Basic Care of Books – Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Notes 11/7

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CCI Note 11/7 is part of CCI Notes Series 11 (Paper and Books)


Many books in libraries, museums, archives, and private collections are deteriorating because of poor storage and handling practices, improper environmental conditions, and lack of preservation. If not preserved, these collections will, in time, deteriorate beyond use.

Books are bound in a variety of materials, including leather, cloth, and paper. Many unique or rare editions may have intrinsic value as historic artifacts. This CCI Note will mainly address these types of books.

Environmental conditions and other factors such as handling have a direct bearing on the condition of book bindings, particularly on those made of leather. One important cause of deterioration of leather bindings is their absorption of atmospheric pollutants such as sulphur dioxide. In time, leather bindings lose some of the natural oils and fats that serve as lubricants, and begin to crack during normal handling.

Relative Humidity and Temperature

Do not subject books, and leather bindings in particular, to extremes of relative humidity (RH). Cold exterior conditions combined with dry central heating can reduce the RH inside a building to less than 30%, and can cause loss of moisture and embrittlement of leather. High humidity (over 65% RH) encourages mould growth. Locally elevated temperatures (e.g., hot display cases, storage near a radiator) can desiccate leather. Recommended environmental conditions for leather are a stable RH in the range of 45% to 55% and a temperature of 18oC to 20oC. Adequate air circulation is also important.


Do not store or display books under spotlights, sunlight, or artificial light, all of which can cause discolouration, desiccation, and potochemical degradation. Light fades or darkens some dyes and promotes deterioration. Because the damage due to light is cumulative and irreversible, limit exposure time. Display and store books at light levels of a maximum of 150 lux with an ultraviolet light content of less that 75 µW/lm. Extremely light-sensitive material, such as illuminated manuscripts, should be exposed to a maximum of 50 lux with an ultraviolet content of less than 75 µW/lm. Information on measuring environmental conditions is given in CCI Technical Bulletin Nº 2, Museum Lighting; CCI Notes 2/4, CCI Environmental Monitoring Equipment (retired); and CCI Notes 2/5, Using a Camera to Measure Light Levels.


Improper handling is a major cause of damage to bindings. Some suggestions for avoiding this type of damage follow.

  • When removing books from shelves, grasp the book firmly around the centre of the spine and ease the volume from the shelf.

  • Avoid pulling on the headcap (the leather covering at the head and tail of a book, formed by turning the leather on the spine over the head and tail and shaping it), because this will damage the spine.

  • Use both hands for large or heavy volumes. If you are removing a volume that is beneath another, remove the top volume first.

  • If books are removed for processing, cleaning, or conservation treatment, transport them on a trolley or in a cardboard box.


Photocopying books should be discouraged. Books and archival materials are often damaged unnecessarily during photocopying. Photocopying machines with flat copy platens require that the book binding be flattened in order to get a good image. If pages are forced open, the spine may crack and weakened pages may fall out.

Photocopying onto permanent, durable paper using an electrostatic copier is an option that can be used in-house if an item can be copied without damage. Machines with edge platens allow a book to be copied with the book open at only 90o instead of 180o.


Ideally, books should be stored on baked enamel steel shelving. Uncoated wooden shelving is not recommended because all wood products contain volatile acids that can be released from uncoated surfaces. Because books can be damaged if stored in acidic environments, paint the surfaces of wooden display and storage shelves with an acceptable coating. The following are guidelines for choosing wood coatings.

  • Do not use Varathane or similar oil-modified polyurethane varnishes. Oil-based paints and varnishes release corrosive materials as they dry. Common oil-based products include alkyd paints, varnishes, one-component epoxy esters, anti-corrosion-type paints (e.g., Tremclad), alkyd baking enamels, and most wood stains.

  • Where a transparent coating is not necessary, a high-quality acrylic or vinyl-acrylic latex paint may be used, such as Pratt & Lambert's Vapex, Sico's interior semi-gloss, Canadian Tire's Mastercraft latex paints, or similar products. If the wood to be coated contains knots, first seal the knots with shellac. The latex paint may be used as both primer and top coat. Air painted cases and shelving for one month before using them to enclose artifacts, because the paint initially gives off acetic acid.

