State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 45 Autumn 1990


The Care of Books

Books are fascinating objects: so frail that we can easily tear a page yet so resilient as to be able to survive for centuries. It is that ability to survive that this article is looking at. Books are indeed fragile and need to be stored, handled and maintained with that consideration always in mind. With proper care, books can last for centuries.
Any collector of antiquarian books will understand the concept of guardianship that is part of owning books that have been cared for well enough by their previous owners that they have survived to this day. To be responsible for any harm to these books after such a passage of time can be viewed as tantamount to the breaking of a trust. The basic care of a collection of books is not arduous and hopefully the reader will come to view it as one of the pleasures of book collecting and the keeping of that trust.
This article has been written for the private collector whether their collection is large or small. There are a lot of “don'ts” but that is because there are a lot of practices that need to be looked at and discounted. Basic book care is really quite simple once the most beneficial approach has been worked out.


It makes little difference whether your books are cheap and commonplace or rare and valuable, it makes sense to look after them properly. Careless handling of books often results in damage that is not obvious straight away; a “dog-eared” corner may look fine when folded back but in time that corner is likely to weaken and eventually break away. With common sense and some practical experience, it is easy to care for your books if you keep the following guidelines in mind.


Clean hands are essential. With rare or valuable books it is by no means too extreme to insist upon clean cotton gloves being worn when books are being handled.


It is advisable to keep books well away from all food, tobacco and drink or any other substances that could be spilt or dropped on your books.

Removal from the shelf

Never remove a book from the shelf by inserting a finger in at the top of the spine as this will only lead to the leather or cloth breaking away at that point. It is safer to move aside surrounding books
with one hand whilst grasping the desired volume firmly halfway down the spine with the other (Figure 1).

Avoiding Damage to the Spine

Books should not be left lying open for long periods especially if any weight like another book is on top. This can lead to a “crease” in the spine linings that will cause the book to always open at the spot. With paperbacks the crease can lead to the glue holding the pages together breaking at that point. Photocopying is another situation where the book is opened and pressure applied to the spine to get the fullest image on the photocopy. If the inner margins of the book you wish to photocopy are too narrow and would require firm pressure on the spine, it may be worth considering an alternative means of copying the information.

Opening a Book

When a book is purchased new or received back from the bookbinder after repair or rebinding, it is a good practice to properly “open” the book. This entails supporting the book on a bench with its board open flat and the text block standing upright. Open the book a few pages in from the front and in from the back at the same time and apply a small amount of pressure downwards. Continue opening a number of pages front and back simultaneously and apply pressure till the centre is reached. This process ensures that the spine of the book is bent evenly at all points. If a newly purchased or bound book were to be straight away opened somewhere near the centre and pressure applied it would most likely break at that point.


Any annotations made in a book should be done with a soft leaded pencil. For researchers having their books bound it is a good idea to have blank sheets bound in for any planned extensive note making.


If an indelible ownership mark is required it is best restricted to the endpapers, half title page or the obverse of the title page. It is distressing to most book lovers to see a title page defaced by a handwritten name or inscription, no matter how fine the hand.
For a collection of books a printed book plate is a most suitable and satisfying ownership device. Bookplates should be printed on archival paper and be pasted onto the inside of the front cover. Paste is preferable as it enables the bookplate to be removed at a later date if desired.


All sorts of materials have been used for bookmarks including leather, plastic, silk and metal. Despite the best of intentions, bookmarks are often left in books for considerable periods of time and can create significant damage if they are not made of the right materials. Leather can be expected to leave marks on the pages of your books as both the acid and the dye in the leather may migrate to the paper. With other materials there is no other way of telling how they will react with different papers over a period of time under varying conditions. It is best to play safe and use bookmarks made only of at least good quality paper but preferably archival quality paper. This form of bookmark will also remove the possibility of mechanical damage that can be caused by clip-on and slide-on bookmarks. Overly thick bookmarks and odds and ends that are pressed into service as bookmarks such as pencils or rulers will also put a strain on the spine linings.


Inserts are all those other bits and pieces that find their way into books. Newspaper clippings can be the worst offenders: an acid free envelope can be made up and inserted into the book if it is deemed essential for the clipping to be part of the book. Photocopying the clipping onto archival paper is an alternative. Pins, needles and paper-clips left in books will rust and can lead to a complete breakdown of the paper around them. Pressing flowers between book pages can lead to the book pages sticking together and is certain to produce ugly stains.



