Friday Feature : On How to Care for Books (#4)

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”. 😉

Friday Feature : On How to Care for Books (#3)

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. 😉

Friday Feature : On How to Care for Books (#2)

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

Continuing on with the second element listed as one of The Enemies of Books by William Blade :

2. Water

Next to Fire, we must rank Water in its two forms, liquid and vapour, as the greatest destroyer of books.


Aside from flooding through natural disaster or otherwise, water vapor or general dampness can lead to mold and disfigured books. As Blades describes it, “Outside it fosters the growth of a white mould or fungus which vegetates upon the edges of the leaves, upon the sides, and in the joints of the binding.”

Doris Hamburg, in Caring for Your Collections, notes the warning signs of dampness and methods of treatment. A musty smell and the appearance of fuzzy spores are the tip-offs. If mold develops, as it is prone  to do in seaside houses or in basements, remove the affected books and place them in a dry area. Then, on a sunny day, take the books outside and lightly brush the mold with a soft camel-hair brush to remove the spores. Dabbing, but not rubbing, with a kneaded eraser will show whether the material is too delicate to be brushed. If so, or if in doubt, bring the books to a professional conservator.

Mold develops because of poor air circulation and too much humidity. So if you’re keeping books in glass-fronted bookcases, make sure that you open them periodically to provide essential ventilation. Mold grows at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 65 percent relative humidity in stagnant air. It can be prevented or controlled by maintaining a library temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit and by allowing relative humidity to climb no higher than 60 percent, preferably keeping it closer to 50 percent. Air-conditioning and fans can be used for climate control. Dehumidifiers help through warmer seasons. Humidifiers should be used in winter when a well-heated library also means too little humidity, which can dry out books and increase the risk of fire.

If you live in a house that tends to flood, keep your bookshelves at least twelve inches from the floor. COllector Timothy Mawson recalls the morning he came into his New York shop after such in-house flooding. “A water pipe broke in the men’s room above and totally flooded everything. We used waxed paper between the pages of the books so they would not stick together and worked at it for nearly forty-eight hours, saving an enormous number of books.”

If your books get wet, those that are not absolutely saturated can be dried out by fan. Stand the books on several layers of paper towels or unprinted newspaper (available at art supply stores) and let one or two fans blow on them if possible; use a piece of Styrofoam under the open book for support. Books can also be dried by placing paper towels or unprinted newspapers within the book, one every fifty pages or so. (Newspaper is a good absorber, but because of its acidic content it should not be left inside a book for too long.) The towels and/or newspapers should be changed often – a time consuming operation. When books are almost dry (slightly cool to the cheek), close them and finish the drying  under light weights. Softcover books can be dried this way or hung on a clothesline. (If your collection is seriously damaged by water, remind your insurance company that the longer wet books sit and mold forms, the higher the cost of restoration; this may hasten an appraisal.)

For books with coated paper, such as most illustrated books, freeze or vacuum drying is recommended. (This paper tends to stick together when wet and then dried, by the usual method.) Wrap your books in freezer paper and pack them tightly in plastic milk crates. While taking books to a rapid-freezing facility is best, a home freezer can be used. After the books are frozen, they should be kept at – 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit until a vacuum-drying facility can take them to be dried. In vacuum drying, water goes straight from ice to vapor.)


I wonder if these methods of treatment can also be applied to treat the problem of yellow spots appearing on the pages of books? Are the yellow spots a result of dampness or something? For me, I think this is the biggest “enemy” to my books. Anyone has any tried and tested methods of prevention/ restoration?

And I really should have posted the following excerpt together with last Friday’s Feature on the enemy “Fire” instead of here, but I find it too good to not share it all the same.

There are probably false impressions abroad as to the susceptibility of literature to the destruction by fire. Books are not good fuel, as fortunately, many a household maid has found, when among other frantic efforts and failures in fire-lighting, she has reasoned from the false data of inflammability of a piece of paper. In the days when heretic books were burned, it was necessary to place them on large wooden stages, and after all the pains taken to demolish them, considerable readable masses were sometimes found in the embers; whence it was supposed that the devil, conversant in fire and its effects, gave them his special protection.
In the end, it was found easier and cheaper to burn the heretics themselves than their books.

John Hill Burton, The Book-Hunter (1862)


Friday Feature : On How to Care for Books (#1)

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

This is one book that I have been coveting for ever since knowing of its existence a couple of years ago. But with prices going at £30 for a used copy on Amazon or USD53 on The Book Depository, I guess I will have to carry on being contented with just coveting, for the moment.
So, you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I just realised recently that I do have an essay from the book included among the treasury of stories and essays in my copy of A Passion for Books by Harold Rabinowitz & Rob Kaplan, which has mostly been languishing on the shelves collecting dust until now. Again, this serves as a reminder to seriously take a good look at my TBR stacks before thinking of going after new prey. :p

The said essay is the authors’ summary of the current state of book care with reference to William Blades’s 1880 comprehensive The Enemies of Books. This classic, though filled with stern admonitions, is as relevant today as it was a century ago. Blades’s work speaks to those who are building or restoring a library, starting a special collection, or those simply interested in preserving the books they read in their youth for their children and grandchildren. Just as people often think to create a protected environment for paintings or photographs, so should they for their books.

1. Fire

There are many of the forces of Nature which tend to injure books; but among them all not one has been half as destructive as fire.


Blades calculates that not only is fire the most destructive of all enemies of books, but that only one-thousandth of the books that once existed still exist, thanks to what he calls the “fire-king”.

Good housekeeping, according to the National Fire Protection Association, is the number one way to prevent a fire. As in a forest deprived of rain, overly dry conditions are conducive to fire. Climate control through central air-conditioning can guard against the drying and dust-promoting nature of heat. Some collectors use fire-proof walls or containers and choose nonflammable or fire retardant material for library curtains.

Smoking is as bad for books as it is for people. Not only does it increase the chances of fire because of dropped ash or fallen match, but smoke can work its way into pages of books and leave a smell behind. If you smoke, or have guests who do, be especially alert when you’re in the library.

After studying the effects of a serious fire that caused considerable damage due to heat, Don Etherington, former conservator of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, found that books that had been oiled resisted heat better than those that have not been treated. The smaller the book, the greater the damage. Leather bindings and labels, including those in glass-fronted cases, frizzled or looked bubbled, particularly those on upper shelves where heat was most intense. Rapid decrease in humidity may be the reason for this. Leather bindings should be put on lower shelves even in glass-fronted cases where they are, in general, better protected. Polyester dust jackets are also a good book saver.

If fire or smoke does damage to your books, there are materials that can help you repair them. Jane Greenfield, author of The Care of Books, finds that Pink Pearl erasers work better than any other material for removing scorch marks. Damp sponges work best on smooth cloth but do not work well on paper. Extra-fine steel wool will take soot off leather bindings and leave them intact. However, she says, “Beware of chemical sponges which leave residual film. To get rid of any lingering smell after a fire, thoroughly air books out on a slightly breezy day. Stand books, fanned out, on a table in the shade, but do not leave them overnight. Some damage restoration firms can also provide equipment to dissipate residual odor.” To find such a firm in your area, check the Yellow Pages under “Fire and Water Damage Restoration.”


Now, wasn’t that interesting? Especially the part about the Yellow Pages, hahah. 🙂 There are altogether 7 “enemies of books” listed in the essay, of which the first we have already read about here. I will be sharing the rest in the weeks to come, as I feel this sort of information should come in handy for every book lover and bibliophile out there. Meantime, maybe it’s not be such a bad idea to take a look at just how well “fire-proofed” our beloved books are in their current state, eh? 😉