A University Products How-To Tip: Display and Storage of Books

Books present a variety of unique conservation concerns.  Numerous construction materials may include paper, leather, fabric, silk, thread, and adhesives, each of which have specific requirements in the area of conservation.  Unlike a photograph or simple sheet of paper, a book has moving parts (pages) and must be handled and manipulated to perform the function it was designed for.

Protection from temperature and humidity fluctuation, ultraviolet light, and damaging display or storage materials is necessary for the long-term survival of books.  Beyond that, books take on a whole new set of rules.

Open Books
Opening a book completely (180 degrees) can flatten the spine and cause considerable damage.  Collectors often wish to display the book opened. To do so safely, the book should not be opened more than 90 degrees, and both front and back covers should receive full support.This can be accomplished using commercially available book cradles, support wedges and book mounts. They should be manufactured of inert materials (usually Plexiglas) and provide smooth, strong support.

A sheet of polyester (Melinex) cut to the proper size is ideal for holding down “springy” pages of an open book on display.  Because it is crystal clear, the page can be viewed without obstruction.  In addition, it will protect the exposed page(s) from dirt, dust and fingerprints.  The polyester page protector should be fastened to the support, never to the book itself.

Closed Books Storage
Closed books are a little simpler to store.  Adequate circulation should be maintained within the storage area.  Books stored on shelves or in a book case should not be pushed against the back wall, but kept an inch or two away to allow circulation of air.  This is especially important if it is an exterior wall since changes in temperature and humidity are more likely to occur. They should be stored upright on the shelf rather than laid flat, but should not be allowed to lean since the strain could damage the spine.  Books with leather bindings should be stored away from those with cloth or paper bindings to prevent migration of naturally occurring acids and oils in leather from damaging paper or cloth bindings.  Like-size books should be stored together to provide proper support, but should not be so tight as to cause damage when removed or replaced.
The downside to storing your book collection closed and on shelves is that viewing the book requires handling the book.  Careless handling of books can cause irreparable damage, and a few common sense handling procedures can preserve a book in its pristine condition.  Instead of pulling a book out by the top of the spine, push in the books on either side and remove by gently grasping both sides (another good reason to leave a few inches of space behind the books).  Modern day books with dust jackets should be covered with a polyester book jacket cover. Book jacket covers are fairly inexpensive and provide increased protection from general wear and tear. They also prevent chemicals from body oils in the hands and fingers from damaging the book.  Use only polyester or other inert materials to cover books since some plastics or acidic papers can cause more harm than good.  Most libraries use polyester dust jacket covers.

Older/Damaged Books
Older books that are already exhibiting signs of weakness or damage must be treated differently.  These should be stored flat rather than upright to provide needed support, and never more than two or three books high.  Ideally, each damaged book should be stored individually in a box custom made to the book’s dimensions.  These boxes should be manufactured from archival quality materials only.

Some damaged books can and should be repaired. Repair work should only be attempted by a qualified  book conservator trained in using proper materials and techniques.  A book conservator can deacidify any books manufactured with acidic paper, repair tears in pages, tighten loose hinges, and create proper storage boxes, among other procedures.  Properly cared for, your book collection will last indefinitely.


Visiting the Smithsonian’s Lunder Conservation Center

The Lunder
The Lunder by sarahstierch, on Flickr

Many pieces within the the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art have undergone conservation treatments throughout the years, but the ones that were treated by the Lunder Conservation Center, were done in front of the museum’s patrons. This state-of-the-art conservation lab and studio, housed in the museum’s fourth floor, gives visitors to the museum a unique perspective on the conservation treatment process. Patrons have the opportunity to see conservators at work in five different labs and studios behind floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Interactive kiosks and displays provide visitors with pertinent information about the process going on in front of them and the importance of museum conservation.

Conservation process on John Scott sculpture, Thornbush Blues Totem, photo courtesy of Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art

The Lunder conservators have been working on John Scott’s Thornbush Blues Totem, a sculpture constructed in 1990. In an effort to to prepare the piece for a new exhibition showcasing African-American art, the sculpture needed to have a layer of tape removed from its base. This layer of tape acts as padding for the bottom of the piece. The removal of the tape could result in paint being pulled along with it and sticky residues being left behind. However, the paint adorning the sculpture is highly sensitive to most solvents, including water. The conservation treatment of this sculpture is being documented as part of an on-going series for the museum’s blog, leading up to the April 27 opening of the African-American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond exhibit.

"Flowers" by William H. Johnson

The Lunder Conservation Center routinely informs visitors about what they’ll be doing inside their labs and studios via their Twitter feed. Through this medium, the conservators at Lunder also share photos of ongoing projects. Earlier this month, it was the cleaning treatment of William H. Johnson‘s iconic “Flowers” painting from 1939-40.

If you have art that requires a special conservation treatment,  University Products has a wide variety of conservation materials to help you complete your project.