How to Store, Preserve, and Care for Rare Books
Although they cover vastly different topics, William Shakespeare’s First Folio, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone have all achieved “rare book” status. Copies of these works have sold for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of dollars. In fact, rare books span a wide range of topics and literary genres, and can vary in both historical significance and value.
All rare books abide by the same universal truth: they require particular care to maintain their condition and structure over extended periods of time. Libraries and museums have perfected the art of book preservation, working to prevent future damage and even reversing existing condition issues. Learn what constitutes as a rare work, how to determine its value, and find helpful tips for the proper cleaning and storage of antique books.
What Makes a Book Rare?
There are a number of factors that constitute a truly rare and valuable book, which include scarcity, condition, association, and age. Bauman Rare Books, a rare book dealer founded by Natalie and David Bauman with outposts in New York, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas, defines a rare book as one that “is important, desirable, and scarce.”
Age, condition, and scarcity are perhaps the most critical elements that determine a piece’s value, mostly because it is uncommon to find this pivotal combination in older literary works. Most antique texts are not always stored in the proper conditions, which ultimately causes rapid deterioration of pages and bindings and thus, value.
But what is considered “rare” to libraries and museums can vary, particularly as larger institutions tend to be more selective about what they accession and display. Smaller organizations, however, are able to accept slightly damaged books as rare because of their limited access. Some of the rarest examples belong to the permanent collections of these prominent libraries, museums, and institutions:
The Gutenberg Bible
- Library: Göttingen State and University Library
- Location: Göttingen, Germany
- Publication Year: 1454–1455
Bay Psalm Book
- Library: Boston Public Library
- Location: Boston, Massachusetts
- Publication Year: 1640
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- Author: Lewis Carroll
- Library: Morgan Library & Museum
- Location: New York, New York
- Publication Year: 1865
On The Origin Of Species by Means of Natural Selection
- Author: Charles Darwin
- Library: Cambridge University Library
- Location: Cambridge, United Kingdom
- Publication Year: 1859
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
- Author: Beatrix Potter
- Library: Morgan Library & Museum
- Location: New York, New York
- Publication Year: 1901
Tips for Storing Rare Books
To keep these items in good condition, particular care needs to be taken to prevent accelerated aging, deterioration, and mildew growth. While professional settings such as climate-controlled storage rooms in libraries or museums offer the best protection, there are steps that can be taken to turn any room in your home into an ideal place to display and store your valuable collection.
Give careful consideration to how to store rare books over time. Because of their ephemeral nature, extra steps must be taken to ensure that their new home won’t accelerate the aging process or create new issues. Dust, humidity levels, and even chemicals from unfinished wooden shelves can cause damage to books of any age. Whether you plan to proudly display your rare book collection on shelves or store them in boxes for preservation, be sure to follow these best practices to ensure that they stay in proper condition:
- Books stored in shelves should be placed upright, with a small amount of space between each book to reduce pressure on the binding when removing them.
- Keep books of the same size together to help avoid indenting that can occur when books of varying sizes are pressed together for a long period of time.
- Avoid leaving the books open, face-down, or stacking them for prolonged periods to reduce strain on the spine of the book.
- Books that are longer than eighteen inches or deeper than three inches—such as atlases and maps—should lie flat, and can be stacked in groups of three on bookshelves or in storage containers.
- When storing books in boxes, check the container to ensure that the box itself will not leak or allow in UV light. Artifact boxes or archival boxes—commonly used in museums and libraries for long-term storage—are free of acid and lignin and safeguard against the deterioration of antique and aging items.
Climate and Humidity
Vintage editions are especially susceptible to minor fluctuations in temperature and humidity. To deter from disintegration or flaws in the paper or binding, keep temperatures between 65–70 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity levels at a steady 30–50 percent. Rooms with temperature and humidity controls are commonly used in libraries to store older artifacts, and can help preserve their condition for a longer period of time. But if you are looking to store these items in your own home, look for rooms with minimal windows and exposure to the natural elements, and invest in a dehumidifier to keep moisture levels at a low and constant level.
