How should I store this really old book?
July 6, 2017 7:56 PM   Subscribe

Sadly, The Bookshop, a Chapel Hill wonderland, is closing. I got my dude a 300-year-old book for his birthday for such a deal (partly because it's not in great condition, not a first edition, etc.). We love our new old book and want to know how to take care of it and enjoy it.

The book is about 5" x 8" x 1.25". The cover is completely detached. (It's Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, Swift, second edition)

My dude is the son of a librarian, and he's already not allowing us to read it on a flat surface; I got a hard portfolio and some blocks so that it stays at an angle.

(We also have one other super old -- but not that old -- book with a detached cover that we should take better care of, too)

I think I should get some kind of archival storage box? One source says it should be custom made -- I'm OK with making things, but it would be nice if it were stored in something attractive, no? I don't care _that_ much, but I thought someone would have good guidance on this.

Also, should we try to see if the cover can be reattached, or just leave it detached? Would that be very expensive? Does it matter if we're not running a library?

What else don't I know? Thank you!

We also have one other old, pretty book (also came with a detached cover) and would like to take better care of it also.

You guys, you who love books, really you should go look at the treasures still on the shelves. I think they're closing for good in about a week.
posted by amtho to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You can order acid free storage boxes pretty cheaply from Amazon. They do make them especially for books but mostly in big bible-sized, but they always give dimensions in the descriptions.
posted by padraigin at 8:25 PM on July 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

The term you want to google is phase boxes. Whatever you decide about the covers you could still store in these.

Here are some instructions on making them and also a video.

If there are books arts places near you they may have classes.
posted by oneear at 8:43 PM on July 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you want to reattach that cover and/or spruce that book up, I know a librarian at Duke who worked miracles on some very old very special books of mine. She is extremely reasonable for the delicacy of what she does.
posted by 41swans at 9:32 PM on July 6, 2017

I just want to point out that the book is 300 years old and has survived just fine. The paper is probably 100% rag (cotton) and, apart from a little foxing (brown spots here and there), will probably outlast you and the next few generations. Cool temps are better than hot (so don't store in an attic) and dry is essential (though it's possible to restore it from a flood (100% cotton, remember?). Keep your hands clean and dry. Don't be obsessive about it. If you're going to read it a lot, keep it on your bookshelves in the coolest and shadiest place. It would be nice to reattach the covers simply for ease of use, looks, and protection of the text block. Watch for silverfish—they love to eat glue and paper (i.e. books). You can get a clamshell box for it if you want but if you live in a humid climate, be sure to get one of those dessicant bags to throw in there to keep it dry. I was a used/rare bookseller for 20 years and was always having to disabuse people of the idea that old books are fragile (well, books older than the late 1800s when paper from cellulose was being introduced (very acidic paper). So relax and enjoy the book.
posted by MovableBookLady at 6:20 AM on July 7, 2017 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: That's awesome, MovableBookLady!

Are there right and wrong ways to attach a cover to something like this? The bookseller said "not library style" but I'm not sure what that means. Don't use book tape?

Looking up book boxes on Amazon, but not obsessing about it (my other book is not that old and probably not as sturdy).
posted by amtho at 6:34 AM on July 7, 2017

The catalog you'd always see lying around the art museum was Gaylord.
posted by advicepig at 6:42 AM on July 7, 2017

My wife is an antiquarian bookseller.

Pretty much agree with MovableBookLady. We have books from the 17th and 18th century just sitting on normal bookshelves. As said above, they have survived 300 years already. They are not fragile.

Her only advice is to check for bookworms (though doubtful) and use acid-free boxes if you decide to put it away. Other than that, enjoy.

Her only comment on the front cover was "It will certainly cost more than the price of the book to have the cover properly re-attached. So it may not be worth it."
posted by vacapinta at 6:45 AM on July 7, 2017

Yeah, what MovableBookLady said. I have a book printed in 1508 and I keep it in a cardboard mailer lying flat on a shelf; I don't take any special care of it, handle it carelessly when I show it to people, and it's doing just fine. It will look the same in another century or two assuming it doesn't get wrecked somehow. Old books are pretty damn durable!
posted by languagehat at 7:08 AM on July 7, 2017

Response by poster: Re: fixing the cover: My metric for "worth it" is whether the cost would be more than the value of increased enjoyment or lifespan of the book (comparing the remediation cost to the cost of the book doesn't make sense to me, since one can't just go buy a perfect copy as an alternative).

I'm also not sure how much more enjoyment I'd get from the book if I fixed the cover. Would it last longer? It would probably be easier to read.

A complete, working cover might make storage easier, though. It's impossible to just store the book on a shelf as it is, with only the back cover attached -- the book would be destroyed very quickly just trying to put it up and take it down.

Would fixing it reduce its value or usefulness somehow?

Any guidance on this would be appreciated. My perspective is partly that, since I spent so little on the book, the rest of what I _could_ have spent could be invested into caring for it.

Plus, I'm going back today to see if there are more book I'd want (some of which wouldn't be cotton). Maybe this should be another question later...
posted by amtho at 7:12 AM on July 7, 2017

Archivist here, totally agree with everything said by the experts above. The only thing I would add is to say that the spot that these books do tend to take damage is the spine; you've seen that already with the cover detachment. If you're handling it often, check it occasionally for any signs that the pages may be beginning to detach. For very large books, storing flat is recommended because of the weight of the text block on the spine, but your book isn't particularly big so I don't know that it's necessary. Still, if you've got the room on the shelf, it can't hurt.
posted by backwards compatible at 10:14 AM on July 7, 2017

As to reattaching the cover, it all depends (heh). Because the text block and the cover are separate, there's double the handling going on, so reattaching it would probably be a good thing. However, it's not a highly valuable book so don't mortgage the house to get it repaired. If you do decide to fix it, get a pro (somebody upthread mentioned a book restorer in the library at Duke). One of the benefits of reattachment is that it will prevent the pages from getting looser over time. As you said, you got the book for a low price so you could spend some money getting the cover reattached—that's what I would do. And then it'll be good for generations/centuries to come.
posted by MovableBookLady at 10:13 PM on July 7, 2017

Forgot to answer one of your questions: fixing it will not affect its value; books are repaired or rebound all the time. There are instances where repair/rebind will have an effect on value but that's usually in the rarefied air of extremely unusual, scarce, valuable, or rare tomes.
posted by MovableBookLady at 10:20 PM on July 7, 2017

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