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The Care of Good Books
There's a right way and a wrong to handle them

Most people do not consider themselves book collectors, and yet most people have books around the house-maybe they think of them as "the bookcase" or even "the library." I buy a lot of books for inventory, and I have found that many people have at least one or two books for which I am willing to pay them a lot more than they expect. But unfortunately there are also many cases where otherwise valuable books are made practically worthless by lack of proper care.

There are some basic guidelines for handling, reading, and storing books that will preserve them in excellent condition for your family, or in case you ever want to sell them.

For the record let me state that I am not one of these book Nazis who would discourage you from handling or (gasp!) actually reading your books for fear of leaving some trace of wear or prior ownership. Such people should confine themselves to decorative plates, figurines, various little fluffy stuffed things, and other manufactured collectables which, as near as I can tell, have no other earthly purpose.

Books, on the other hand, are intended to be read and that is exactly what you should do with them. But you should do it with enough care that you don't destroy the value of those "sleepers" you have among your books.

It is not a good idea to eat or drink while reading a book. Food and beverage stains have ruined many a book. Crumbs fall between pages and stain them, food on your fingers is easily transferred to paper. Books are not coasters-drink rings are death on dust jackets and book surfaces.

Avoid cracking a book fully open on a flat surface. This really stresses the spine, and with the "economical" materials and manufacturing in today's books, doing so will often separate complete sections of pages from the binding.

When removing a book from the shelf take care not to pull it from the head (top) of the spine. This action causes two problems. First, it stresses and can tear that area of the spine or dust jacket. Second, it rolls the full weight of the book out onto the heel (bottom) of the spine, which stresses, weakens, and crumples this area. The best way to pull a book from the shelf is to put your finger on the top edge of the text block, well in from the head of the spine. Carefully slide it out just enough to be able to get hold of it mid-spine. Then just grasp it firmly and pull it straight out.

Use actual bookmarks or some other thin material rather than bending page corners over (dog-earing) or using the dust jacket flap to mark your place. Flowers, leather, leaves, and other organic bits should not be placed in books because they can stain the pages. They also may be too thick, in which case they could spring the binding.

Many people like to write in their books as they go along. In some cases this is necessary I suppose, but consider inserting a card with your notes on it instead. This keeps the text clean for any subsequent user and the cards could actually double as bookmarks to the important passages.

Some of the damage that happens to books is due to the way they are stored. Too many books are kept in basements and attics. These books are particularly vulnerable to moisture, insects, rodents, and wide variations of temperature and humidity-especially in our area. Water is probably the biggest enemy. Many local basements get wet or even flooded during heavy rain or snow melts. Once a book has gotten wet it is usually ready for the trash heap. Yes, there are ways to restore wet books if immediate action is taken, but the cost is prohibitive unless the book is truly something valuable.

The humidity around here also causes many problems, such as mold, staining, and warping of pages and boards (the 'hard' part of a hardcover). It also encourages insect infestation. Wide temperature and humidity variations, such as occur in many attics, wreak havoc on the physical structure of books. Books should be kept within the living spaces of your house where the environment is most climate controlled.

A large number of the problems that books develop over time are simply due to the way they are made. As a mechanism, a book is actually quite a poor design. You have a relatively heavy stack of pages (the text block) glued between two relatively thin boards. The boards are slightly larger than the text block so that when the book sits on the shelf the text block is not really resting on anything. This places a lot of stress on the binding. Depending on how thick and heavy the text block is and how much supporting pressure there is from adjoining books, the text block can come loose just by sitting on the shelf. Very heavy or large format books should actually be stored laying flat.

These suggestions may seem excessive to some, but hopefully not. It depends on why you own books, how you read them, and how you plan to ultimately dispose of them (you can't take them with you!). The one sure thing is that you should enjoy them and use them. Just remember that some of them may be royalty in peasants' clothing.

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