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Conservation of Books

By David Dorning and Stephen Ball


Most books, even today, are largely composed of natural materials. The obvious components are those of vegetable origin such as paper and board, and animal products such as leather and parchment, but there is a varied range of other materials - twines and cords, inks and dyes, glues and adhesives, and varnishes and laminating films. There may also be metals in the form of gilding, studs, bosses or clasps.

There is a common but inaccurate perception that a leather-bound book is durable and valuable and a paperback cheap and fragile. The quality of materials and manufacture are very important factors: bibles, for example, display wide variations in both of these characteristics. Many old leather-bound bibles used poor materials throughout; it's not unusual to find patched leather in the bindings of these early examples of mass publishing. And outsize 'family' bibles, objects intended for display rather than regular use, are sometimes too large and heavy for their inadequate bindings.

It is important to be able to identify the materials and types of binding used for the books in your care. Leather, cloth and paper will probably present few identification problems, but call in a conservator if you are unsure. The most worn and damaged areas - battered corners, for example - will often reveal
the nature of both surface and underlying materials.

Types of paper

Paper quality is an important determinant of a book's longevity. Paper is not by nature an inert material; even the best papers need careful treatment, and poor-quality papers represent a conservation challenge. The best type of cellulose fibre for strong, durable and high-quality paper is obtained from cotton, hemp or linen. But these were superseded long ago by wood-based papers in commercial printing practice.

Wood pulp produces cheaper papers suitable for the industrialised book production techniques that developed from the nineteenth century onwards. The very cheapest papers are made from wood pulp that has undergone no additional chemical treatment beyond the mechanical pulping process - so-called 'mechanical' papers. Used for newspapers and other publications expected to be short lived, papers of this quality soon lose their physical strength and flexibility. Their acid and reactive nature is vulnerable to rapid decline and discoloration, and light is a special danger. Bleaches and some other chemicals used in papermaking may produce similar problems in treated and part-mechanical papers. Although there is a move towards the use of 'acid-free' or buffered papers in book publishing, these cost more than normal book papers.

However, make sure that any wrappers or other paper materials coming into contact with any books or book pages in the collection are of conservation grade buffered paper. (Note: do not assume that so-called 'wood-free' paper is acid-free or has any other special qualities. It is simply paper that is free of mechanical wood, and is almost certainly made from wood pulp.)

Environmental Risks

Books, in common with most museum objects, are vulnerable to damage from heat, moisture and light.

A damp environment will encourage paper to cockle, and creates conditions that favour chemical activity and mould or pest attack. Higher temperatures can accelerate these tendencies. But dry conditions are not the answer; with insufficient moisture, a book's natural materials will become brittle - pages weaken and are easily torn, and dried out bindings crumble and split. Paper in particular, deteriorates rapidly under extremes of heat or moisture.

Stable conditions are as important as the precise levels of temperature and atmospheric moisture content themselves. Aim for a steady temperature of between 16ºC and 18ºC, and an RH (relative humidity) of about 50-60%.

Light fades inks and dyes, and accelerates the chemical decomposition of a whole range of materials. The UV (ultraviolet) component of light is the source of much of this damage. A book left open in daylight will show signs of discoloration and fading in a relatively short time, perhaps a single day in the case of poor-quality paper. Electric display and room lighting also contribute to the problem. Windows and artificial light sources may need UV screens or filters - but these filters will need periodic replacement.
Books are mechanical objects, and normal use inevitably produces wear and tear. However, the life of a book can be prolonged by taking sensible precautions.

Using and reading books

Always ease a book open. Some books will be stiff, and must not be forced open beyond the point of resistance; this may be felt at 90 degrees or even less. Others may open flat because the hinges or other parts of the binding are beginning to fail; here, heavy-handed opening will accelerate the breakdown. The forced flattening of any opened book will certainly damage it. A single instance could break the brittle 'perfect' binding of an early mass-market paperback, for example, causing it quite literally to fall apart. Careless photocopying is a common cause of books being forced open.

To open a book, ease your fingers under the page, and keep it flat and unflexed as you lift and turn it. Never lick your fingers to turn a page, and prevent other readers from doing the same. Saliva dampens the organic materials of the paper and deposits a mould-friendly medium, and the finger-licker's page-turning technique crushes and creases the leaves.

If books in the collection are to be read by the public or researchers, there must be a special area designated for this purpose. A comfortable, well-lit space with good seating and tables will create less stress for readers - and thus the books - than a cramped space jammed up against the shelves. (See the section on access below.) Book stands or rests will help to reduce wear and tear on bindings, especially for larger books.

Shelving books

Transferring books to and from shelves can cause problems. When a book is carelessly pulled from a shelf, the boards or covers drag against neighbouring volumes. The shelf surface rubs the foot of the boards, and can also abrade the pages. Fingers pulling against the top of the spine weaken it, eventually causing the materials to soften and split, and accelerating the separation of the 'backstrip' from the rest of the binding.

