Curators Provide Tips for Preserving Rare Books

Photo credit: Amy West, http://bit.ly/t39tPN

By Michelle Hutchinson

I am not a biblical scholar, but I do love to learn about all types of books. Recently, I posted about the good fortune I had to watch congregants of a local synagogue start to write their own Torah, the scrolled parchment containing the first five books of The Old Testament.

One week later, Kennesaw State University (KSU), a public institution near my office, celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Its Department of Museums, Archives & Rare Books invited the public to bring their bibles to the department’s gallery to have them evaluated and learn how to preserve them. I jumped at the chance to attend.

I didn’t bring a bible with me, but I knew the information the curators would share would be just as applicable to the books in my personal library, many of which are first editions signed by the authors.

Here is what the event organizers shared.

Regardless of a book’s sentimental importance, monetary value is determined by:

  • The number of copies printed (The fewer the number, the more valuable the book.)
  • The age of the book
  • Whether it was a first printing or first edition
  • Condition

Several factors influence a book’s condition:

Light – Exposure to light is the force that causes the most long-term damage.

Water – Water produces the most immediate destruction.

Stress on the spine- Don’t force a book to lay flat when you open it. That stresses the binding. Instead, prop up the open front cover by placing another book or item underneath it. (See photo below.)

Dr. Tamara Livingston, KSU’s Associate Director of Museums, Archives & Rare Books (second from right), and Mr. Robert Williams, KSU’s Senior Curator of Rare Books (second from left) examine a visitor's 1756 King James Bible. They estimated its value somewhere between $700 and $2,000. Notice how they used other books to prop up the front cover of the bible so that they didn't have to lay the book flat and stress its spine.

Similarly, never store clippings from newspapers, ferns, flowers, or other items in a book. Not only do they stress a book’s spine and weaken the binding, but elements within the pieces can damage the book’s pages.

Creased pages – Never dog-ear (fold or crease) a page as a substitute for using a flat bookmark.

Tape and paper clips – Avoid using tape or paper clips on a book’s pages. The chemicals contained within them will cause yellowing and other damage.

Dirt – If dirt gets on a page, use a gum eraser (not a rubber eraser) in a very gentle circular motion to remove the grime. I don’t think I would trust myself to do that. I’d be too afraid of tearing the paper.

Handling – If your book is shelved, never grab the top. Instead, gently grasp the front and back covers and pull the book straight out, If reshelving, leave the book sticking out a bit from its neighbors so you can easily get to it the next time you want to look at it.

All of these factors cause cumulative damage, and the more a book is manipulated, the more likely it is to deteriorate.

Examine valuable books with cotton gloves so the acids and oils on your fingers don’t harm the pages.

Ideally, a rare book should be stored flat in an acid-free clamshell box. (Of course, that doesn’t allow you to admire what’s inside.)

Clamshell box for storing rare books. Photo credit: Marie Brannon http://bit.ly/sx2aA3

The KSU Department of Museums, Archives & Rare Books directs visitors to the following websites for purchasing acid-free clamshell storage boxes:

What is the most valuable book you own? Does it have sentimental value, monetary value, or both? What do you do to preserve it?

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  1. Gayle says:

    Remember not to write in or make any marks in a book. That will reduce its value too.

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