How to Store and Preserve Your Precious Books

It’s been a hot and humid summer where I live and these two things—heat and moisture—are the enemy of books. If you are a bibliophile like me, you probably have a few special books that you want to keep in good condition because they have sentimental value. There are a few simple steps you can take to protect your paper collectibles—books, comic books, photographs, scrapbooks, sticker collections—and extend their longevity. Here are a few tips I picked up in a Preservation and Conservation course I took in library school.

Heat, Humidity, and Sunlight Are the Enemies
Heat, moisture, and sunlight are some of the most common ways books are damaged in the home. Warm, humid conditions promote mildew growth, while cold, dry conditions make paper brittle. The ideal storage conditions for paper collections are:
At a temperature of 70° F
A relative humidity of 50%
Out of direct sunlight, which can cause fading

Keeping these ideal storage conditions in mind, some of the most common places people store collections in their homes—hot attics, damp basements—are doing a lot of harm. Libraries and archives go to great lengths to monitor and regulate heat and humidity, but, for your average personal collections, these are just things to keep in mind. Is your basement always really damp? Then maybe you should move your books up to the main floor of the house or buy a dehumidifier. Are your bookshelves next to a fireplace or radiator? Probably not a good idea. Does sunlight coming in your windows hit a cherished photograph? Maybe you should have it copied and keep the original in a safer place. These are just some things to think about.

Proper Storage of Books
Besides the heat and humidity guidelines, here are a few more tips for proper storage of most books:

Books should be shelved upright and not allowed to lean (this stresses the binding). If necessary, use bookends to keep books from leaning.

Oversized books that are too large to fit upright on a shelf should be stored flat or spine down. Do not store on the fore-edge as this can cause the book to pull away from the binding.

Any inserts—bookmarks, scraps of paper, paper clips—should be removed from the book to prevent discoloration.

If you have a very valuable or special book—a rare historical book, a delicate scrapbook—you might want to invest in an acid-free archival box for storage. A proper archival storage container should meet these three guidelines:
Acid-free
Alkaline buffered – this prevents the material from becoming acidic over time
Lignin-free – it should contain no lignin, which can become acidic

Photographs
Like I mentioned with books, the best way to store photographs long-term is in a cool, dry, dark place. Albums are a great way to store photos, but you’ve got to make sure you buy the right kind. Here are a few tips:

Avoid albums with plastic PVC overlays. Seriously, these albums will turn yellow and damage your photos. If it has a strong smell, you probably want to avoid it.

Albums should be labeled acid-free and lignin-free

Look for three-hole punch archival plastic pages made of polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene (these are safe materials).

You can also use an archival box to store photos, just make sure they don’t slide down and get bent.

Comic Books
For comic books, you’ll want to follow all the guidelines I’ve laid out above for heat, humidity, and sunlight. A few more tips:

The plastic sleeves comic books come in aren’t always good for long-term storage. You’ll want to move them to sleeves made of Mylar (polyester), polypropylene, or polyethylene, which are acid free.

Same thing goes for the cardboard backing boards. You’ll want to replace them with acid-free cardboard.

A more affordable solution would be to place your collection in an acid-free archival storage box. Store them upright, as lying flat will cause their spines to roll up.

What To Do If Disaster Strikes
Water damaged books can be saved, but you have to act fast. Mold and mildew can set in after 48 to 72 hours. To dry the wet books you have two options:

Air-drying books
Air-drying water damaged books will lead to slight discoloration and crinkling of pages, but if you have a large number of wet books, it might be your best option. You’ll want to:
Place books on paper towels
Interleaf more paper towels in the pages
Place a fan in the room to circulate air

Freeze-drying books
Freeze-drying books is the best way to minimize damage. There are commercial companies that specialize in salvaging books, but if you have one or two water logged books, you can try drying them in your freezer at home. You want to wrap them loosely in waxed paper to prevent them from sticking to anything, and place in the freezer. And then you have to be patient because it could take MONTHS for the books to dry. Our conservation class actually conducted an experiment where we each dunked a paperback in a bucket of water and then put it into the freezer. I took mine out of the freezer after 1 month and it was still pretty wet. A few of my classmates’ books were dry and looked like new after a month in their freezers, so it must vary from freezer to freezer. I was seriously amazed to see the difference between books that had completely dried in the freezer (and looked darn near pristine) and books that had air-dried (and looked crinkly and bulging).

If you want to learn more about Preservation and Conservation, The American Institute for Conservation maintains an informative resource center. I also highly recommend the Northeast Document Conservation Center‘s resource page for private and family collections.

Follow me on Twitter @kristendaemons

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  • Derangedkai

    fantastic guidelines. Thanks so much.