To take a book from a shelf, reach over the top of the book, ideally all the way to the fore-edge, and gently tilt it back towards you until the sides protrude from the row to provide a handhold. Then, while easing the adjacent books apart, lift the book upwards and away from the shelf and withdraw it. Replacement should follow this procedure in reverse. Never remove a book from shelves by pulling on the top of the spine, even when the binding incorporates a headband to strengthen this vulnerable area.


It is conventional to store books upright on some kind of shelving system. Because so many books have information on their spines, shelves serve as a display system too.

Upright storage requires enough books on each shelf to hold them vertically without undue strain. Tight packing places them under constant lateral stress, and substantially increases friction when they are removed or replaced. By contrast, books shelved too loosely will tilt and may eventually become distorted, a problem that worsens when books are removed from the shelf and the tilt increases. Heavy bookends may help to correct the packing
density on partially filled shelves. Large or heavy books are better stored on their sides, but a stack of such books may cause undue stress on those at the bottom of the heap.

Be aware of the load on shelves: a single bookcase or shelf unit with six metres of shelving could easily carry over 200 books with a weight of 50 kg or considerably more. Overloaded or unstable shelves could be a risk to the collection and staff alike. Excess weight can cause shelves to sag, producing uneven stresses on the books as they accommodate themselves to the curved surface.

Protection on shelves

Pamphlets and thin booklets will be protected against distortion, soiling and creasing if they are kept in clear polyester sleeves. For ease of shelving and access, the sleeves can be grouped and stored in archive or magazine file boxes - provided the boxes are made of safe materials. Fragile books can be stored in special boxes too. These 'book-shoes' are made to measure by specialist conservators and include a block to support the pages. Be sure to return each book to its matching container after cleaning or housekeeping, and never store a book in a book-shoe made for another book.

Shelf specification

Smooth-surfaced shelving materials will abrade books less than, say, rough-grained wooden surfaces or shelves composed of separate strips or planks. Lips, beading, splinters, and protruding nails or screws are all potential sources of damage, as are unsuitable surface materials or coatings (such as a permanently tacky varnish, or unstable paints and enamels).

The vertical space between shelves should be high enough to allow a hand to reach over the top of the books. This space will also help air to circulate. Shelf depth matters too. If shelves are too shallow, books overhang the front edge and may suffer damage and distortion. Shelves can be too deep. When books are pulled forward on deep shelves, dust, detritus and eventually pests and moulds may build up in the large space behind them. If they are pushed back, another row of books, or potentially damaging articles such as coffee cups and office equipment, may creep on to the inviting empty spaces at the front of the shelves. Whatever the shelf depth, the space behind the books must receive attention during the routine cleaning programme.

Care and Repair

Everyday housekeeping keeps books free of dust and dirt. Dust the surfaces with a soft brush - a shaving brush is a good choice. Pay special attention to the top edges, dusting away from the spine. A vacuum cleaner nozzle held near to the brush will collect the dust as it leaves the surface. This is usually a better option than using the dusting brush supplied with many cleaners, which is often too coarse and stiff. Even moderate levels of suction are enough to cause flaking materials to break away; a fine filter of muslin, or similar material, stretched over the nozzle will prevent loss.

Set up a programme that ensures that all books, together with their shelves, boxes, cases, stands etc. are thoroughly but carefully cleaned at least once a year. The programme details should be documented and accessible to staff, and each cleaning stage checked, dated and logged. Be sure
to return all books and other items to their appropriate shelves or boxes.

Books taken from or stored in damp surroundings may carry moulds on leather, textiles and page edges. Again, a conservator can provide advice on removing and preventing moulds. Take care when handling moulds, and always wear a mask and perhaps gloves too; some people are sensitive to moulds and may suffer health problems if they work unprotected.

Beware of dressings designed to protect leather and keep it supple, even when the product has a safe-sounding name like 'British Museum leather dressing'. Always refer the question of dressings to a conservator. Even where a dressing is approved it must be applied by a trained person.


If books are properly shelved in good, stable environmental conditions and not roughly used, then signs of serious damage should be few. However, newly acquired books may be in poor or damaged condition, wear and tear on well-used books will eventually produce symptoms that need attention, and emergencies such as fire and flood can wreak havoc on a book collection.

In cases of normal damage or wear, the binding may fail, crack or loosen, or broken sewing may cause pages or whole signatures (folded groups of pages) to come loose. As a result, the book 'block' begins to lose its integrity, and page-edges protrude beyond the boards or covers and will suffer damage. A book found in this condition should be removed from
public use and shown to a conservator for assessment. Don't wait until the pages suffer damage. A local craft binder will be able to repair or rebind a book of no intrinsic historical value, and some binders offer full restoration services, but a conservator must be consulted if there is any doubt about which books can be safely repaired in this way.

