How do you look after an antique book?

Rare and valuable books (especially old, rare books) deserve and require special care. If cared for properly, rare books can provide their owners with a beautiful collection that will continue to grow in value as time goes on.

Fortunately, for new rare book collectors and seasoned collectors alike, preserving and caring for rare, old books doesn’t require obscure materials, extensive upkeep, or a large investment; instead, it requires time, patience, and a bit of proverbial elbow grease.

Read through our 4 main sections and you'll be well on your way to maintaining your own beautiful collection.

Preparing storage

Eliminate fire and smoke hazards.

Although fire and smoke are typically accidental occurrences, avoid placing books in a room or corner susceptible to smoke or fire exposure. Books should not be placed in a room adjacent to a fireplace or wood-burning stove, nor should they be in an area prone to steam, such as a kitchen, laundry room, or bathroom.

Avoid extreme temperatures and conditions.

Refrain from storing books in a room prone to extreme temperatures. Hot rooms might include laundry rooms, kitchens, and sunrooms, while cold rooms might include a garage, pantry, laundry room, or similarly poorly insulated area. The ideal temperature for books is between 65 and 72 degrees F (or 18-22 degrees C). Keep this in mind when choosing a designated storage area for your collection.

Select a wooden or metal bookcase.

Rough shelving such as particle board can damage the binding of books, while chemically-treated or painted shelves can leach into books, causing staining, disintegration, or weakening of the binding’s fibres. When choosing a case or shelf, look for smooth, sealed wood intended for indoor use, or smooth, enamelled metal.

Avoid harsh lighting.

Harsh, intense light, whether from the sun or from a bulb, can cause fading and damage to rare and old books. Choose a space not regularly touched by the sun, and avoid placing heavy overhead lighting beside your books. They will thrive best in a darker environment, such as a corner or interior room.

Clean your storage space thoroughly.

Whether you plan to place your books in an open bookshelf, or a closed case, make sure the area has been cleaned before placing your books into it. Remove any dust from shelves, and wipe down all surfaces. Cleaning the top of your bookshelf has the potential to rain dust upon your tomes, so make sure every possible surface of your shelf or case has been thoroughly scrubbed.

Cleaning Your Books

Vacuum pages and binding with a handheld vacuum.

Use a small, handheld vacuum to gently lift dirt and debris from the pages and binding. For very old, delicate books, avoid pressing the vacuum directly to the book’s surface; instead, allow it to hover just above the surface, moving slowly and gently from side to side.

Wipe pages with microfiber cloths.

Microfiber cloths are both gentle and excellent for picking up dust. Using a clean microfiber cloth, gently wipe down each of the book’s pages. This cleaning method should be conducted using gloves, as the oils present in skin can smudge or otherwise damage old pages.

Brush with a natural-fibre brush.

Your brush can be a specialty brush, specifically for books, or even an unused bottle brush--more important than its intended purpose is the brush’s material. Horsehair, coconut bristles, and other natural fibres will be gentler on the spine and pages than plastic or acrylic.

Eradicate and prevent insect activity.

Insects are often attracted to books and can be found nesting or snacking on the pages, glue, binding, or cover. Search for any small holes in the pages, small bodies, or egg sacs. If you find insect activity of any kind, place your book in a sealed plastic bag, and store it in the freezer for 2-3 days. Upon removal, wipe or vacuum away any remaining insects, larvae, or egg sacs. Place camphor-soaked linen on your shelves or sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the bookcase in question. This acts as powerful deterrents for insects, and mice, and both are safe to keep near old, valuable books.

Search for staining, mould, and mildew.

While staining cannot be reversed in most cases, it can provide insight into the conditions the book requires. Water staining, for instance, will tell you the book may be particularly sensitive to moisture, while yellowing of the pages suggests a sensitivity to heat. Mould and mildew are both brought on by warm, moist conditions, and may be reversed with cool, dry air. As with insect activity, place the book in the freezer for 3-4 days, before gently scraping away any remaining mould or mildew, or using a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Storing Your Books

Place books upright.

Books should be lined up vertically on a shelf, rather than stacked or set horizontally. Improper storage such as stacking can cause the binding to break down, resulting in the dissolution of the book's structure.

Group according to size.

Books should be placed alongside similarly-sized books to prevent bowing. Placing large books alongside smaller books could, over time, encourage the top of the cover to sag outward, resulting in a curved, irregular appearance. If you have a wide array of sizes and shapes, group them according to size as much as possible, using thin metal bookends to corral each size.

Space books carefully.

Spacing books loosely will allow them to lean, resulting in weak binding and warped covers. Books should fit snugly against each other, but should not be packed in tightly, as this, too, could damage the binding. Ideally, books should be spaced in such a way that they all stand upright, with enough wiggle room to allow a small finger to wedge between them.

Maintaining Your Collection

Clean your books and storage regularly.

At least once per month, go over your books and shelves with a light dusting, using a dry microfiber cloth. Once every 3-6 months, repeat the cleaning instructions identified above, once again checking for insect or mould activity.

Adjust conditions as seasons change.

Evaluate the storage space you have chosen during each new season to make sure peak conditions are kept. In summer, make sure the room is suitably cool, and in winter, make sure the room is heated properly. If humidity is a problem in some seasons, consider placing a dehumidifier near your bookcase.

Handle your books carefully.

Although you may collect your books purely for show, many collectors revel in touching, smelling, and sharing their books. When you handle your books, do so with care: use gloves, and avoid pulling on the book's spine or pages. Instead, insert your fingers on either side of the book in question, and gently remove it from its place by exerting pressure on the front and back cover. Turn pages slowly and carefully.

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