Because of the humidity and temperature restrictions mentioned above, do not store volumes over radiators or furnace pipes, in damp basements, or near sweating pipes. Place books vertically, supporting them with bookends. To facilitate removal, do not pack books too tightly. Place library call numbers (shelf markings) on acid-free paper and insert them into books; do not apply them directly onto book spines. Store large volumes flat, keeping stacking to a minimum. Specially constructed slip cases and flat boxes (solander boxes) are excellent for storing rare and damaged volumes (CCI Notes 11/1, Protective Enclosures for Books and Paper Artifacts).


Good housekeeping is essential to the care of books. Protection from and removal of dust, and inspection at least every 12 months, are recommended. Deal with signs of mould or biological attack immediately (CCI Technical Bulletins 12, Controlling Museum Fungal Problems; 13, Controlling Vertebrate Pests in Museums; and 15, Solving Museum Insect Problems: Chemical Control; and CCI Notes 3/1, Examining for Insect Infestation).

Types of Materials

Before considering cleaning or treating any binding, identify the materials so as to avoid applying the wrong techniques.

Vegetable-Tanned Leather

Vegetable-tanned leather, such as goat, calf, sheepskin, and pig, were the principal leathers used for bookbindings. These leathers were favoured for their appearance, stability, and durability. In the past, many of these leather bindings were sealed with a varnish coating to protect the surface, creating an impervious film. Any leather dressing applied over such a film would not soak into the leather binging.

Vegetable-tanned leather frequently dries out and becomes powdery. An extreme form of powdery leather is caused not by low humidity or natural ageing but by the action of acids (e.g., sulphuric acid) found in air pollutants. This latter type of powdery leather is reddish-brown, and is frequently referred to as "red rot". Standard treatments should never be carried out on powdery leather or on leather that has "red rot". This condition should be treated by a professional conservator. For more information, consult CCI Notes 8/2, Care of Alum, Vegetable, and Mineral Tanned Leather.

Rough Calf or Suede

Volumes bound in rough calf or suede use the flesh side of the leather, sometimes referred to as the nap side (the underside of the leather that is not stained, polished, or otherwise treated to give it its final finished appearance). These leathers are normally found on bindings done in the account, ledger, or letter book styles.

Chrome-Tanned Leather

Chrome-tanned leather has been treated with basic chromium sulphate. It is very tough, and is not frequently used for bookbinding because of the difficulty in embossing or gold-tooling it. Chrome-tanned leather tends to stretch more than vegetable-tanned leather, and has a water-repellant surface. This leather is normally manufactured for purses, shoes, and briefcases.

Vellum and Parchment

Vellum and parchment are generally used interchangeably. In many cases it is difficult to tell them apart.

Vellum is normally produced from unsplit calfskin, and has an ivory-hard surface finish. Parchment is produced from split sheepskin (sliced horizontally into two layers), is ivory in colour, and is thinner than vellum. Both materials were frequently used for limp-vellum or limp-parchment bindings in the16th and 17th centuries.


The majority of books in libraries are normally bound in a cloth, buckram, or rexine fabric. These materials come in a variety of colours, thicknesses, and textures. Many of these cloths can be easily damaged by wetting. Cloth produced today can be treated to provide an impervious coating to moisture.


Many books re covered in paper. These include pamphlet bindings consisting of a few leaves of printed matter, and paper covers on paperback books.



Cleaning improves the appearance of soiled bookbindings. First, thoroughly dust the binding using a dry, lint-free cloth or a soft-bristled brush such as a shaving brush or an artist's paint brush. To keep the binding clean, brush dust away from it (Figure 1).

A vacuum cleaner can also be used to remove dust (Figure 2). Attach a cheesecloth or fibreglass screen over the throat of the brush attachment to prevent loose pieces of paper or leather from detaching and being sucked into the vacuum cleaner (Figure 3).

Brushing dust away from the binding of a book.
Figure 1. Brush dust away from binding.
Vacuum cleaner brush.
Figure 2. Removing dust with a vacuum cleaner brush.
Protective screen.
Figure 3. Place protective screen over vacuum cleaner hose.

Slightly ingrained dirt may be removed from stable cloth and paper bindings in good condition by gently working over the surface with powdered erasers (e.g., Skum-X) or white vinyl erasers (e.g., Magic-Rub). Meticulously remove all particles of eraser with a brush and vacuum cleaner. As with any cleaning method, first conduct a small test on an unobtrusive area.

