Basic care – Books

Everyone has books. While they involve many of the preservation issues as do works of art on paper, there is a major difference: we handle books much more than we handle art. Therefore, books are more apt to show signs of wear and tear. Because they are made from a variety of materials (different kinds of paper, ink and adhesives, leather, parchment, fabric, hemp cord and thread), treating books can draw on a number of different skills and materials.

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Causes of damage

Not surprisingly, most damage to books is the result of improper handling. Covers fall off, bindings split, pages come lose and paper tears. Poor storage and environmental factors are other sources of harm. All of these factors have a direct bearing on the longevity of a book and its binding. Leather bindings are particularly susceptible to atmospheric pollutants such as sulfur dioxide.


Humidity can cause damage, especially to leather bindings. If humidity levels are too low, books and leather dry out and become brittle. If there is too much humidity in the air, it is an invitation to mould and insects. Basements, attics and garages are not friendly environments for books because of the fluctuations in humidity and temperature.


All kinds of light (sunlight, artificial light, spotlights) can be harmful. Light can result in discolouration, drying and photochemical degradation. When exposed to light, some dyes will fade and others will darken. Light damage is both cumulative and irreversible.


There are easy ways to treat books properly: instead of turning down page corners, use a bookmark. Turn pages by the top corner. Turning from the bottom edge can cause tears if the paper is weak. Avoid using sticky notes because they leave a residue on the paper. Keep food and drinks away from books. Do not press flowers in books — they can stain the paper. Tucking old newspaper clippings in books will also result in stains. Try not to open a book beyond its natural opening.

When removing a book from a shelf, hold it firmly by the centre of the spine and ease it from the shelf. This can be done by gently pushing the books on either side slightly back so that the spine is more easily grasped. Avoid pulling out a book by the top of the spine (headcap). Use both hands when removing large or heavy books from a shelf. And, if you want to remove a volume from a stack of books, start at the top and not by pulling out one from the middle of the pile.


Photocopying is a common cause of book damage. Forcing books to lie flat can crack the spine and weaken pages. Use a photocopier where half of the book can hang over the side while the other half is flat on the copying face.


Proper shelving is important for protecting your books and prolonging their lives. The most desirable is baked enamel steel shelving that stands away from exterior walls. Bookcases with glass doors are good because they help keep out dust. Uncoated wood shelving is not recommended because it can release acidic vapours that damage books. Wooden bookcases should be painted with a high-quality acrylic or vinyl-acrylic latex paint. Varathane, oil-based paints and oil-modified polyurethane varnishes release corrosive materials as they dry. Common oil-based products to avoid are alkyd paints, varnishes, anti-rust paints and most wood stains. Uncoated or painted shelves can be lined with clear Mylar, a stable polyester plastic. It is easy to cut and hardly visible once books are placed on the shelves.

Try to avoid placing too many books on a shelf. Cramming in the "one more" volume can cause problems for bindings. Books should stand vertically, grouped with volumes of similar size. If the shelf is not filled, support the books with bookends. Large books (more than 12" in any direction) can be stored flat, but it is recommended to keep stacking to a minimum.

Cleaning and repairs

Books should be kept free of dust. It is abrasive, can soil paper and bindings, attracts insects and promotes the growth of mould. Dust bindings with a dry lint-free cloth or a soft-bristled brush such as a shaving brush or an artist's paint brush.


Dust can be removed with a vacuum cleaner. Place cheesecloth or fibreglass screening over the hose opening where the brush attachment connects. This will prevent pieces of paper or binding from coming loose or being sucked into the vacuum cleaner.

Slight surface dirt on cloth and paper bindings that are in good condition can be removed with a white vinyl or eraser crumbs. It is a good idea to test the eraser on an inconspicuous spot first. Avoid using moisture to try to remove stains. This can damage the surface or dyes. Water will cause paperback covers to stretch, and they are difficult to flatten out again.

Leather bindings can be brushed or dusted, but avoid treating them with oils. These cause discolouration and, over time, may make the leather stiff.


Any sign of mould or insects should be dealt with immediately. Take precautions around mould. For small amounts of visible mould (0.3 m2 or less), wear an N-95 disposable respirator and gloves to protect your lungs and skin. Eye protection is also recommended.

Remove mouldy or infested books. If the books are dry, immediately place them in a plastic bag. Seal it and seek the help of a paper conservator. If the books are wet, immediately place them in a plastic bag, seal it and put the bag in a freezer. Seek the help of a conservator. If the mould infestation is large or extensive, seek professional advice.

If books get wet, from a flood or from leaking broken pipes, it is important to act as quickly as possible. Mould can begin growing within 24 hours. Freeze-drying is the preferred option for collections, but this should be done by professional paper conservators. If you have dropped a book into your bath or gotten it wet under a sprinkler in your backyard, gently fan open the book and stand it on absorbent material that is changed as it becomes wet. As the book dries, turn it upside down. Reduce humidity, keep heat low and increase air circulation. (You can use a fan, but do not point it directly at the book.)

On old paper, you may notice reddish-brown or brown spots (called foxing). This is common if paper is stored for long periods in humid conditions. Foxing is thought to be caused by mould. Consult a conservator about what to do.

Iron gall ink

Some inks used in old books are harmful to paper. During the 19th century, iron gall ink was common. It contains acid. When books with iron gall ink are stored in humid conditions, the acid in the ink attacks the paper, creating holes where words were printed.

Spines and joints of a book

Arguably, the most vulnerable parts of books are the spines and joints. Do not use pressure-sensitive tape (scotch tape, carpet tape or adhesive tape). They discolour, damage paper as they age, leave permanent stains and are nearly impossible to remove without damaging the surface. It is best to consult a professional. Wrap the damaged volume in a piece of acid-free paper and tie it with a soft piece of twill tape until conservation treatment or rebinding can be undertaken.

Torn or ripped pages

Torn pages are a relatively common problem. Temporary repairs can be done with commercial archival tape. However, most of these contain synthetic adhesives that, when removed, may damage the page. To deal with severe tears, consult a paper conservator who will use Japanese tissue paper and a paste made of wheat or rice starch to do the repairs. This is a safe procedure that also can be reversed.

Contact information for this web page

These resources were published by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). For comments or questions, including reproduction requests, contact the CCI.

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