The best material for bookshelves is steel with a smooth baked enamel finish. The shelves should be vertically adjustable with shelf ends high enough to give sufficient support to the books. The base of each unit of shelving should be 10–15 cm high to keep books well away from the floor in the event of flooding. Few collectors however would have metal shelves as described above. Wood is the most common material and with some preparation will satisfy most requirements. Shelves of bare wood, particularly oak and chipboard, present problems due to the danger of acidic materials leaching from the wood. This danger can be averted by sealing with an application of 2–3 coats of polyurethane varnish. Cure by allowing the varnish to dry for a period of 2–3 weeks. Painting is the next choice and again sufficient time should be allowed before placing books in the bookshelves.
Shelving units should not be placed against exterior basement walls due to the danger of moisture build up. Sufficient space should be allowed around each unit for easy access and for air circulation. Enclosed book cases should have air holes to allow for constant air circulation.
Books should not be shelved too tightly as damage can occur when removal of individual volumes is attempted yet there should be sufficient lateral pressure to keep the books standing upright and the pages closed to avoid distortion of the book structure and dust falling between the pages. Book-ends should be used if a shelf is not filled. Thick and heavy volumes will benefit by being stored horizontally in the shelves as their linings cannot support the weight of the text block, resulting in the text block separating from the cover. Large dimension books are also best stored horizontally though stacking too many books on top of one another will make removal of the lower volumes in the pile difficult if not hazardous. For collections featuring a large number of over
dimension volumes, special shelving should be considered to enable 2 or 3 volumes to be stored horizontally on each shelf.

Preservation Enclosures

Some book material cannot go into open shelving because of its rarity, value or fragility. In other situations it is desirable to protect books from light, dust or excessive handling. For these purposes, there are a range of wrappers, folders, slipcases and boxes — collectively referred to as enclosures. Enclosures vary a great deal in the time they take to produce and the degree of skill required but there are a number of publications with easy to follow directions for the
simpler enclosures (refer to the references). Slipcases and rare book boxes will require the services of a book binder or book conservator. All enclosures should be made from durable archival quality materials. (Editor's note: For more information on enclosures, refer to the article by David G. Harris, on p. 22).



Dust generally accumulates on the top edges of books. To clean the top edge: grasp the book at the foredge in one hand with the spine turned towards you and the topedge tilted downwards; using a soft cloth gently wipe the dust towards the foredge (Figure 2). The book should be grasped firmly enough to keep the pages well closed to keep the dust from going down between the pages. Never bang books together to dust them as this will only spread the dust and it may lead to damage to the books. Vacuuming books in the shelf can also cause damage to the bindings as the vacuum head or tube comes in contact with the bindings. If required, dust can be brushed off books using a soft cloth or brush into a vacuum cleaner nozzle. It is essential that a piece of gauze be tied over the nozzle to avoid any loose particles of leather being drawn into the vacuum cleaner. Small loose pieces of leather can be attached with a little paste.

Uncut Pages

Uncut pages can be opened using a flat sharp knife (Figure 3). Care must be taken near the spine edge of the pages as damage may occur to the headbands or spine linings if the knife is used too fast or vigorously. Fingers or rulers should never be used for this operation as ragged tears would be unavoidable.

Cleaning Paper

Surface dirt can be removed from paper using a plastic eraser. The type and condition of the paper should be assessed first as not all paper can withstand the action of the eraser. Begin in the centre of the page and work out towards the edges using a circular motion with the eraser. The eraser should always pass over the edge of the paper at right angles by being stroked in one direction to avoid possible creasing or tearing.

