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This is a short manual to keeping your library in a good condition, but it does not pretend to be a comprehensive course in librarianship or conservation. Know thine enemy: The three main culprits under temperate conditions are: moisture, light & biological attack. There are many more, but most of these are found in association with the first three, so let us investigate these threats.

Of the tens of thousands of books that have been presented to me by prospective sellers, the greatest number of no-no’s have been books which have been exposed to moisture. In its grossest form, the volume has been dunked, or had water poured over it; there are water-marks across the pages; colours have run, the textblock is rippled; at worst, the pages are stuck together. A more subtle exposure to damp can result in the textblock absorbing so much water from the edges inwards, that the margins of the pages display a ‘high tide’ mark right around, in extreme cases. A hot steamy climate has the further effect of ‘foxing’ the pages of books, that is, the growth of those unsightly brown blotches that seem to get worse year after year. The quality of the paper that the book is made of, has something to do with the degree of foxing, since badly bleached and insufficiently sized paper is most prone; but the micro-organisms that cause the discolouration will grow on even the best cotton-rag paper, or a modern high-gloss paper, given enough time, heat and atmospheric moisture.

Mould is, of course, biological and the companion to severely drenched books. The remnants of this will also stain paper, mostly with green, blue or black shades – all equally unpleasant to look at. I have heard of desperation measures applied by an archivist to his precious documents when they were under a leak in the roof – he bundled the whole lot into a clean deep-freeze. The sub-zero temperatures prevented mould from forming, and slowly the moisture was evaporated from the paper and deposited on the walls of the freezer as ice, leaving the documents in reasonably good shape. It works the same way as putting a slice of bread in the freezer, forgetting about it for three months and then pulling out a dessicated piece of toast. I haven’t tried it myself, but it might just save a precious book. All one can do with an area of mould on a page, is to brush it away gently, without inhaling the stuff. It really is not good for the lungs.

So, water and heat are bad, especially in tandem. What about cold? Well there seems to be some consensus among librarians that a chilly environment is really good for books, but most users would complain loudly if they had to wrap up in anoraks and shawls to do their research. In practice, seventeen degrees is a reasonable compromise – but a very far cry from northern winters when it can get to way under the zero mark, or a subtropical region when you’re pushing the mercury at forty plus, with about 95% humidity thrown into the bargain in coastal areas. Most of us don’t go as far as airconditioning for our library, but it’s a thought. On the other hand, it’s not essential to be uncomfortable in your reading room, even if you are surrounded by books; to have frozen toes, nose and fingers while you are trying to concentrate on some work, or recreational reading, is no fun. Talking about heating, there is a caveat – fireplaces, though comforting to the body, a treat to the senses of smell, sight and hearing – are a strict no-go area. Unfortunately one only has to look at the ceilings of rooms with open fireplaces to see what happens. A little smoke always escapes from the open hearth, and if there are books in the room, they not only absorb smoke and tars like blotting paper, which then react with cloth, paper and leather in a number of complicated and unwanted ways, but the books smell of smoke. Smoke of the cigarette variety glues itself onto all the abovementioned materials with tenacity, and stinks, forever, quite apart from darkening and damaging bookcloth as well as the edges of the textblock.

Dry heat is probably the least problematic condition to deal with. Although certain older, and certainly most inferior types of paper, get brittle in a dry, hot climate, as long as the books are handled with care, they will rehydrate when the ambient humidity rises again. Leatherbound books do need some special care under those conditions though, since even opening such a volume under those conditions could cause the hinge to break, resulting in very expensive damage. This does not mean one should apply liberal dollops of dubbin or saddle soap to those ancient treasured tomes. There are a number of good products available, mostly from European sources. The British Library does sell a solid wax, though, and this is best applied very sparingly with a soft cloth to the leather, especially at the hinges. Books so treated should be left to stand separate from their shelf-mates for a few days, to prevent any possibility of them sticking together. The liquid lotions one applies by wetting a sponge slightly, squeezing it repeatedly until it foams and then applying it in even strokes to the leather. It is left to dry, and then the book is buffed lightly with a soft cloth.

Now let us deal with threat no 2 – that wonderfully abundant sunlight, which makes our country such a bright, cheery place to live in; sunburn, melanoma and severe ‘sunning of the spine and covers’ apart. Any sunlight is taboo on the bookshelf, except possibly if sanitized by passing it through some total sun-block film on the window panes – if that should exist. Even if filtered through a semi-transparent curtaining material, the ultraviolet is still present in quantities that will at first bleach, and in time, totally destroy the cloth covering the boards of your books. Even sunlight reflected off water or a light-coloured painted surface, still has some destructive force left in it. The old builders and architects had good ideas during Victorian times – they surrounded most houses with wide verandahs which gave shade to the walls and interior of the house, as well as keeping stray sunbeams from intruding through the apertures.

Nowadays we like to live behind walls made of glass, or sliding glass doors, under skylights or in houses with interior courtyards and patios. This new lifestyle results in much more exposure to the potentially harmful effects of the sunlight on your furnishings and other property viz your library.

