Caring for Your Books

Here is some general advice on the care of books and the best way to look after them or do simple repairs to prolong their life. Also I suggest when you need to seek the advice of a professional restorer.

Good Housekeeping

It is fairly obvious that prevention is better than cure. If books are properly stored and looked after then the chances of damage and the need for repair are significantly reduced.

The environment is important. Major libraries are of course carefully controlled while central heating can lead to an atmosphere that is too dry. In libraries the humidity is around 50% at a temperature of 17C. However there is no need to be rigid about this. The main thing is to avoid extremes. Do not store your books over a radiator or in direct sunlight.

Books should be used regularly. Then any potential problems can be spotted early. Leather bindings benefit from handling as the oils in your skin will keep the leather supple. You should always have clean hands.

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Shelves are important. Wood is best although metal is useable with care. Books are traditionally shelved upright and in most cases this is fine. Shelves should be kept just full or the books supported by adjustable bookends. If books are allowed to fall sideways the bindings will be damaged. Similarly, if too many are jammed tightly on a shelf this will lead to damage when they are are pulled off the shelf by the tops of the spines.

Very large books, such as atlases are best stored horizontally. Albums are also best stored flat or fitted with slip cases. This will prevent dust penetrating the gaps between the leaves.

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Fire and Water

The most common disaster is caused by water, usually through flooding or when a pipe bursts. If you suddenly discover a batch of soaking wet books the first thing is not to panic! Many books, especially older ones on good paper, can be salvaged. Action needs to be taken fairly quickly so that you do not get mildew forming on the paper and causing further damage. Put each book in a plastic bag or wrap in cling film and put them in a freezer. This will halt any further deterioration until a restorer can deal with them.

If the paper on which the books are printed is going to be irreparably damaged by the water this will already have happened so in such cases there is nothing you can do. This will be mainly illustrated book printed partly or entirely on ‘Art paper’. This has a surface that is loaded with china clay and soaking will dissolve this or glue the pages together permanently.

Fire is much less common but still a problem. Banks do not burn easily as the closely packed leaves will not allow air in. However, the bindings will be damaged and intense heat can make paper brittle to the point where it will disintegrate when disturbed. Try not to open the books but as before, wrap in plastic and seek advice.

All of this assumes that the books are valuable enough to warrant the cost of restoration. In many cases it may be cheaper to simply purchase a replacement if possible.

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Cleaning and Basic Repairs

Dust and dirt. Brush out any loose dust and dirt between pages with a soft paintbrush. Remove any pressed flowers, as these will stain the paper. Pins and staples must be removed as these can rust. Dirty pages can sometimes be cleaned with a soft eraser of the moldable type available from artists supply shops. Conservation supply companies sell drafting powder, which is basically powdered rubber. Soft white bread crumbs are a useful substitute. Rub them gently over the page and discard as they get dirty. If you see signs of the paper surface abrading then stop.

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Ink stains, foxing (brown spots) and browning. Previously the use of bleaches to remove these was advocated but now the feeling is that unless the text is badly obscured then they are best left alone.

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Damp staining can be reduced by simply immersing the entire leaf in warm water. This will spread the stain over the whole sheet and thus removes any ‘tide mark’ However it will be necessary to dismantle book to do this so in most cases this is probably best left to a bookbinder or paper conservator. Bleaching or wet cleaning should only be used in printed materials. Manuscripts and hand-coloured plates also need to be looked at by a specialist conservator.

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Mould. This can sometimes be removed with a soft brush. If the paper has been badly weakened it may be necessary for the leaves to be mounted or encapsulated. Again this is a job for the specialist. If the book appears to be damp but is otherwise intact then it should be stood up with the pages fanned out for as long as it takes to dry out.

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Torn pages. These can be repaired very simply. Conservation repair tapes are available but they are very costly and there is still a slight question mark over their long-term viability. Better to use good quality white issue paper and some starch or wheat based paste. Take a piece of tissue and tear the edges to make them less visible, use a thin layer of paste and put the tissue over the damage on one side of the leaf. On thin papers this will usually be sufficient. On thicker papers you may need to apply tissue to both sides.

Never, under any circumstances, use ordinary ‘pressure-sensitive’ tapes to repair books. These includes masking tape, parcel tape, transparent tape etc. They frequently cause damage to the printed surface, then after a year or two the adhesive will usually fail and the tape will fall off leaving a brown stain that cannot be removed.

If you have books repaired with such tapes they can be removed although it is a lengthy process. You will need some solvent, currently the easiest available is white spirit. This does not smell very pleasant so make sure the room is well ventilated and there are no naked flames. Use a small soft brush to apply the spirit, working it under the edges of the tape. Gradually the adhesive will dissolve and using tweezers you can lift the tape back working the solvent further under as you go. Do not hurry. With the tape off remove any remaining adhesive with cotton wool and more spirit. Allow the book to dry thoroughly.

There is on the market a liquid sold under various names as ‘Sticky stuff remover’ which appears to be ideal for this purpose, However it has an oily component which stains the paper and does not evaporate so I would not recommend it.

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Loose pages and plates. These can be re-inserted by pasting about 2mm along the back edge and carefully putting back in place. Use PVA or a glue stick. Close the book and place under a weight for an hour or two then check.

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Bookcloth. Many hardback books are bound in bookcloth. This is essentially a woven material with a filler, often starch based or more recently plastic or polymer. Bookcloth is difficult to clean although you may be able to remove some surface dirt with a wad of cotton wool and a little water. Try in a corner to see what the result is and if you are unhappy with the result stop. There is one proprietary cleaner which works by dissolving some of the filler and spreading it around. It does not work on all cloths however. You should avoid areas of printed decoration and gold tooling.

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Printed bookcovers may possibly be cleaned with an eraser. If it is laminated with clear plastic then sponging will help but use the water sparingly . Some book jackets can be cleaned similarly. lf they are torn or chipped they can be pasted down onto a sheet of suitable matching paper but again this may be better left to your binder.

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Leather. Most leather bindings are in calf or morocco (goatskin). Dirty leather of this type can be cleaned with cotton wool and a little warm water. Avoid gold tooling, as this will be removed by water. After cleaning the leather should be treated with a suitable dressing to maintain its condition. Hewits sell a light liquid wax that is ideal. There are a number of other proprietary brands on the market but many of these leave a sticky residue that I feel can lead to further problems.

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Vellum or parchment and pigskin. These are usually white, cream or ivory in colour and will show dirt easily. A little milk will clean them very effectively. They need to be left to dry out thoroughly after this treatment. Again avoid any gold lettering or decoration.

You may sometimes come across old leathers which have a crumbling surface that leaves marks on your hands and clothes. Leather dressing will help to consolidate the surface but I suggest that this is best left to the bookbinder.

Do not attempt to clean suede bindings (known in the trade as undressed calf) with any type of liquid as this will simply cause dark stains. A small stiff brush may help by freshening up the nap of such leather.

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