Saturday, February 2, 2013

Buying and Caring for Vintage Books

I was happy to hear from some of you that you appreciated my recent post about shopping and caring for vintage textiles. I am fortunate to have some very knowledgeable and generous friends, so today I am thrilled to present you with another helpful resource. Beth Lander, Director of Library Services at Manor College in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and a dear friend and former colleague, has written a guest post on what to look for when purchasing vintage books, and more importantly, what to do with them once you bring them home. Many thanks to Beth for taking the time to give us some very valuable tips! 

I have been an archivist/librarian for a very, very long time.  I have dealt with donors who, with great pride and fanfare, bring in boxes of books that have been stored in attics, basements and barns, and it shows.  Rats nests (yes, they do make them!), birds’ nests, poop, mold, dead critters, smoke and soot – you name it, and you’ll find books damaged by them.

But what if you love to stroll through used book shops or vintage shops, and can’t resist a gorgeous book?  Perhaps a vintage 1930’s edition of Pride and Prejudice to grace your coffee table? How can you be sure that what you’re buying won’t come home with unwanted guests?

The most important thing to remember about books is that they are made out of materials that are, for the most part, hygroscopic, meaning that the materials will shrink and expand when exposed to moisture.  Books are like sponges, and your job will be to control how much exposure your collection will bear.  Materials used in book binding are also mostly organic, which means that your books are naturally tasty treats for a variety of bugs and creatures.

Curb your buying impulses until you’ve given the book a good look.  Rely on your nose, your eyes and your sense of touch. Books in good condition should not be dank smelling.  When touched, they should not leave sticky, slimy, colored, or webby residues on your hands, all of which are signs of potentially active mold.  Leather bindings, when touched, should not deposit a red powdery substance on your hands (or worse yet, your clothes!) – that red powder is called “red rot,” and is a sign that the binding has begun to degrade.  Lastly, the text block, the paper that makes up all the pages of the book, should have no holes.  Holes are the evidence of bookworms and other unwanted guests.

If you simply can’t resist a book, and you discover a problem, or if your current collection suffers from damage, you can try to address those problems at home.  Here are some techniques you can try:

·      Mold residue on a dry book.  DO NOT TRY TO CLEAN AN ACTIVE GROWTH OF MOLD.    Active mold (soft and fuzzy!) requires professional assistance.  If the book is suffering from mold residue, first isolate the book from the rest of your collection.  If you have a vacuum with a HEPA filter, remove any attachments, and cover the nozzle with two or three knee-hi’s secured with a rubber band.  DO NOT use a vacuum without a HEPA filter.  Doing so will just spread the residue throughout your home.  Vacuum on the lowest setting possible to remove as much of the powdery residue as possible.  Once you are finished vacuuming, immediately dispose of the vacuum bag.  DO NOT reuse that bag!  You may also use a very soft, wide brush, like one used for watercolors, to gently brush away residue.  Please do this outside in order to prevent contamination.
·       Preventing mold on wet books.  Keep in mind that mold will grow in temperatures above 700  and in relative humidity above 60% for more than 48 hours.  If you can treat a wet book in that 48 hour window, do so.  Take the wet books, and stand them up next to one another, very loosely, with spines alternating against fore-edges (the part of the cover you use to open and close the book).  You can use bookends loosely positioned to prevent the books from toppling over.  Drop the temperature of the space you are using as much as you possibly can to deter mold growth.  Use dehumidifiers and air conditioners if available.  Use fans to circulate air, but don’t point the fans directly at the books.  Doing so will cause the books to dry too quickly, resulting in warped bindings.  The books will be dry when they are warm to the touch.  Once the books are dry, place each one flat, and lay a heavy object on top of each one in order to flatten paper and bindings.  Please remember than some warping may remain.  If a book with glossy pages, such as those used in art books, gets wet, you MUST interleave each page of the book with absorbent, white paper while the book is still wet.  As the absorbent paper becomes wet, remove it, and replace with a dry sheet.  Continue to do this until the pages are almost entirely dry, then stand the book up as indicated above, and complete the drying process.  If you do not interleave, the pages will stick irreversibly together.
·      Freezing wet books.  While there are sources that recommend the use of your home freezer for the temporary storage of water damaged books until help is at hand, I personally hesitate to do so.  First, the freezers used by conservators are not designed for food storage – they are set at a lower relative humidity and temperature than those designed for home use.  And secondly, if you want the freezing to be effective, you cannot open the freezer door once the books have been stored – and are you going to toss the ice cream in favor of the books?  But if you are desperate, then by all means toss the Haagen Daz and the leftovers, and store your precious ones until treatment is at hand.  Wrap each book individually in freezer paper to prevent books from sticking to one another.  Store multiple books spine down in a waterproof container.  Store individual books spine down in a freezer bag. 
·      Insect infestations.  If you are in a shop, and pick up a book in which lurks a living, breathing bug, leave the shop.  If you are a tidy housekeeper, living in a home with central heat and air conditioning, then the likelihood of a major infestation of bugs is small.  Regular dusting of book collections, limiting exposure of books to changes in temperate and humidity, and keeping food out of the gutters of books will help prevent bug problems.  However, if you experience a significant infestation, call your exterminator, and seek the help of a professional conservator.

To find a conservator, go to the Resource Center of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

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