Caring for the Books You Want to Keep


A shelving no-no. These books are shelved on an exterior wall. The do probably have an insulation value!

I’ve written in other posts about getting rid of books I don’t need. At the same time, there are some books that are like old friends, that you enjoy reading and re-reading or frequently reference. The good news is that, with proper care, it is likely that your favorite books will outlast you. Well-made books on acid-free paper properly cared for and handled can last for hundreds of years.

Start with well-made books. Recently I pulled out my forty year old mass-market paperback of The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis. It was a challenge to read. The paper was brittle, pages literally fell out and by the end, and the book was in pieces held together by a rubber band. Lesson: when you find a book you like, purchase the best edition you can afford, ideally hardbound on a good acid-free paper. Paperbacks are fine for a “one and done” reading, or as a way to find out whether this is a book you would read again. I have forty year old hardbound books that look like new, or have just slightly yellowed. Trade paperbacks are generally printed on better paper and use a better glue in the binding.

Handling matters. This begins with how you open the book for the first time. My post on “How to Open a New Book” covers this. Several other things are important in our handling of books:

  • When we take them off the shelf, don’t pull them off from the top of the spine but rather grasp both sides of the spine in the middle of the book, which may mean pushing the adjacent books in.
  • Always handle the books with clean hands so we don’t leave grease or dirt on the books which causes them to deteriorate more quickly.
  • When reading, or copying the book, don’t force the book flat where it lies open at 180 degrees. This is hard on the binding, especially for paperbacks. Books are meant to be held in our hands or cradled in our laps.
  • If you write in your books (and only your books, not the library’s!), only use pencil. Ink can run and bleed through pages.
  • Don’t eat or drink around books you care about.
  • Don’t fold, dog ear, or use self-stick notes on pages. The adhesive can damage the paper. Paper clips and rubber bands can tear pages. A good acid-free paper bookmark is the best for marking your place.

Safe storage.  The conditions under which our books are kept when we aren’t handling them are especially important to their survival. A few key ideas:

  • Books are best stored lying flat or upright held in place by either the ends of the bookshelves or books ends. Books stored at a slant can become misshapen.
  • Watch humidity and temperature. A cool room with humidity under 35% is best. I shelve some of my books on an external wall. That’s not a good idea as this exposes them to more temperature and humidity change. You don’t want musty books!
  • Books need dusting! Hold the book closed and gently wipe the edges and covers with a soft cloth.
  • Light is the enemy! Especially keep books away from any form of direct sunlight or other intense light sources. The UV radiation of sunlight and fluorescent light is particularly bad. This accelerates deterioration and fading of colors.
  • Avoid storage in basements and other places that could be damp or attics that can be too hot. Don’t store books near heating vents or radiators, which can dry out bindings. Whenever storing books, look for evidence of pests. Rats, mice and silverfish are common problems.
  • If you are boxing up books, alkaline corrugated cardboard boxes that are new are best. Don’t use any boxes that have contained food, because the odor will transfer to the books. Don’t store them in plastic bags or wraps that can emit gas.

Compared to digital media, books are an amazing storage device. Most digital media will be unreadable in ten to fifty years, either because of corruption of the media, or obsolescence of the hardware to access the media. I have books from my grandparents that are over one hundred years old. A few months ago, I had a chance to view books published at the time of the Reformation five hundred years ago. A little tender loving care, and your books will be friends for life.



3 thoughts on “Caring for the Books You Want to Keep

  1. Your safe storage guidelines didn’t say anything about books lying flat on top of upright books, but your photo says it all. That’s one implied guideline that I do follow. 🙂

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