Without getting paranoid about it, choose a wall that gets no sun, not even a passing sweep in the late afternoon. If you must face any other direction, you must have some form of blind, slatted, or rolling, if you don’t want to be in deep gloom behind dark curtains.

A last word on sunshine: if perchance you should leave a book out in the sun (as I’m sure we have all done on occasion) and you come back to find that the top cover has curled beautifully like a calamari steak ten seconds after it has hit a hot pan; all is not lost. Generally it just means that there has occurred a sudden imbalance of moisture content between the outer and inner layers of the cover, causing the outer (dry) to shrink, while the inner (ambiently moist) has remained roughly the same as it was previously. Do not try to rehydrate the poor cover by some precipitous means such as spraying it with water. The best cure is to put the book back into your library and to leave it alone for a couple of days. The covers’ moisture content will balance out again in a few days, and once the book has been returned to its place on the shelves, it should resume its correct shape. A similar effect is found occasionally when endpapers are replaced. If too much glue is slapped onto the inside face of the cover before the paper is applied, the paper is wetted, and expands. Once the glue dries, the paper shrinks and you have a book with permanently bow-legged covers. Not much you can do to that except to start over again.

Biological attack is next. I am sure there is no book collector alive that has not been rewarded by the quicksilver flash of a fishmoth (aka silverfish, Ctenolepisma longicaudata and several other species worldwide) slithering out of the just opened book and almost miraculously disappearing from sight again. The signs are there, usually on the edges of the endpapers, where the textblock doesn’t lie quite snugly against the boards due to the bookcloth having been folded over; or where a map is folded into the textblock; an exposed edge may be riddled with holes. Even some covers don’t escape the attentions of these voracious beasties, as they manage to chew away the starchy size between the threads of the bookcloth, leaving faint whitish trails which almost look like scratches. A very helpful website suggests you make a mixture of the following:
5 parts gum Arabic; 5 parts sodium fluosilicate; 4 parts flour; 6 parts sugar and 40 parts water (enough to make a thick paste). Stir for hours (since the sodium fluosilicate hardly seems to dissolve at all) dip strips of card into the mixture and leave to dry. Hang them up all over your bookshelves. If you have difficulty finding the latter ingredient, you’re in good company; if you do find it, the chemist will be strangely reluctant to give it to you.

Other sites’ suggestions range from sprinkling whole garlic cloves (!!), to salt, boric acid powder or diatomaceous earth around your library, or leaving rolled up damp newspapers (which the silverfish are supposed to frequent for a drink, supposedly) and then burning it the next day without unrolling. Of course, you would never know how successful you have been, would you? Jokes aside, my conservator friend says crushed mothballs, sprinkled in a thin line on the shelf behind the books, keeps silverfish away – if you don’t mind the characteristic smell of naphthalene, or the fact that this lingers on the pages of the books, might make you sneeze when you read – and increases the combustability of your home, as it is volatile and forms a flammable vapour. Choose your weapons. Or you can ignore the pests.

One doesn’t hear too often of bookworms any more. Actually they are beetle larvae; from the death-watch beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum, or the furniture beetle, Anobium punctatum and I am certain, a whole horde of other species native to Africa. The tell-tale tracks of these are small holes, sometimes less than 1mm in diameter, running often at right angles through hundreds of pages, mostly near the spine. I only once, in the spirit of investigation bought a book which had been infested with this plague. However, when I took it to pieces trying to find the culprit, I had no luck. Most likely the larva had pupated and flown the nest. Obviously if one sees little heaps of sawdust on one’s bookshelves, prepare to go to war with a vengeance. Infested books can only be successfully treated with fumigation using some really dangerous stuff, so best to leave it to professionals.

Termites are a scourge in the southern United States nowadays, primarily since their houses are constructed mainly from wood; less so in South Africa since we have stopped living in wattle and daub huts with cattle-dung floors. However these stealthy invaders tunnel away so craftily, from floor up into the vertical supports of bookshelves, from where they will branch out laterally into stopes to reach pay-dirt – to whit, the books. The only way of detecting them is to turn up your hearing aid, so that you can hear them as they chew away on dark nights (honestly) or to read your books frequently, so to discover their mining activities before an entire seam of books has been reduced to hollow shadows of their former selves.

A real home-wrecker is the cockroach. I’m talking of these large black, flying jobbies, the size of a small bat – which issue from the city sewers and drainpipes when darkness falls. There is no warning; suddenly you have a book that almost looks as if a rat or a small Chihuahua had been chewing at it.

