if you’d know the reason why,
The best of reasons I’ll supply:
‘Tis bread to the poor vermin.

J. Doraston

Worms, beetles, and creepy-crawlies of all kinds can chomp through your precious volumes and turn them into fodder – and birthing places for lavae. “If,” Jane Greenfield says, “you have termites in your bookshelves, or if you are stacking books from suspect areas, like barn, cellars and attics, you should freeze the collection before placing it in your library.” She reports that a simple at-home method was developed by Yale University biology professor Charles Remington: Make sure the books are completely dry, thereby preventing the formation of ice crystals. Seal books or wrap them well in plastic bags, preferably made of polyethylene, and freeze them at 6 degrees Fahrenheit in a domestic freezer. (At Yale, books are frozen at -20 degrees Fahrenheit for seventy two hours.) This will kill all beetles and insects at all stages of development.


Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Francis Bacon, “Of Studies,” Essays (1625)

Perhaps the Bookworms (and other Vermins) are simply just taking on Bacon’s advice abit too “literally”. 😉


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