Gather & Bind:
The Fundamentals of Book Collecting

Part Eight: Protecting My Investment II – Shelving

THE TWO GREATEST ENEMIES of paper-based products are direct sunlight and water. Daily exposure to the sun will fade almost all printed papers and, over time, can bleach them out completely. Water causes paper to swell and curl. Even mild dampness can promote mildew, which leaves ugly stains and an offensive odor. None of these problems is correctable. As a result, book collectors must pay attention to sunlight patterns and potential for exposure to moisture when shelving their collections.

Most of us like to display our books. What good is a beautiful first edition in a lovely dust wrapper if it is kept in the dark all the time? We live in Tucson, Arizona in the beautiful, but harsh, Sonoran desert. For most of the day, our living room window—which faces the Santa Catalina Mountains to our north—presents no particular exposure problem for our floor-to-ceiling bookcases, because no direct sunlight comes into the room. However, because we are early risers, we soon learned that, if not prevented, the light of the rising desert sun would stream directly onto the shelves. Fortunately, before moving into the house we replaced all the ordinary glass windows with UV-blocking ones as well as protective screens. Those early morning rays may shine on the books, but 99.5% of all of the light in the ultra violent bands—the ones that cause the damage—is filtered out. Even if you do no live in a desert environment, sunlight is sunlight, and can fade your books and other colorful objects in your home, including paintings, graphics and even upholstery. Modern houses tend to feature large windows; these may provide nice views and a pleasant interior brightness, but they allow direct light into the house. It is critically important that you check the location of all your bookcases to determine that they are out of direct sunlight all through the day. You may not wish to replace all your windows with UV-blocking glass, but you might consider doing so in strategic areas of your house.

If direct sunlight is a threat to the condition of your collection, water presents an even greater danger. While you are checking for sunlight patterns in your home, you might also make certain that all windows are properly calked and firmly sealed so that they will not admit any moisture. There may be nothing that can prevent water damage from an unexpected roof leak or a broken pipe. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to locate bookcases where they’re most likely to be safe from such unforeseen events. During a recent summer downpour in Tucson, we caught a roof leak that trickled down through a closet and into the carpet, just in time to save a box of irreplaceable Damon Runyon firsts. Half an hour later and we would have lost them.

When these potential problems are solved, then you can shelve your books with some degree of confidence that their condition will be protected. But books have other enemies. Depending on where you live, there may be any number of insects you should watch out for. Books collect dust. Dust, in turn, attracts insects including, in many areas, silverfish. Your books should be dusted routinely and spot-checked for insect damage. If you have taken care with your books, the chances are that you will never have to deal with silverfish contamination, but you can never be too cautious.

Finally, we come to shelving the books. The best advice here is to place your books on the shelves with all the spines lined up in a row. This way they tend to support each other and minimize any potential for the boards to warp. Don’t force too many books onto a shelf. If you can place a finger on the top edge of a book and roll it back toward you without touching the spine, the books are packed properly. If you cannot, then they are too tight.

All of this may sound difficult, but in practice it’s not. And it’s worth the effort. With a little care and foresight you can display your beautiful library with only minimal risk.

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