A book that is beginning to break up or that has loose pages should be lightly tied together with linen tape to keep it intact until it can be repaired. Do not use ordinary self-adhesive tape to secure pages or torn pieces; this can cause damage when removed and eventually leaves a strong brown stain. If you find an existing repair that uses adhesive tape, call in a conservator to remove it. For similar reasons, avoid gummed paper tape; this may also discolour the page, and requires water (which in practice is often saliva) when it is first applied.

Specialist museum suppliers stock suitable temporary repair media, including polyester tape backed by a self-adhesive acrylic resin. It is better to use these special repair tapes when the damage is first noticed than to wait until the pages or torn fragments become separated and lost.

Booklice (Corrodentia spp.), various beetles, moths and even woodworm can attack the materials used to make books. Regularly check for signs of insect damage, such as bored holes and eaten tracks.

Disaster Recovery: Fire and Flood

Flood or fire present serious problems: burning, charring, smoke, soot and water damage (from fire-fighting as well as flood) are possible consequences. Most of these require the services of a conservator, but first aid may be needed.

If a book is wet, clean it gently with undyed cotton cloths or paper towels before opening it, then allow it to dry naturally in cool air. An electric fan can be used to aid the drying process provided it is set to blow cold and does not ruffle or disturb the pages - never force-dry a wet or damp book using heat. Wherever possible, stand the book upright and partially opened out, remembering that a waterlogged book can be a heavy, awkward and fragile object that may pull apart under its own temporary weight. The book's additional weight and fragility are also important factors during its initial recovery from the disaster area. As the book dries, check it for signs of mould growth.

Do not try to force apart the pages of a drying book. They will separate as they dry out. However, the shiny 'art' paper used for printing illustrations and sometimes for whole books is an exception. This is heavily 'loaded' with china clay, and if left to dry the pages will settle into a solid mass. Try to separate sheets of art paper from each other and from text paper as they dry, using polyethylene sheets or silicone release paper.

Access and Security

Books are portable and easy to steal. Thieves interested in market value will look for collectable books, which are just as likely to be twentieth-century first editions as ancient leather-bound tomes. An opportunist thief or unscrupulous reader may remove a book that has little cash worth but considerable local or historical value.

Major security systems are beyond the scope of this fact sheet - see the MLA Security fact sheets for further information. However, the first line of defence against the opportunist thief is the locked cupboard or, where some display is desirable, lockable glass-fronted bookcases. Staff must then decide which books should be locked away, and should also develop a rapid checking system for both secure and open shelves so that a loss can be recognised as soon as it occurs.

There are two broad classes of public access to the content of books. One is through the display of sample pages, usually behind glass; the other is the familiar 'reference library' model, where visitors may read the books in a demarcated area of the building.

The under-glass approach is suitable for a naturalist's field notebook, say, where the pages are of great interest to visitors but the book is too important or fragile to be touched. The important factors here are the environmental conditions in the display cabinet, regular page-turning to prevent strain on the binding and to ration the exposure of pages, and control of incident light through time-limited electric lighting and/or curtains to block daylight.

Greater access may be desirable where the content of books in the collection is of interest to researchers or general readers. For example, a local museum may hold a published transcript of the local parish registers, or locally interesting memoirs, biographies, histories and genealogies. Here it is important to control access and visitor care standards through adequate issue and supervision systems. Possible measures include shelf marks and
ticketing, the checking or prohibition of personal bags and cases, a ban on pens and other indelible markers (and, of course, food and drink) in the reading area, and an insistence on cotton gloves for the handling of valuable books.

Copying and Copyright

Whatever the approach, if access is heavy and threatens the well-being of the book you should consider withdrawing the original and providing fiche or other copies instead. This theme is addressed in more detail in the companion fact sheet on Archives and Ephemera.

Some items in the collection may not warrant the expense of microfilm or fiche, and could be suitable for the lower-cost option of photocopying. The two principal dangers of this approach come from the photocopier's high-intensity light source and the flattening of the binding as each page opening is pressed down against the glass. These risks must be carefully weighed before photocopying any item.

Finally, remember when making working copies (also known as 'surrogates') that twentieth-century publications may still be in copyright (whose term has been extended to 70 years from the author's death in England). Copying processes will usually breach that copyright, so consult an expert if you are in any doubt.

References, and Sources of Information and Advice

The National Preservation Office is producing a series of information leaflets on the care of books and related media. Contact:

The Information Officer
National Preservation Office
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
Tel: 020 7412 7612
Fax: 020 7412 7796

For more information about private conservation work please contact:

Conservation Register
Tel: 020 7721 8246

Conservation Register (Scotland)
Tel: 0131 668 8668

Copies of this fact sheet can be provided in alternative formats. Please contact Viola Lewis, Information Officer at MLA for further information.



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