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

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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