Dry heat can also become an issue, causing leather covers to crack and book glue to dry out, changing the form and appearance of rare novels. To help prevent these issues and monitor the humidity levels in your home, a hygrometer can be used to ensure ideal conditions that will keep your books in prime condition for years to come.
While all light can cause permanent chemical changes to paper and binding of books, ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight are especially harmful and can accelerate deterioration of antique books. This UV damage, also known as sunning, can occur even after the book has been moved out of direct sunlight. Signs of sunning include bleached, yellowing, or browning paper, fabric deterioration, and cracks in the binding.
To help protect your books, minimize their exposure to light of any kind, but especially direct sunlight. Store in a dimly lit room, or invest in a UV-filtered coating for any nearby windows or light fixtures. Modern dust jackets with UV protection are another good option, especially if a dark storage room isn’t readily available.
Since these works are usually kept in one location for extended periods of time, and often rarely touched to avoid any unnecessary exposure to oils or other natural elements. Because of this stagnant nature, these relics are prone to collecting dust which can accelerate mold and spur insect infestations.
To keep rare books in their best condition, regular dusting is recommended. The top of the book is most prone to dirt and dust, and should be gently dusted with a soft paint brush or cloth in the opposite direction of the spine. Hold the book tightly to prevent slippage of the dust into the pages of the book, and make sure to wipe down the shelves before returning the book to its home.
Proper handling is imperative for maintaining condition and preventing any unnecessary deterioration. Before handling, hands should be clean and dry to prevent any dirt transferring to the pages. Archival Methods, a company based in Rochester, New York that specializes in storage solutions and archival supplies for photographs, paintings, textiles, and other artworks, recommends using white inspection gloves for extremely damaged or old books to prevent seepage from oils that are naturally present on human skin.
When reading or inspecting your books, it’s important to limit how wide it is opened to avoid added stress on the spine. Use clean and non-toxic items—such as dusting cloths or other books—to prop up each side of the book while viewing. Pens or markers should never be used on older books, as they can bleed to the surrounding pages. Pencils are the best option when marking or editing older novels, although it’s important to note that markings of any kind can devalue the books over time.
What Makes a Rare Book Valuable?
When determining the value of a vintage book, there are several key factors that dealers and specialists consider. Historical, thematic, or author primacy can distinguish a common older edition from a truly rare book. This is because collectors and museums are willing to pay more for a work that can be authenticated as a first edition.
Provenance, or history of ownership, as well as condition, are two additional elements that are often considered when examining books for rare or historical status. Another element often heeded is contemporary binding, or binding that has not been altered from its first publication.
The Most Valuable Rare Books
Below are four of the most valuable and best-known rare books today:
The First Atlas by Claudius Ptolemy (1477)
Considered one of the world’s first printed atlases, this original version of this work was created by Claudius Ptolemy in 150 AD. Only three original copies of the first printed versions remain, with one copy going for $3.9 million at Sotheby’s in 2006.
First Folio by William Shakespeare (1623)
There are less than 300 copies of the first collection of Shakespeare’s works still available today, and they are rare to hit the market. In 2001, one copy sold at the auction house Christie’s for $6.2 million.
The Birds of America by James Audubon (1820)
This map-sized book is home to drawings of over 400 American birds. And while experts believe that 120 copies still exist today, their rarity has led to one copy selling for $11.5 million in 2010 at Sotheby’s.
Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling (2008), Public Edition
Seven handmade copies were created in the early 2000s, and given away as gifts. Before printed copies were released in 2008, one original handmade work sold at Sotheby’s for $3.98 million in 2007.
Rare and valuable books don’t have to be centuries old—though many of them are. They can be ancient artifacts, first edition books, or the earliest edition of a coveted modern novel, across any genre. Outside of rarity and condition, books considered truly “rare” are those that have helped to mold history or that have impacted our society in a profound way. And even as our society advances and relies less on physical works to document our history, the finite amount of copies available ensures the health of this market for years to come.
Sources: Library of Congress | National Library of Scotland | Book Riot | Atlas Obscura