Prologue Magazine

Preserving Books

Summer 2015, Vol. 47, No. 2 | Your Family Archives

By Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler

old books on a shelf

These much-loved books could use some attention. Shelve your books so that volumes of approximately the same size are together and can support one another. (Photo courtesy of Mary Ryan)

Despite the popularity and convenience of e-books, many people own treasured books of the old-fashioned kind—paper leaves protected by covers. These books range from diaries, journals, and Bibles that contain genealogical entries to first editions of favorite authors and beautifully illustrated children’s stories. Careful handling will help to preserve them.

Storage — Store books away from sources of heat and moisture. Avoid attics and garages, where temperatures can get high and where there can be problems with water or high humidity. These conditions cause paper to become brittle (think of old newspaper clippings). Moisture can also attract insects.

Light can cause book covers to fade, especially the spines of books exposed to sunlight for years. Position bookcases so that sunlight does not fall on books you want to preserve.

Preservation-quality boxes for individual volumes will protect books from excess light exposure and keep pieces of damaged bindings together, such as detached or loose covers.

Shelving — Store small- to medium-sized books upright (vertically). Shelve books of approximately the same size together so they will support one another; otherwise, volumes will become distorted and covers will lose their shape. Store large volumes, such as atlases, flat (horizontally). This will keep the covers flat and the text from separating from the covers.

Handling — Handle books gently to avoid separating covers and spine pieces from the binding. Do not "dog-ear" or turn down the corners of pages. That will leave a permanent crease in the paper, and the corner may break off if the paper is weak and brittle. Use a thin piece of paper or a length of ribbon as a bookmark. Do not use metal devices that clip over the tops of pages or anything thick since they can tear and distort paper.

Food and drink can stain paper, and if liquid falls on manuscript ink (such as a diary entry) the ink can feather and bleed. Such damage is permanent.

Making Copies — Do not place books face down on a photocopier or scanner. This puts stress on tightly bound volumes, resulting in bindings breaking and pages separating. Face-up copying is safest, using either a hand-held camera or a face-up copier. Do not force books to open flat to get the "best" copy. Book cradles can support books at a safe angle to protect the bindings.

Book Repair — Do not attempt to repair books that are unique or that you wish to pass on to future generations. Using tape to mend torn pages or to reattach loose or detached covers, while well intentioned, ultimately causes more damage. Simply box a damaged book, store it flat, and handle the volume very carefully. For repairs or conservation treatment, check the free referral service from the American Institute for Conservation for a book conservator in your region (

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Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler is chief of the National Archives Conservation Laboratory.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.