Detached Pages and Frayed Corners

Detached pages can be reattached by brushing a thin line (2–3 mm) of paste along the spine edge of the page, placing the page in its original position and closing the book. Check that the page hasn't shifted its position. Leave for several hours, preferably overnight, with a weight on top. This operation is called “tipping-in”. Those pages can also be lightly tipped to the next page to ensure that they don't become detached and fall out.
Paste can also be used to consolidate frayed or broken board corners. If the covering material has come away and the board is starting to split or break
up, open the board layers with a knife and work some paste in before moulding the corner back into its original shape. Care needs to be taken with old leather as the moisture in the paste may turn the leather dark or even black and sticky if the surface of the leather is particularly worn. Once the board corner has been moulded into shape, apply a light coat of paste to the back of any turned-back leather or cloth and press into place with your fingers. The corner can be held with a clip (Figure 4) whilst it dries or have a light weight placed on top. A piece of board should be placed under the boardcorner for support first and the corner covered with wax-paper to stop anything sticking to it.


Pamphlets fastened with staples will benefit by having the staples removed as there is a real danger of the staples rusting. Thread (linen thread is best) can then be used to sew through the original staple holes to hold the pamphlet together without creating any new holes (Figure 5). A protective wrapper of archival quality paper can be sewn on at the same time if desired. Multi-sectioned books held together by staples may need to be taken to a book binder to be rebound if the staples are rusting.


The care of a collection of books can be viewed as part of the pleasure of book collecting. The suggestions contained in this article will all enable your collection to last much longer, with a lot of the suggestions requiring very little actual effort on your part. If you want to go a little further, the following suggestions should help:
  • Establish contact with a professional book conservator, bookbinder or paper conservator. Have your collection evaluated for immediate work required and long term preservation. You may wish to visit several professionals to compare their costs and their approaches to the problems you present them with.
  • Join the Book Collectors Society of Australia (Victorian Branch) or the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand to attend their regular meetings and tours and receive their newsletters and journals. It will also give you an opportunity to meet like-minded collectors eager to exchange views and advice on a wide rage of topics related to bookcollecting.
  • Join the AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials) as an ordinary member and attend the talks, lectures and tours of conservation facilities they offer.
  • You may wish to “have a go” yourself at binding and repairing books. It must be stressed at this point however that books or documents requiring professional attention should be taken to a professional. Your rare and valuable books may be damaged beyond repair if you attempt any repair work yourself. You can gain valuable insights into book construction and do a lot of good work yourself, however, if you accept that bookbinding, repair and conervation are complex fields and need to be taken on slowly.
  • The Victorian Bookbinders’ Guild Inc. is open to professionals and amateurs alike and offers regular meetings, newsletter, library and materials and equipment buying scheme. The VBG also offers occasional workshops. Bookbinding courses are offered by the Council of Adult Education and the Melbourne College of Printing and Graphic Arts.
  • Newsletters, books and journals on book conservation, bookbinding and related subjects are held in the SLV for the public to read. The librarians on the information desk will assist with the computer catalogue if you have trouble locating items under these subject headings.
  • Materials for bookbinding, book conservation, storage and maintenance, especially archival or acid free materials, can be obtained from some professional conservators and bookbinders, artists supply oulets or the Victorian Bookbinders’ Guild Inc.
For more information see Appendix 3.

Other References

  • A. D. Baynes-Cope, Caring for Books and Documents (London, British Museum Publications, 1981).

  • Carolyn Clark Morrow, Conservation Treatment Procedures (Colorado, Libraries Unlimited Inc., 1982).

  • Douglas Cockerell, Bookbinding and The Care of Books (London, Pitman, 1978).

  • George and Dorothy Cunha, Conservation of Library Materials (New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1971).

  • Carolyn Horton, Cleaning and Preserving Bindings and Related Materials (Chicago, American Library Association, 1969).

  • Arthur W. Johnson, The Thames and Hudson Manual of Bookbinding (London, Thames and Hudson, 1978).

  • Hedi Kyle, Library Materials Preservation Manual (New York, Nicholas T. Smith, 1983).

  • Bernard C. Middleton, A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique (New York, Hafner Publishing Company, 1963).

  • Bernard C. Middleton, The Restoration of Leather Bindings (Chicago, American Library Association, 1984).

  • The New Bookbinder — Journal of Designer Bookbinders (United Kingdom, Carfax Publishing, Volume 1, 1981).

  • R. Reed, Ancient Skins, Parchments and Leathers (London, Seminar Press, 1972).

  • Susan G. Swartzburg, Conservation in the Library (Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1983).

  • Laura S. Young, Bookbinding and Conservation by Hand (New York, R. R. Bowker Company, 1981).

Michael Lester