Using moisture to remove stains is not normally recommended because this could disturb, darken, or remove the surface or dyes from the materials. In some instances, it may be possible to carefully use a moistened swab. Avoid using moisture on paper covers because the paper stretches when wet and is difficult to flatten.

Do not clean rough calf or suede leather with powdered eraser because the residue is difficult to remove. The surface of the leather can be carefully brushed or dusted, and should not be treated with oils or else blackening will occur.

Vellum and parchment bindings do not require leather treatment. These materials are very sensitive to humidity, and cleaning with moisture should therefore be avoided.

Leather Dressings

Leather dressings, though commonly used in the past, are now not generally recommended as a treatment for leather. These dressings, which consist of oils, waxes, or oil emulsions, were applied in an attempt to make leathers softer and more flexible. Some leathers, such as chrome-tanned leather, have a non-porous characteristic, which makes the successful application of a leather dressing difficult.

Many leather dressings are available on the market: British Museum Leather Dressing, neat's foot oil, lanolin, etc. However, recent research shows that dressings may not be effective in preserving leather (McCrady and Raphael ). Unless the oil content of the leather is known, through chemical analysis, to be below the optimum level for leather, the application of additional oils from a dressing may in fact cause further stiffening by dehydrating the leather (Stambolov et al. ). Furthermore, many oils and fats used in leather dressings lubricate in the short term but oxidize with time, resulting in additional stiffening of the leather. Many other problems are created by applying a leather dressing, including the risk of attracting dust or insects, darkening the leather's surface, or staining surrounding materials.

In specific cases (e.g., library collections, new books, as part of a maintenance program), it may be appropriate to apply a leather dressing. However, such a decision should be made by a qualified conservator.


Books can suffer from a wide variety of damage, including broken joints, damaged boards, split endpapers, tears, acidic paper, etc. In many cases, it may be possible to carry out minor repairs or to store damaged books in acid-free enclosures.

Broken Joints

Many books deteriorate, especially leather-bound volumes, and the boards separate at the joints. Do not repair these joints with a pressure-sensitive tape such as carpet tape or adhesive tape. In time, these tapes leave permanent stains and are almost impossible to remove without damaging the surface of the material.

An easy alternative is to wrap the volume in a piece of acid-free paper and to tie it up with a soft piece of twill tape until conservation or rebinding can be undertaken (Figure 4). Alternatively, purchase a solander box from an archival supplier or make an acid-free box to store the book in (CCI Notes 11/1, Protective Enclosures for Books and Paper Artifacts).

Wrapped volume in a piece of acid-free paper.
Figure 4. Wrapped volume awaiting conservation treatment.

Mending Tears

Torn pages in books always present a problem. Ideally, all tears should be repaired using Japanese tissue paper and wheat or rice starch paste. Over the years, this has proven to be the safest method and is easily reversible with water. These repairs should be carried out by a qualified paper conservator.

If temporary repairs are necessary, commercial archival tapes are available. Most of these tapes contain synthetic adhesives of limited reversibility; therefore, it may not be possible to remove the tape at a later date without substantial damage to the object. Although not recommended for use on historic material, the following archival tapes were found to be chemically stable with a neutral pH, but they may still present problems with reversibility.

  • Archival Aids Document Repair Tape
  • Archival Aids Framing Tape
  • New (post-) Filmoplast P and Filmoplast P90

Please note that tapes are commercial products that the manufacturer can alter chemically without notice and without changing the product name.


Companies listed below provide catalogues on request.

Solander boxes, acid-free paper and boards, Archival Aids document repair tape and framing tape. Filmosplast P & P90

  • University Products of Canada
    6535 Millcreek Drive, Unit #8
    Mississauga, Ontario
    LSN 2M2
    Telephone: 416-858-7888
    Toll-free: 1-800-667-2632
    Fax: 1-416-858-8586
  • Bury Media & Supplies Ltd.
    B-5 4255 Arbutus Street
    Vancouver, B.C.
    V6J 4R1
    Telephone: 604-731-3439
    Fax: 604-736-7492
  • Archival Conservation Resources
    (Canada) Ltd (Distributor for Conservation Resources)
    P.O. Box 2506
    Station "D"
    Ottawa, Ontario
    K1P 5W6
    Telephone: 819-994-1127
  • Carr McLean
    461 Horner Avenue
    Toronto, Ontario
    M8W 4X2
    Toronto area: 416-252-3371
    Ontario (except area code 807):
    All other areas: 1-800-268-2138
    Fax: 416-252-9203
  • Woolfitt's Art Enterprises Inc.
    390 Dupont Street
    Toronto, Ontario
    M5R 1V9
    Telephone: 416-922-0933
    Fax: 416-922-3017
    Calgary, Alberta
    Telephone: 403-278-0565
    Fax: 403-278-2050

