What is the best way to both display and safely store rare books?
May 12, 2015 4:28 PM   Subscribe

I am finally beginning to get serious about a first editions book collection. I see a lot of conflicting information online about book storage, even from 'experts'.

- I've heard don't use wood cabinets (acid/fumes from finishes), and to use metal - yet i've heard epoxied wood is fine, and galleries of the interior of prominent rare booksellers clearly use wood shelving.

- I've heard closing in a sealed cabinet is good (less dust/direct light), yet I've heard it's bad (stuffy/mildewy).

- I've heard mylar dust jacket covers are good, yet I've heard you have to be very careful which you get since they also cause damage.

- I've heard to store them vertically in groups, yet I've heard this is dangerous over time unless the books are identical in size.

I want to store my rare books but also display them (which eliminates clamshell boxes/slipcases). Have you or anyone you've known done this successfully over a long period of time with no ill effects on the books? Any advice is appreciated.
posted by basehead to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You can find some good advice from the Library of Congress. For example, here is the section about wooden bookshelves, and care, handling and storage.
posted by gudrun at 5:00 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

On the dust jackets, go to Brodart and get the kind that are *not* affixed by tape or other adhesive to the book jacket.

Bear a couple of things in mind when you're collecting. First, books are relatively inexpensive as collectibles go. Compared to art, which can run into the millions for a painting or sculpture, look at, for example, To Kill A Mockingbird, which is one of the most sought after books of this century, and will run you less than $40,000. Admittedly, that's a lot of money for a book, but nothing like a nice Picasso. The most valuable one I currently own is worth about $3,000.

Treat your books well. Don't break the spines and don't ever leave them lying open and face down. Don't eat while you read them. Don't pack them *too* closely on the shelf, but don't let them lean, as both cause damage over time. But generally, don't be scared of them. I generally buy a copy of books that I want, and then buy a remaindered copy or paperback as a reading copy. Or you could buy an ebook as a reading copy. That keeps your first edition pristine, which is key to maintaining high value.

Make friends with booksellers so you can get an idea of what to keep and what to discard, but really the best way to collect books is to read, know what you like, keep up on what's new, and buy it fresh at publication. Buying books that are already valuable is only a good thing to do if (a) you have a ton of money and (b) you really really love the book. Otherwise, consider this something you will do over a lifetime.

Go to book fairs, specifically antiquarian ones. There are great ones on both coasts of the US, and really good ones elsewhere in the US. Look up your area on the ABAA website and get to know some of your local dealers. They're nice people. Quirky, usually. Male, usually (men make up the majority of collectors even though women make up the majority of novel readers). But nice people.

Browse the ABAA website, too. There's lots of good info on collecting. I primarily collect first editions of US literature post WWII, but I make exceptions here and there. Feel free to memail me if you have specific questions that you think I might have perspective on. I know others here are into books, as well.
posted by janey47 at 5:40 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I highly recommend the leaflets offered by the NEDCC. A fantastic resource.
posted by cellar door at 5:48 PM on May 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

While learning about proper care of books is in your interest, you're probably not going to want to turn your house into a pro quality archival space for convenience and cost reasons. And you don't need to. Reading about book care can make you feel as if anything short of a perfectly climate controlled room is going to result in your books crumbling to dust when you touch them. It won't happen like that. In basically normal conditions your books will be fine for years and years.

I have several different book collections, and the largest and most valuable is smutty paperbacks and low-rent magazines from the fifties and sixties. You would be hard pressed to find more poorly made (and therefore fragile) books. Archivists used to say that the glue holding these books together wouldn't hold for fifty years even in good conditions, and given the nature of the books it's likely that many have spent much of their life in storage units, attics, and other such bad climates. Right now, they're in my bedroom, on wooden shelves, getting a bit of sunlight, on a slightly humid summer night. Valuable ones are bagged, and the hall of fame is kept in a case. They've been doing this for years with absolutely no noticeable degradation. The ones I bought in bad shape haven't gotten worse. The pristine ones are still pristine. I'm not saying you should follow my example, just that ultimately whatever you do will almost certainly be fine and that it's easy to overobsess about environmental damage.

That said, depending on what kind of first editions you're talking about, you might want to take some special care. Modern firsts will do fine in your house. Renaissance firsts could do with some climate control. And if you're dropping, like, six figures on your book collection, you may as well invest in some climate stuff to be on the safe side. But if you're concerned about your investment depreciating, it's a thousand times more likely that that will happen because you bought the wrong book than that you stored it on a wooden shelf.
posted by vathek at 6:13 PM on May 12, 2015

Best answer: Disclaimers first, I went to library school and my supervisor while I was a graduate assistant was a rare book librarian. I also worked in the print, drawings, and photographs dept of a major art museum. But all of this was awhile ago and some information is rusty as I haven't worked in the field in awhile.

The most basic advise the rare book librarian had for would be collectors is don't make your stuff live anywhere you wouldn't be comfortable; no basements or attics.

Another simple bit of advise I haven't seen listed is to wash your hands thoroughly before handling, not just because of dirt, but also the natural oils that our bodies produce over the course of the day.

Climate control is important; I'd say even more so for modern books than pre 19th century as cotton rag and vellum are surprisingly resilient, more so than modern wood pulp based paper (I believe the acidity is the culprit, but again it's been years). There are suggested temperature and humidity ranges that you should be able to find in the NEDCC and Library of Congress sites linked above (both excellent resources), but the main thing is consistency. I think that constant sizable fluctuations in temp and/or humidity are a bigger issue than being just outside the desired range (although ideally you should aim to stay as close to the suggested range as is practical. I say practical because the ideal range is a bit too cold for most folks to be comfortable in day to day, or at least I was always freezing when I had to go into the stacks and I generally prefer being cold to being hot).

Try not to store your books near any pipes so that they will be out of harms way should there be any leaks. With this in mind you might want to have some large plastic sheets and duct tape on hand in case of an emergency.

You should probably monitor for pests including insects and mice.

But realistically you don't live in a rare book library or museum and you should enjoy your books. I was kinda shocked this week when I went toured the British Ambassador's residence and saw that they had a gallery of 18th and 19th century prints in direct sunlight (a paper conservator would have had a heart attack), but they all looked great and were out where people could enjoy they, rather than safely stored in drawers and boxes in a controlled environment. I'm sure (or at least hope) that they are being properly monitored and rotated. You have to weigh best practices with what works with your life and doesn't interfere with the enjoyment of your collection.
posted by kaybdc at 7:06 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Agree with all of the above but one more thing: sunlight. Avoid letting sunlight (even indirect, but definitely direct) shine on your books. They will fade, noticeably, and unevenly.
posted by librosegretti at 6:41 AM on May 13, 2015

All the above advice is really good. Hand-washing is especially important. Don't ever wear gloves to handle your books (clumsy hands cause damage), just clean hands.

Also, if they are stored anywhere besides in an acid-free Hollinger box, take time every now and then to dust them and give them some air.
posted by witchen at 7:57 AM on May 13, 2015

Book conservation person here. For display, especially over long periods of time, it is important to match similar sized books. Oversized books really do best when laying flat, otherwise the book blocks will tip and rip out of their own cases due to gravity. There are a few companies that sell museum quality book display furniture. Try Gaylord Archival, Talas, or Archival Products. Feel free to contact me, too. The above advice is solid, and the resources (Like LoC and NEDCC are ones I refer people to as well), but I'm happy to talk more with you about the nuances of your own set up.
posted by ikahime at 11:26 AM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

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