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Dusting Off Words of Advice on Preservation

February 20, 1993|PATRICK MOTT

Anyone fortunate enough to have a home library knows that books are far more than words on paper. Taken collectively, row upon row, they are a repository of knowledge, inspiration and silent comfort. They are a kind of talisman, a barrier against ignorance and loneliness and sterile imagination.

They embrace ideas. Standing in the aisles of any public library, with a library card in your pocket, you can feel it. Thoughts, emotions, arguments and rebuttals, great teachings and tiny epigrams--it all fairly seeps out of the shelves.

A home library offers the same sort of sublime comfort, on a more personal scale. "There is no mood to which a man may not administer the appropriate medicine at the cost of reaching down a volume from his bookshelf," wrote the British statesman Arthur Balfour.

It's natural to feel protective of such treasure. You want to care for your books, as they've cared for you. But, said John Y. Cole, the director of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, book owners can unintentionally harm their books in many ways.

"Paying a bit of attention to the books in your home may come as news to some people," he said. "But people should check their books, inspect them periodically."

For the most part, this means dusting. And while dust alone may not damage books, the mildew dust tends to attract will. In a temporarily humid environment mildew can invade both pages and binding, and the damage, Cole said, is permanent.

To properly remove dust, don't rub the dust off with a cloth; that can backfire by rubbing the dust into the pages. Vacuuming, Cole said, is a better solution.

Another way to keep mildew away is, of course, to keep books in a room with relatively low humidity--40%-55% is ideal, Cole said. Also, the temperature in the room should be kept "as close to 60 degrees as possible. That's the figure we use."

Another part of climate control for books involves keeping them out of direct sunlight. Not only can such direct ultraviolet light and heat warp and fade books, it can also cause paper to deteriorate.

It may help, Cole said, to think of books as being almost human and requiring many of the same things humans require for comfort, including proper ventilation.

Likewise, they also need a certain amount of support and physical kindness. When displayed on a shelf, they should be stored upright, and close enough to one another so that they're "snug enough to support each other and prevent warping, but they should have enough play so that you can remove them with ease," Cole said.

When removing them, however, don't hook a finger over the top of the spine and pull it out that way. This can tear the spine. Always "grab it with the whole hand," Cole said.

Replace them upright. Don't succumb to the temptation to place a book diagonally on a shelf.

"Leaning is very bad," Cole said. "You need to use metal supports or bookends. If you don't, after a few months, that lean will become part of the book's posture."

That doesn't apply to large books, such as the "coffee table" variety. Because of their great bulk, they should be shelved flat, Cole said, to lessen the strain on the binding.

Another strain to avoid, he said, is leaving objects in books, such as paper clips, rubber bands or newspaper clippings. They can all cause mildew and, in the case of the clippings, which contain acid in the paper, can also cause the paper in the book to "burn."

What happens when you run out of shelf space in the house? Because the love of books can be a kind of mania, many people can't bring themselves to part with their old books and decide to store them. And the best place for that is likely the garage, said Orange County archivist Dennis McGuire, who is attached to the Orange County Public Library.

But not just any garage. You'll want a garage that doesn't leak, isn't too hot or too humid, and is equipped with metal shelves.

The metal, McGuire said, is a barrier against termites, which can devour books as well as wood. Also, he said, the books should be stored in acid-free boxes, which are available from library supply or specialty box stores. (Even when books are displayed on wood shelves in the house, those shelves should be well-varnished, McGuire said. The varnish keeps the acid in the wood from leaching into the books.)

The garage also offers a more stable environment than an attic, which can be too hot, or a basement, which can be too humid, McGuire said. And storage on any floor is a sin, he added, because of the possibility of flooding.

In short, think of books as a large collection of friendly, intelligent, witty, informational house guests. And remember that all you need to do to obtain their thanks is to pull down any old, favorite book that you haven't read in years and open it to any page. I dare you not to smile.

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