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How to Take Care of Your Books (and Archive Well)

At The Primary Essentials, we offer a selection of rare vintage art and design books and have many in our own libraries, but when it comes to taking good care of such things, we’re not as knowledgable. We turned to Camille Brown of CBB Archives, a Brooklyn-based studio specializing in photographic digitization and archive management with a focus on preservation. Camille works with libraries, institutions, artists, and collectors advising the best way to care for rare, out-of-print, and/or vintage works as well as how to best archive personal ephemera. What we learned was incredibly useful.

TPE: What does archive management entail on a personal level?

CB: Like any collection itself, it varies, but archive management can be unique to the individual. Basic practices like cataloging are not only for the longevity of a collection, but provide an opportunity for reflection. I organize and digitize archives for a living, primarily print-based, but funnily enough, my own collection is not so structured. I would categorize myself as somewhat of a casual collector. Aside from care and conservation, I feel compelled to keep my world sort of institutionally averse. The best part of collecting is not having the stuff, it’s enjoying it. For me, a big part of that is keeping it loose, not too precious.

TPE: Can you share with us some basic dos and don’ts of taking care of archival works/vintage books?

CB: Depending on the object and the state it’s in, I’d say the main do’s are: Store consciously and handle with care! And don’t forget to look at them and love them.

TPE: How should one store their books, upright in a row or is it ok to store them flat?

CB: Ideally, you want to be storing books upright. Protecting the spine of a book from pressure is the goal, and any stacking or leaning makes the spine vulnerable; even shelving them too tightly can lead to damage. Keeping them shelved as evenly as possible, size-wise, is also a good way to prevent warping and undue stress. Never pull books off the shelf from the top of their spine, always pull from the middle. I’ll admit that I do break a few of these rules. Living in a small space filled with many books, I’m known to stack before things find their place. Keep piles as light and even as possible, but really, avoid stacking if you can.

TPE: Where is the best location in the house to keep your books? What elements should be considered regarding air flow, sunlight, heat or air conditioning, and proximity to other items in the home such as kitchen ranges/heat sources or tech items.

CB: You want a cool, dry environment with good airflow. I was once told that if you are comfortable, your books probably are too. The big 3 are: sun, temperature, and moisture. Try to store them wherever these are regulated. Direct sunlight not only causes fading and cosmetic damage, but UV rays damage paper chemically, so they’ll deteriorate faster. Temperature-wise, you don’t want to be storing your books in any location that is susceptible to extreme temperatures, whether it be too hot or too cold. Avoid basements, closets, and close proximity to radiators or vents. As for moisture, while you don’t want the area too dry, high humidity can also be a problem: it can lead to bugs, warping, and mold. Even keeping plants away from your books is good practice.

TPE: If you’re keeping your library on an open shelf, how often should you dust and pull out books to wipe down cabinets/clean up?

CB: I think it depends a lot on your space. My apartment gathers a lot of dust, so every 2 to 3 weeks I give everything a good cleaning. I invested in an air purifier which helps, too. Cleaning is important, so keep it semi-regular.

TPE: If you keep a selection of art books on your coffee table or on other tables throughout the house, how often should you rotate them out to avoid them fading or damaging?

CB: Frequently. Apparently, even a few minutes of direct sunlight a day takes a toll, but I can’t recommend removing them from tables during prime daylight hours completely—books are meant to be seen! Just be mindful about moving them a few inches out of the sunlight whenever possible, it will go a long way. Covers and book jackets keep your books valuable, so it’s good to be vigilant. It’s also a great excuse to pull something out that’s been hidden away on a shelf.

TPE: Any tips along the lines of how to cover books: what material should be used (plastic sleeves or paper)?

CB: Wrapping or sleeving in archive safe mylar protects books from dust, oils, and the like, and naturally, preserves the quality. Using acid-free materials is crucial, so I recommend buying from library supply companies.

TPE: What do you look for when you shop for books? Certain editions? Any signs to avoid?

CB: While first editions will always be more valuable, good cosmetic quality usually takes precedence. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a used book that is in pristine condition without any reactions or breakdown, especially if its lived a long life being passed around and enjoyed, as it should. Open up a book and take a peek around the inside cover and end pages. Notice black spots or anything that looks a little funky? Put it down. But aging exists on a personal spectrum: foxing, or those unsightly brown spots that many old books have, are usually a chemical reaction and are not a deal breaker for me, personally.

TPE: What is the best way to handle/read an old book ? 

CB: You want to keep the spine supported and avoid laying it open on a flat surface, especially as older books are susceptible to cracks and page separation. Any position that opens the book further than the binding allows will put undue stress and potentially lead to the cracks and separation. Otherwise just as you’d think: as carefully as possible. Flip pages delicately, keep food and drink at a distance, and wash your hands.