The Care and Maintenance of Books

The Care and Maintenance of Books 


So, now you’ve got a little collection, whether it’s vintage paperbacks or new signed hardbacks with lovely spredges and beautiful dustwrappers, you’re going to want to look after them, right?  So here’s the Gently Used Book Club guide to caring for your books. 


Light – if at all possible keep your books out of direct sunlight.  Light is terrible for books – it fades them and yellows the paper.  You don’t need to be obsessive and keep your books in the dark (although the Belgian Museum of Comics does just that, only allowing a few hours of dim light each day to a selection of their collections).  Maybe you’d want to move your bookcase though if your room gets a lot of sunshine. 


Temperature – try and keep your books at a relatively stable temperature, not too hot and not too cold as both of these extremes are bad for both the paper and the glue that holds the books together. The temperature of most houses nowadays is generally fine, but take care if your room gets especially cold or hot.


Humidity – This is disastrous for books. If it’s too humid the glue dissolves and your book will literally fall apart. This has happened to me on holiday in Florida with a book I had been looking for for ages. It came apart in my hands!  Likewise if it is too dry then the glue will dry out and crack. Vintage paperbacks are sadly particularly susceptible to catastrophic spine failures – usually with no warning!  And while we’re on the subject of moisture….


Damp – make sure your books have plenty of air circulation and that the wall they are against is not damp.  Don’t overfill your bookcases so that your books can breathe. Damp is death to books, causing mould, encouraging insect life and rotting the pages. Also damp books smell awful, and we don’t want that, do we?


Dust – Try and keep your collection free of dust. A soft paintbrush is excellent for brushing dust from spines and edges, otherwise a clean dry duster should be fine. A regular dusting, taking each book off the shelf and carefully wiping or brushing it will help identify any issues with storage.


Shelve your books properly – books are designed to stand upright, not lie flat, whatever interior designers may think!  Try to stand your books up straight, without leaning, or the spines may twist. Don’t pack them in too tightly – you should be able to pull them off the shelf easily. And don’t stack books on top of shelved books as the weight is not good for the books underneath.


Handle carefully – never pull a book off the shelf by hooking it with your finger. This will damage the endspine and the dustwrapper. Grasp the book firmly in the middle of the spine. 


No eating or drinking! – yes really, I know, there’s nothing better than a cup of tea and some cake and a book, but crumbs and tea stains are never good. I once bought a rare David Gemmell book at a car boot sale and when I got it home I realised that someone had used a slice of pizza as a bookmark!  So, definitely no pizza!  Also don’t leave bookmarks (even if they’re not pizza) in special books. The type of paper, card, leather, metal could damage the pages. 


Stickers – if your book has stickers on it then try and remove them as soon as you can before any damage they have inflicted has become permanent, or they become an irremovable part of the book.  Waterstones, I am looking at you with a hard Paddington stare!  Charity shop price stickers are sometimes nearly as bad.  Try heating the sticker gently (very gently, not too hot!)  with a hairdryer if it seems stuck. Otherwise there are other things you can use but beware of damaging the surface of the book with solvents, polishes etc. I’ll do a little list at the end of things that may work – try them on an unobtrusive part of the book first to check if it’s OK.


Insect life – I know, I don’t like to think about it either but it does happen. Old houses in the UK tend to have silverfish, especially if they have a little dampness. They love to eat the glue in books.  Booklice can also be a problem.  There are bookworm, though these tend to be in very old books, or ones that have been very badly stored.  They literally burrow through the pages.  It’s worth checking any older books you are bringing into your collection just in case.  If you live in a hotter climate than here then termites may be an issue for you – termites love books!  Regular dusting as suggested above will highlight any problems, hopefully before anything too horrendous happens.


Protection – I like to wrap dustwrappers of special books in glassine bookwrap. It’s clear on one side and paper on the other and keeps the dustwrapper from getting damaged or dirty. Some people like to keep special paperbacks in acid-free bags (like comic bags). Because I live in a generally temperate climate I don’t do this and I’ve never had a problem, but if you live somewhere very humid or very dry you might want to consider this for special paperbacks. 


I hope that helps you to think about how best to care for your collection.  It’s by no means an exhaustive list of what could possibly damage your books, but it covers the main issues. I’ve added some links below to things that might be useful.


Sticky Stuff Remover – this comes as a liquid and a gel, both are useful for removing stickers from books although sometimes they leave a greasy mark so test first.




Easi-Clean Book Cleaner – this is a petroleum based fluid that’s especially good for removing dirt and stains from dustwrappers and laminated covers. It says it can be used on cloth bindings too but I never have.  Again I would always test first. 



Clearsleeve – this is the stuff that I use to protect dustwrappers. It comes on a roll and you cut it to the size you need.


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