Keeping Your Books Healthy

If your bookshelf is overflowing, and it’s time to get another one, read this first. Did you know that your bookcase could be emitting acidic gases that damage your books? This post is likely a little intense for the average person who just wants to put their books somewhere off the floor. But if you have some precious old books, or if you want to take your love for books to the next level, you might find this information helpful.

Fresh wood and wood-like substances (plywood, particle board, some laminates) that contain formaldehyde should be avoided due to the acids they emit. Formaldehyde emits formic acid, which can lead to fading pigments and weakened paper. Paper that is stored near something that contains formaldehyde can then absorb the acid it emits, and we all know what happens with acidic paper: it becomes weak and brittle (see picture below).

IMG_1439      IMG_1440

The paper in the images shown here has acid in it. The yellow colour and brittleness was not caused purely from being on a wood shelf. But the acids from unsealed storage can exacerbate problems in paper that is already acidic, and it can accelerate deterioration. If you have an old wooden bookcase, then the off-gassing has already occurred and it is okay for your books to be stored there. Just remember to keep the collection well ventilated. If your wooden bookcase is not old, however, you can seal the wood so it will not emit any gases. DO NOT use oil-based anything, as the oil will emit corrosive gases. But latex paint, or air-drying enamels are okay.

More information on the subject can be found in the Northeast Document Conservation Center’s pamphlet on Storage and Handling.

A Book’s Worst Enemy #3

Number Three – Mold and insects

There are always mold spores floating around in air, so if your books are in a warm, humid place, you can safely assume that mold will be growing in them soon. If it isn’t already. The air doesn’t have to be warm for mold to grow if the air has a very high moisture content, as you may have seen in some refrigerators, but I admit, the likelihood of the air around the average person’s book collection being that high, is low. But stagnant air will certainly increase the chances for mold development, so, as mentioned in my previous Healthy Books post, make sure to keep your books well-ventillated.

Mold stains paper very quickly, and it is next to impossible (if not actually impossible) to get most mold stains out of paper. Mold can also weaken paper, and if it is left to its own devices, it can take over and erase pictures, and even eat away the actual paper. I have seen a book where the mold made several consecutive pages inseparable. There was no paper left in that area, just one big lump of mold.

Now for bugs. My first encounter with the bugs/books combination was as a very naive, newly-arrived Texas resident. I put a box of books in a storage unit off my porch (climate very much not controlled), and when I looked in again a few months later, the roaches scattered, shocked at being disturbed from the feast they had been enjoying for so long. After my shrieks died down, I noticed that the leather cover on my great-grandmother’s traveling letter case had been eaten, along with the glue that held it together, and many pages of the other books had their corners eaten. Roaches do not mess around! Silverfish, termites and some beetles also enjoy a tasty meal of paper. Insects tend to prefer warm, dark, damp places, so keep your books off the floor, try to keep the temperature cool, and make sure your books aren’t near any plants, or food particles.

Just as a final fyi, bird and rodent droppings are also bad for paper, as they are corrosive.