Dec 24

The Hows and Whys of Book Preservation

by Carrie Kolar


Once you’ve begun your antique book collection, or even before you begin, one of your first thoughts should be where am I going to put them? How should I take care of them? Just as you research the books you want to buy and have your list in hand before you head off to the book exhibitors, it’s important to have a space prepared for your books and an idea of what to do with them. Antique books vary in condition from almost new to falling apart, and the state of a book is mostly due to the conditions it has been exposed to. Damp, mold, extreme temperatures and humidity, light, pests, and careless handling can all seriously damage your collection. You’ve paid for the condition that your books are in; now it’s time to protect your investment.

The environment that your books are exposed to has a huge impact on their longevity and condition. There are several factors that you should consider when planning how to maintain your collection, including temperature, humidity, light, shelving, and location. One important thing to note is that optimal conditions differ for different types of collections. These recommendations are for antique books; antique photographs and historical documents will need a different environment.

  • Temperature –High temperatures can break down cloth, paper, and adhesives, while low temperatures can cause condensation. Room temperature or cooler (between 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit) is best, and you can maintain an ideal, constant temperature range with heaters and air conditioners.

  • Humidity – High humidity can warp your book and cause mold to grow, and low humidity can cause materials to become brittle. The best humidity level for your books is 40-50% relative humidity, which you can maintain with humidifiers, dehumidifiers and good air circulation. If you use a dehumidifier, make sure to empty it on a regular basis to prevent mold.

  • Light – Too much light damages books, fading and discoloring dyes and inks, weakening paper, fraying cloth covers and aging leather. Ultraviolet light is the worst offender, so keep your books out of the sunlight and away from fluorescent lights, and keep the lights off as much as possible in areas where your books are stored. Some protective options for your books include curtains, shades, and UV sleeves or plastic filtering films.

  • Shelving – When your books are on a shelf, keep them either upright or flat, not leaning. If your books are upright, shelve them with books of about the same size, close enough that they can support each other, but not so tightly that you have to struggle to pull them out. Keep your books an inch or so from the front edge and several inches from the back edge to protect them from any moisture leaking down the shelves and help air circulation.

  • Location – Location doesn’t refer to geographic location; rather, it refers to the location of your books inside of your house. Attics and basements are the most likely places in a home to experience temperature and humidity changes, so avoid keeping your books in those rooms. The same applies to outside walls, heat sources, and vents within the room you select to store your books.


Even if the environmental conditions are absolutely perfect, your books won’t last as long or in as good a condition if you’re careless about how you handle them. To make sure that your efforts to preserve your books aren’t wasted, here are some easy-to-implement handling and care recommendations.


First, start with the basics – wash your hands before handling books. A great deal of the grime and discoloration that can accumulate on antique books is due to the dirt and oil on your hands. Also, don’t eat or drink near your books. When reading or examining a book, do not force it all the way open or lay it open face-down, since that can damage the spine.

Regular housekeeping will be a big help in discouraging pests and maintaining a book’s condition. Gently wipe down your books with cloths that hold dust using an electrostatic charge, like a Swiffer cloth. Don’t wipe down your books with anything that has been treated with wax, liquid, or perfumes, since these can stain or react badly with your books.

Preserving your antique books can be as complex or as simple as you prefer, and following the recommendations above will give you a good start. If you do want to go above and beyond, you can make an appointment with a conservator to discuss the best way to care for your collection. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has a list of conservators by specialty and geographic location, along with guidelines for caring for books, documents, art and other historic items. With the proper care, your books will stay intact for a long time to come.



A classic is read not to enjoy but only to be boast about it. - Aman Jassal