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Caring for Old Books: Top 10 Dos and Don’ts

by Liz Holderman (01/12/10).

A vintage book’s value can vary tremendously based simply on its condition. For a particularly rare and collectible book, the difference could easily translate into thousands of dollars. Since most antique books may already be fragile, it’s important to take special care when handling and storing them. The way a book is treated today will affect its value tomorrow.

What follows is a list of 10 things to do, or not to do, as the case may be, that will help you keep your antique and vintage books looking their best (as well as keeping their values as high as they can be).

1. No Hooking: Never remove a book from the shelf by pulling with your hooked index finger on the top of the spine. This is the most common way to remove a book from a tight line-up and everyone does it. But over time, the action will slowly pull the cover away from the spine, fray the top edge and loosen the casing. Instead, grasp the book on either side, with your fingertips well in front of the spine, and gently slide back.

Sliding a book off of a shelf.

Sliding a book off of a shelf.

2. Stay Dry: Moisture is a book’s worst enemy. Humidity will cause warping, mildew and a musty odor. Over time, even imperceptible amounts of dampness can result in the formation of tiny brown spots called foxing. Don’t store those valuable books in a basement, garage or cellar.

3. Don’t Lean: Books that are stored at an angle will eventually lose their shape because the spines become cocked. Make sure the books are stored either straight up (with the aid of padded bookends if necessary) or stacked horizontally.

4. No Sun: Books stored in direct sunlight will fade. The sunlight can be especially intense if it is magnified through a windowpane and many vintage spines now show the sad result of years of sun exposure. This otherwise nice jacket shows a badly sunned and discolored spine.

Nineteen Eighty-Four” with a sun-damaged spine.

Nineteen Eighty-Four” with a sun-damaged spine.

5. Cover the Dust Jacket: A clear cover (sometimes called Mylar) with an acid-free paper backing is the best way to protect those delicate dust jackets from soil and tears. Always remove the dust jacket and set it aside temporarily when reading a book, or when loaning it out, as excessive handling adds wear. A dust jacket in excellent condition can increase the value of a rare book by tenfold.

6. Don’t Smoke: Old paper, cloth and leather retain odors. And old books will always smell like a fireplace if they are stored in a smoky environment. Over time, smoky air can also leave an oily yellow film on a book’s surface and discolor the pages.

7. Don’t Crack: As the editor of a newsletter on antique children’s books, I often scan illustrations in rare publications to share in the periodical. That means opening the book flat, which might crack a brittle spine. Luckily, you don’t have to do this. Hold your fragile book’s covers open at a 90-degree angle with your raised hand and protect that old spine.

Opening a book the correct way.

Opening a book the correct way.

8. Mind the Corners: Corner bumping is usually the first thing that will cause a book to lose its top condition category of “fine.” The biggest cause of corner damage is dropping and that happens in shipping. If you need to mail a book, first wrap it in clean white paper and then in bubble wrap. Make sure the book fits snugly inside its shipping box to prevent jostling.

9. Respect the Paste-On: Many older books, particularly children’s books, have beautiful paper paste-on illustrations on the covers. These paste-ons are as delicate as dust jackets and are easily scratched. Be careful with rough bookends and never place other objects on top of these books. Due to special care, this book still has a vivid paste-on, even after 132 years.

A copy of “The Family Friend” with a paste-on in excellent condition.

A copy of “The Family Friend” with a paste-on in excellent condition.

And most important of all . . .

10. Enjoy: These beautiful old books are a joy. They were created to be opened, read, shared and loved. The covers, bindings and internal illustrations were meant to be displayed and admired. Don’t hide them away. Take care when handling, but handle them nonetheless. That is the price of the pleasure they give.

If your old books have minor damage, there are many things you can do to alleviate the problems. In the next article, we’ll cover simple home repairs and cleaning techniques that won’t affect the value of your collectibles.


Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.

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9 Responses to “Caring for Old Books: Top 10 Dos and Don’ts”

  1. I have some older books. If I send a picture of each (perhaps 6) is it a total of $25 or $25 per book?
    Thanks,
    Brenda

    • Maggie Turnipseed Maggie Turnipseed says:

      Brenda,

      Yes, Worthpoint does valuations on books like yours, and all kinds of antiques and collectibles. We charge $19.99 per item….. With books it is important that we see some photos of the title page showing publisher information.
      Here is a link to the area on Worthpoint where you can request a valuation for your books. https://www.worthpoint.com/askWorthologist/index
      Maggie Turnipseed
      Worthologist

  2. Dianne Hanselman says:

    I have a few old books which were handed down over the years. One was to my Uncle in 1911, Coopers Last of the Mohicans (MacMillans pocket classics)and another small book, Reveries of a Bachelor by Donald Mitchell. Where do I go to see if these have any value? A used book store perhaps?

    Thank you in advance, your time is appreciated.

  3. Liz Holderman Liz Holderman says:

    Hello Dianne -

    The best way to get a good appraised value for your old books is to utilize the “Ask a Worthologist” feature on WorthPoint. Vintage book values can vary widely based on edition, publisher, condition, illustrations, binding styles and many other features. Some titles have been printed in dozens of different formats over the years, so research and extensive price comparisons are always necessary. Experienced worthologists know how to do that investigation for you!

  4. Liz Holderman Liz Holderman says:

    Hello Brenda,

    Worthpoint does valuations on books, antiques and collectables for $19.99 per item. Here is a link to the area of the WorthPoint site where you can request a valuation…..
    https://www.worthpoint.com/askWorthologist/index
    With books it is important that you include a photo of the title page showing the publisher information and please note any dates that are shown in the first few pages, the condition of the book and the type of binding.

  5. Hi, I have a miniature Victorian/Edwardian cookbook with a silver plated leather bound cover that is in fairly poor condition due to the pressure over the years from the weight of the cover.Is it worth getting it restored or should I just leave it as it is.All the pages are there but a few are loose as well.Thanks for your advice.

  6. brenda zwadlo says:

    i have about 12 bookcases filled with books that i received from my dad’s estate about 10 years ago. i know some are valuable due to the author and date published and of course, some not. i have a master list somewhere. my question is… with so many volumes is there any way to get a group price? i know this sounds somewhat crass, but i can’t see myself paying for each individual book trying to get a price range especially now in this economy.

  7. Liz Holderman Liz Holderman says:

    Hi Brenda -

    It’s important to keep in mind that some books are worth thousands and many books are worth hundreds, but the vast majority of books – even old books – are not worth much. (Of course, sentimental value is entirely different).

    It is simply a matter of supply and demand, unfortunately. Yesterday’s novels have little interest today and most classic titles have been reprinted dozens of times..

    Books with high monetary value are generally those that are rare, highly-collectible, first editions, beautifully bound and illustrated,etc. Unless your books are all fairly common,it’s hard to make an assessment without a bit of research.

    A local book dealer in your area might be interested in taking a look.

  8. Sarah says:

    Brenda,

    I use mylar covers for old books with dust jackets, but I have several children’s books with lovely paste down covers and no dust jacket. Is there a product like the mylar cover that can be used for these books as well?

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