How to care for antique books

Image by Ryan Franklin

Antique books, such a treat

We love reading new books about vintage topics (as we’ve shown with our Book Club), but antique books hold a special place in our hearts. There’s something about the old pages, the weathered covers, the dated inscriptions – it’s like becoming part of history. That’s a very unique experience and one we hope you’ve enjoyed. That being said, once you start collecting older books you’ll want to do everything you can to preserve that uniqueness. Check out our guide for learning how to care for antique books.

How to care for antique books | climate and storage considerations

As you know, old paper has special storage considerations. Be sure to store your treasures in a low-humid, cool environment. (70 degrees Fahrenheit paired with 50% humidity is ideal.) When it comes to preserving books think stability. No hot or cold temperature swings, no intense light, no moisture – just consistent conditions. To add to that note, avoid direct light of any kind as long-term exposure will start to cause the leather or bindings to fade or crack.

Image by William Hoiles

Beautiful books from the Basking Ridge Historical Society

These rules may sound very stringent, but don’t let them keep you from displaying your prized pieces. If you’re placing them on a shelf, be sure there’s a lot of space between volumes – you want air to be able to move freely around the books. You’ll also want to make sure that they can be perfectly upright. Use a bookend if books have a tendency to lean. To take this setting further, you can line your shelf with acid free paper. Having this kind of foundation will ensure preservation. One final thing to keep in mind as you are arranging your display: don’t place your paper books next to their leather counterparts. Different chemicals may transfer among the volumes and impact their condition.

When you go to remove a book from the shelf, always grab it by both sides of the spine at the middle of the book. Upon opening the book, don’t force it to lie flat. It’s best to prop up the covers instead. As always, handle your treasures with clean hands and whatever you do – don’t eat or drink around it. (Yep, the librarians were right!)

Image by Tom Murphy VII

Old book bindings

How to care for antique books | cleaning

Take caution when you clean your books: the key thing to remember is “move slowly.” Dusting can go a long way toward making your old book look nice and neat. Simply take a soft brush and sweep away the dust, working from back to front. Don’t sweep the dust into the binding, but away from it. If during your dusting you find a dead insect, sweep it out with the same brush.

When it comes to additional cleaning concerns, experts recommend reaching out to a book conservator. Since treatment programs need to be tailored to the material’s composition, you want someone who is well-versed in these matters to develop your book’s cleaning program.

Read it today

Cause A Frockus would like to thank their tremendous resources: Northeast Document Conservation Center, Library of Congress, Antiques Roadshow, “Tips, Tools, & Techniques to care for antiques, collectibles, and other treasures” by Georgia Kemp Caraway, and the people who post their images without restriction.

For our readers: Do you collect antique books? What’s your favorite piece in your collection and why? Also, feel free to share with us your best tips for keeping your books ready for reading!

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