Handling Rare Books

Handling Rare Books

How to leave no trace...

Most of our library stacks are open and free to browse, like most libraries. However, our rare book collection is locked up in cages. The Wenner Collection isn’t in its permanent home yet, but it will be in a secure vault, entirely separated from the rest of the book collection. Why is that? Why do we keep the books so secure? It’s not just because they’re valuable.

Rare book cages

Rare book cages

One of the basic tasks of being a rare books librarian (or archivist for that matter) is balancing the need to make books accessible to the public, with the need to preserve the collection for as long as possible. We like to throw around the word “perpetuity,” which means forever. Now think about it, realistically we know forever may not be in the cards, but we want these books to last as long as possible. Some of our books have already lasted 500 years, and we’d like them to last at least that much more, if not longer! So how do we do that? One of the ways is through proper environmental conditions, such as avoiding long-term light exposure and maintaining the right temperatures and humidity levels. Another way is through proper handling of rare books (and other collections).

So here are some of the rules we follow for handling rare books. These are pretty useful for preserving your personal book collection as well.

  • Handle the books with freshly washed (soap and water!) bare hands. We don’t use gloves for handling most of our books here because gloves (especially cotton) are more likely to tear pages and transfer residue between books than clean washed hands.  If you’re curious about this, try putting on the thinnest cotton gloves you can find, and then turning the pages of the nearest book. Now imagine this book is 100 or 500 years old.

  • Protect yourself from the book. Here’s the exception to the no gloves rule above. If you’re worried about hazardous material on the books, whether it’s mold, frass (bug poop, a sad fact of life for librarians and archivists), or even actual poison (arsenic was an infamous green dye sometimes used in book production!), you need to make sure you’re safe first. When in doubt, always ask an expert. A dust mask might be necessary if you’re working with a lot of material like this. We don’t know of any books with arsenic dye in the collection, but occasionally a dusty or moldy donation slips through the cracks and we have to take precautions.

  • It may go without saying, but we don’t allow food or drinks in our reading room. Not even water! Not only do you risk spilling directly on the books, but having food around the books can attract critters, lots of bugs and even mice are perfectly happy to munch on paper and leather. And food residue just makes it more appealing.

  • When pulling books off the shelf don’t pull from the top of the book, it can damage the binding of the book over time. If you want to retrieve a book, push the neighboring books back and then pull the book from the middle of the spine. Like this

  • When opening the books don’t force them open further than the binding allows, go slowly and feel the book carefully. Many books have been bound and rebound over time, leaving less space in the margins/gutter, never force a book open further than the binding allows. This could destroy the binding.

Book support

Book support

  • Support the book when it’s open. Many rare books can’t be opened completely flat due to the nature of the binding (see above rule), book cradles and supports are necessary.

  • Turning books pages isn’t rocket science, but there are few simple rules. Never lick your fingers to help turn pages and if the paper is brittle, don’t turn at the corners, they can easily rip off.

  • Store oversized or heavy books flat or if you must, on the spine. Never store a book with the opening down, this puts a lot of pressure on the binding over time.

Check out some of the images of Wenner Collection books below to get a close-up of books with hundreds of years of wear and tear (including some bite marks from something that nibbled on the paper). 

Image Gallery
About the Author

Allison Rein

Allison Rein

Allison Rein is the Associate Director of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. She has a B.A. in history from UMBC and an MLS from the University of Maryland. She spent nearly 10 years working in libraries and archives before coming to AIP. She manages the book collection at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and if she had to pick a favorite book in the entire collection it would be Radium Girls by Kate Moore. Her favorite thing about working at the Library (and any institution she’s ever worked) is how much she’s constantly learning. 

Caption: Maria Goeppert Mayer posing in a bat costume

See all articles by Allison Rein

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