Antique Books, Part 1: Handling

If you intend to be a serious scholar, you will at some point find yourself faced with antique books. Original sources are a valuable part of research. Using original sources is less likely if you are researching the Middle Ages, but when researching 18th century or Victorian literature, you will likely have a chance to handle antiques extensively and even to own some. A library or archive will probably have training for handling their antiques, but this post is for those of you borrowing from a non-library source or looking to start your own collection.

Wash your hands.

I’ve read several articles on whether one should handle antiques with gloves on or off. The general consensus that I see is not to bother with gloves. The residue from cotton gloves seems just as likely to damage the book as the oils on one’s skin. In addition, gloves add a clumsiness that increases the likelihood of damaging a page. The best option is to wash your hands frequently when handling an antique book. Not only does this protect the book from oils, but it also protects the reader from whatever microbes may have been nesting in the pages for over a century. Antique books are many things, but clean is rarely one of them.

Never open an antique book all the way.

Opening a book all the way will damage the spine. When briefly examining a book, cradle the spine in your hand, using your thumb and fingers to support both sides of the book. (Pressing the pages down for readability is fine and will not damage them if the spine is at a proper angle, but I didn’t bother for the picture.)

Note the angle.

Note the straight line and the spine damage.

For lengthier use, lay the book on the table and prop up both sides of the cover to support them. Libraries will usually have padded book stands for this purpose. You could easily make one of these yourself by cutting a Styrofoam log in half and covering each side with soft fabric, but another option is to simply use other books. Small paperbacks are perfect for this purpose. For my amusement, I have supported the book in the picture with 4 different editions of Beowulf.

This book has the support of many friends.

This book needs a chiropractor.

Book stands can be damaging.

If you need to quote extensively from an antique, you may find yourself wanting to prop it up in a book stand. Consider the shape of your book stand and whether or not it may cause damage to the book. Will it force the book open all the way? Don’t use it. A wire book stand could put marks on the cover with prolonged use, so the best way to combat this is to lay a cloth inside the book stand for cushioning. You could also offer to proofread papers for non-English majors in exchange for book-holding services. The possibilities are endless!

Never tilt a book.

Be careful with the way you remove books from the shelf. The best way to store an antique book is to lay it on its side so that the pressure of standing up doesn’t warp the book, but this is often not feasible on a bookshelf. When removing a book from a bookshelf, grab it firmly in the middle, lift, then pull straight out. Tilting can damage the bottom of the spine, so if you must tilt it to get a firm grip, do so as little as possible.



Light can be damaging.

I haven’t been able to find strict information on what kind of lighting is best for antique books. Exposure to light damages paper. However, I’ve never seen a library with special reading lamps for the antiques. The best conclusion that I’ve come to is that indoor lighting is fine. Try to avoid pointing a strong desk lamp directly at the page, and do not read your antiques outside in the middle of summer. The best way to protect your pages from light damage is to store them in dark places. I’ll give more detailed cover of storage in a later post.

Do not use bookmarks.

If you must mark a page in an antique book, use only small, thin pieces of acid-free paper. Other kinds of paper could leave damaging residue, while thick paper could mark the pages if left in long enough. One of my professors who is an expert on Victorian periodicals used post-it notes when she brought certain books to class, but as I do not know what affect the post-it glue might have over time, I do not recommend using adhesives.

Note: The part of Good Book Use was played by what I believe to be a first edition of the single-volume printing of Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. I’m totally bragging. The part of Bad Book Use was played by a 1905 American printing of Martin Chuzzlewit, also by Dickens. Though more than a century old, the latter book is a very cheap printing, not rare or valuable. The spine was already thoroughly destroyed when I purchased it. Don’t let this happen to your books!

Antique Books, Part 2: Making Meaning from Text
Antique Books, Part 3: Purchasing
Antique Books, Part 4: Storage


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