The cloth is in tatters, or patches of it are eroded to a latticework of threads, and it’s a matter of re-binding if you want to save your treasured collectors’ item. It is almost impossible to guard against them. Keep your library doors and windows closed at night; if there is a bathroom, plug the drains; above all, be watchful and whack the damn things whenever you see one. For all the above living pests, I used buy a couple of packets of Fumitabs from the chemist. These ominous looking (and smelling) globs contained some pretty potent poisons, but seem to have gone off the market, possibly labeled as WMD’s. One of my clients from Zambia has just sent me this hot tip – he recommends Bayer’s "Max Force", a cream injector syringe which enables one to run a bead around the bottom edge of a book case which keeps them at bay. Which leave us with the fairly ineffective aerosol ‘foggers’ as a last resort.

Rodents are not normally a real threat to books in modern homes. Rodents don’t eat books unless a famine strikes; at worst they may convert one into nesting material, or they might test their incisors on an edge, leaving characteristic chisel-marks. Free range pet birds, such as parrots, can be a menace too, according to a colleague who was asked to value a severely nibbled collection of books. Dogs have the delightful habit of lifting the odd leg here and there to demarcate their territory, while cats spray with wild abandon when the moon is right. Both are to be distinctly discouraged in a library unless they are adequately trained in human etiquette.

Now for some more general, and probably very obvious hints on book handling and storage. Metal shelves are best. That’s official; but I don’t care, I like wood, proper wood, and I have made all my own shelves. Most of them have no backs, but they are fastened to the walls by means of sturdy bolts ten millimeters away from the walls, as I suffer from a fear of falling bookshelves. In addition, walls are damp structures all too frequently, and books act like blotting paper. If your shelves are against the wall, nail a strip of timber along the back of each to keep your books from touching the masonry. If your bookshelf is backed, see that there is a space between the wood and the wall to allow for ventilation.

Don’t jam your books in too tightly. It’s not good for them, and it’s even worse when some ham-handed person insists on using a probing digit to extract a volume that is tightly jammed into place. Hence ‘slight damage to top of spine’. Better that the book should come to you willingly, that it should slide out of and back into its place. On the other hand, having gaps in your collection, resulting in the classic picture of a few upright volumes with one or two leaning at any angle against them, is not ideal either. The leaning books tend to get a permanent cocking of the spine which is difficult to remove once set in place. Best then to use a bookend, but if you haven’t got any, a pile of horizontal books will do just as well to hold the others upright – and the titles are still readable on the spine. Books should not be inanimate ‘collections’ for display purposes only. They should certainly be taken out, handled, opened, browsed through, and replaced. Within bounds, this is good for a book and I am not about to suggest white cotton gloves – but clean hands are essential, and if you smoke a pipe, this most definitely applies, since the finger or thumb you use to tamp your ‘baccy down, leaves a horrible mark on a page as you turn it. The handling means that the volume is inspected periodically for damage, which may be caught in the early stage and remedied, the pages are aired, which helps to protect them against foxing, and the work could even be left standing on edge overnight (between some supports if it is a large book) with the pages slightly ajar as it were, if there is even a suggestion of a musty odour.

Heavy, old books should be opened and read in a book-cradle. Opening them on a flat surface puts a strain on elderly bindings, and could crack the glue used on the back of the textblock. Large folio size volumes are the most difficult to handle under the best of circumstances. A big table is a prerequisite; but in some cases the books are so large, and the paper so heavy and fragile, that one should think about using both hands to turn a page – one at the bottom corner and the other at the top. Even moderately large books can be damaged by the reader who persists in wanting to turn a page by inserting his thumb somewhere round about the middle of the bottom margin, and flipping the page from right to left. This frequently results in tears on the bottom edge of the page near the spine. The correct manner is to feel your way into the textblock at the top right hand corner of the open book, insert the hand fully and help the page over to the left. Left-handed people had better get used to this – there’s no alternative – except taking up Hebrew.

Dust is another, albeit minor, enemy. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath, and also into every nook, cranny and book, if you leave it in any place for long enough. Let us say your library has matured for another year, loved and admired, and occasionally perused in part. A little housekeeping is indicated, say once a year, or maybe every two or three. A feather mop will do at a pinch, but it’s going to be a sneezy, wheezy sort of job, really only fit for outside the house; which in turn, is not ideal for the books. So technology should be called in – a vacuum cleaner, of the small, hand-held sort, which has got a nice soft moustache at the business end with which to kiss your books. If the item to be cleaned has a dustjacket, lay the book down, open the front cover, flap back the dustjacket, use said vacuum cleaner to remove dust, dead insects etc from covers, replace dustjacket, close book, turn it over and repeat the performance for the back cover. That way you have examined the entire book. But wait, the edges of the textblock, and especially the top edge, gather large quantities of dust, which eventually seep in between the pages and so dirty the entire volume. So once again the vacuum brush is employed, either while the book was lying flat with its dustjacket flapped out of harm’s way, or after the first action is completed, one takes the book and vacuums the entire textblock edge, taking care not to damage the precious dustjacket in any way. This is a lengthy process, best handled by a minimum of two people, who enjoy each other’s company and have something to chat about as they go about this exquisitely boring task.

That just about covers most aspects, except keeping your treasures in some order – but that is a subject on its own.

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