Solander Boxes:

  • Opus Binding Ltd.
    15 Capella Court, Unit 15
    Nepean, Ontario
    K2E 7X1
    Telephone: 613-727-5063

Skum-X Erasing Powder

Available from distributors of conservation products, including

  • Dietzgen of Canada Ltd.
    1111 Flint Road, Unit 34
    Downsview, Ontario
    M3J 2J6
    Telephone: 416-736-1677

Check with your museum advisor for a local distributor of equipment and materials, or refer to the following publication:

Museum and Archival Supplies Handbook (MASH), published by the Ontario Museum Association and the Toronto Area Archivists Group. It is an excellent resource and is available from the following addresses:

  • Ontario Museum Association
    George Brown House
    50 Baldwin Street
    Toronto, Ontario
    M5T 1L4
    Telephone: 416-348-8672
  • Toronto Area Archivist Group
    P.O. Box 97
    Station "F"
    Toronto, Ontario
    M4Y 2L4

Further Reading

  1. Banks, Joyce M. Guidelines for Preventive Conservation. Available in Canada through Associated Bookstores and other booksellers, or by mail from Canadian Government Publishing Centre Supply & Services Canada, Ottawa, Canada, K1A 0S9. Catalogue SN3-167/ ISBN 0-660-53823-7 .

  2. British Columbia Museums Association. Preventive Conservation: A Manual. 2nd edition, Victoria, B.C.: British Columbia Museums Association, .

  3. Canadian Conservation Institute. Care of Alum, Vegetable, and Mineral Tanned Leather. CCI Notes 8/2. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, .

  4. Canadian Conservation Institute. CCI Environment Monitoring Equipment. CCI Notes 2/4 (retired). Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, 1993.

  5. Canadian Conservation Institute. Examining for Insect Infestation. CCI notes 3/1. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, .

  6. Canadian Conservation Institute. Protective Enclosures for Books and Paper Artifacts. CCI Notes 11/1. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, .

  7. Canadian Conservation Institute. Removing Mould from Leather. CCI Notes 8/1. Ottawa: Canadian Conservtion Institute, .

  8. Canadian Conservation Institute. Using a Camera to Measure Light Levels. CCI Notes 2/5. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, .

  9. Canadian Council of Archives. Basic Conservation of Archival Materials: A Guide. Ottawa: Canadian Council of Archives, .

  10. Dawson, John E. and Thomas J.K. Strang. Solving Museum Insect Problems: Chemical Control. CCI Technical Bulletin 15. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, .

  11. Greenfield, Jane. The Care of Fine Books. New York: Nick Lyons Books, .

  12. Horton, Carolyn. Cleaning and Preserving Bindings and Related Materials. Revised edition. Chicago: Chicago American Library Association, .

  13. Library of Congress. Preserving Leather Bindings. Preservation Leaflet 3, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, .

  14. Macleod, K.J. Museum Lighting. CCI Technical Bulletin 2. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, .

  15. McCrady, Ellen and Toby Raphael. Leather Dressing: To Dress or Not To Dress. Conserv O Gram 9/1, . Available from National Parks Service, P.O. Box 37127, Washington D.C. 20013-7127.

  16. Middleton, Bernard. The Restoration of Leather Bindings. Chicago: American Library Association, .

  17. Stambolov, T., H.A.B. van Soest and P.B. Hallebeek. "Conservation of Leather," Studies in Conservation (), 29: 21-31.

  18. Strang, Thomas J.K. and John E. Dawson. Controlling Museum Fungal Problems. CCI Technical Bulletin 12. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, .

  19. Strang, Thomas J.K. and John E. Dawson. Controlling Vertebrate Pests in Museums. CCI Technical Bulletin 13. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, .

Copies are also available in French.
Texte également publié en version française.

Government of Canada,
Cat. Nº NM95-57/11-7-1987E
ISSN 0714-6221

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