When it comes to all the things you might need to store, nothing is quite as precious, and extraordinarily delicate, as your book collection.
A person’s book collection offers a glimpse into their soul. Many consider the tomes upon their bookshelf to be a deeply personal representation of their self and their history. So it is with great trepidation and care that one most endeavor to place their books into temporary storage for an extended period of time.
As novelist Umberto Eco once wrote, “A book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. So the librarian protects the books not only against mankind but also against nature and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion.”
Eco knows what he’s talking about (he ought to, the author tended a 30,000 volume personal library in his Italian mansion). The threats he enumerated—pests, the elements and misuse—are exactly what you, as the librarian of your self-storage unit, will need to guard against.
How to Store Books
To find out the best way to handle your book storage, we turned to Richard Davies from Abe Books, an online marketplace that specializes in trading collectible and rare books.
The following steps will walk you through preparing your books for storage, packing your books, and choosing a suitable storage space for your book collection.
1. Dust Your Books.
The right precautions can go a long way in preventing pests and the elements from totaling your beloved books. Before packing them away make sure that they are in pristine condition.
Use a soft paintbrush to remove any dust and dirt from the book’s cover and its pages. Making sure the book stays dry is paramount.
“Don’t wipe them down or introduce any sort of dampness,” said Richard.
2. Air Out Your Books If Needed.
If the book feels damp or smells musty, allow it to air out in a dry room before packing it away. Damp books are likely to mildew once stored—if there’s already mold or mildew on its pages, you’ll either have to keep it out of storage or seek professional assistance.
3. Inspect For Pests Before Packing.
When cleaning your pages with a brush, check for insect eggs, which resemble tiny black seeds and often get lodged in the gutter between pages and the binding. If you do find eggs, the only measure you can take is a good, thorough cleaning.
“Don’t use bug spray or any other kind of spray,” said Richard. “It will almost certainly react with the paper and damage the book.”
4. Provide Protection for Dust Jackets.
Packing books the right way can help keep insects and moisture far away; packing the wrong way will put your books in danger of those “clumsy hands” Eco warned about.
After your books have been thoroughly cleaned, it’s best to wrap them up.
“Many hardcover books are wrapped in dust jackets and they can be particularly fragile and liable to small tearing, so that’s a good reason to add extra packing around each book individually.”
Though the purpose of a dust jacket is, nominally, to protect your book from the elements, a pristine jacket is an important factor in a book’s value, should you be a collector planning to someday sell.
“The presence of a dust jacket is vitally important in maintaining a book’s value, so treat them particularly carefully. Many collectors add mylar ‘Brodart’ protective coverings (the clear, crinkly plastic wrapped around many library books) to their books for extra protection,” said Richard.
5. Wrap Your Books Correctly.
It’s important when wrapping and padding your books that you use the right materials
Whatever you do, don’t use plastic bags to wrap your old books. Plastic traps moisture and can cause condensation, which will end up destroying your home library.
Another wrapping material to avoid is newspaper.
“Don’t wrap books in newspaper, as it’s acidic,” said Richard. “Don’t leave any newspaper cuttings, or printed bookmarks, inside books. The ink in the newsprint will cause another chemical reaction and damage the book.”
Instead, use acid-free archival paper to keep your first editions in good condition.
6. Choose Quality Boxes For Your Books.
“Store them in a rigid box that will truly protect them if someone drops the box or drops something onto the box,” said Richard.
Small cardboard moving boxes are fine for short-term storage of both paperbacks and hardbound books. For particularly valuable books and longer term storage, consider acid-free archival boxes.
7. Arrange Your Books in Boxes With Care.
When it comes to how your books should be arranged in their storage box, Richard had a few tips:
“You can pack books in any way you see fit, but don’t pack books really, really tightly (they can bend or go out of shape from the pressure) or too loosely, as movement during transit could put dents and bumps into them.”
You can use bubble wrap to fill in any gaps in your box to keep your books from shifting around. Paperback books are particularly prone to bending, while hardcovers are susceptible to denting. “Don’t bump the corners when packing and storing the books–it’s easy to put a dent into a hardcover.”
In general, small and medium-sized books will be safe either lying flat or standing upright—if you do store them upright, don’t stack anything else on top of them. Heavier, large books should be laid flat. Regardless of the book’s size, it should never be forced to rest on its spine or on the front edges of the cover, as this makes damage to the binding much more likely.
8. Choose an Optimal Storage Space.
There’s a reason the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in a cool, dry cave in the middle of the Palestinian desert, and not in the sweltering Amazon rainforest (other than, you know, their being on separate continents). Some environments are downright dangerous for books.
The proper preparation and packing will do little to protect your books if you choose to store them in the wrong environment. So your basement or attic will work just fine, right? According to Richard, that’s probably not the best idea:
“A cool, dry environment is ideal. Don’t leave books in direct sunlight, as cover artwork will fade and pages will go brown. Dampness is extremely dangerous for books.”
Though your basement or attic should surely pass the sunlight test, make sure they’re also kept cool and dry year-round. This typically means your attic or basement should be finished, properly sealed, not prone to flooding or roof leaks, free of pests, and connected to your home’s central air conditioning system.
Moisture will encourage insect eggs to hatch and mold and mildew spores will begin to proliferate above 55% relative humidity. If your attic or basement doesn’t maintain low humidity year-round, a storage facility with climate control–which keeps stable year-round temperatures and low levels of humidity–is a good alternative.
9. Keep Storage Boxes Off the Floor.
One last note of caution: Don’t stack boxes on the floor, as this puts them in danger should your home ever flood. Keeping the area dry is your number one concern
They Just Don’t Make Them Like They Used To
Richard’s final word of advice on storing books is that, no matter what precautions you take, books won’t stay in pristine shape forever.
“Physical books will age. That’s reality, because paper is made from organic materials and the paper pulp also contains some chemicals that react with the paper.”
Despite your best efforts, pages will still yellow over time and lose some of their integrity. But surprisingly enough, older books will better stand the test of time.
“Older books were made with higher quality paper and they will last much longer than modern books made from cheaper paper.”