Frequently Asked Questions about Conservation
Here are some answers to questions you might have about saving your family heirlooms. If you have a question that is not answered, please contact Eric Alstrom, Head of Conservation & Preservation, for an answer.
You can always try looking in the yellow pages or searching online. There may be someone close to you who can repair books and mend paper documents. It is worthwhile, though, to check to make sure the individual or company has the qualifications and training to do a good job. The American Institute for Conservation maintains a list of members who do take on private work. You can search their list by ZIP code and what the conservator specializes in (books and paper, paintings, textiles, etc.).
For people in Michigan, the MSU Libraries’ maintains a Conservation Referral list.
Just because a book is old, does not mean it has great monetary worth. Many books and documents have much more sentimental or historic value than as a means to make you rich. Given that, if you are interested in finding out how much your books are worth, you can find information about appraisal at the Library of Congress’ Rare Book and Special Collections division or the Appraisers Association of America’s Find an Appraiser webpage.
For those in the area of Michigan State University, the conservation lab cannot offer appraisal services, however there are rare book stores in East Lansing you can contact, including the Archives Book Shop and Curious Book Shop.
What conditions are best to store family heirlooms?
The general guidelines are in a place that is cool, dark and dry. Basements and attics are not good places to store books, papers, photos or just about anything else. Attics are generally too hot and basements get too damp. Below are some general guidelines. For more detailed information, see the Library of Congress Collections Care pages or read the Northeast Documents Conservation Center’s Preservation Leaflets.
How should I store my books?
Books should be shelved upright on a book shelf where they don’t lean to one side or the other. Leaning will distort the binding of the book. The shelves should be in an area that doesn’t have sunlight shining on it (or any other bright light sources).
While the cooler the temperature, the better, books will be just fine in a climate that is comfortable for people. Temperatures between 65 and 72 are just fine. A relative humidity between 40% to 50% will not let the book materials dry out or allow mold to grow. Remember, the hotter and more humid an area is, the greater the chance the mold growth (see the section on Mold and Wet Books for more information). It is best to try to maintain as consistent temperature and humidity as possible. Fluxuations will cause stress on the binding and materials in books.
How should I store letters, certificates and other paper items?
Papers should be stored in an acid-free or archival box or folder in such a way that they will not be damaged by other materials. If stored upright, make sure they have support so they don’t sag or distort over time. The temperature and humidity recommendations are the same as for books.
How should I store my family photographs and photograph albums?
Again, keeping them away from the light is important to keep them from fading. If hung on a wall, the framing should include acid-free or archival mat board and a UV protectant glass or Plexiglas cover.
Loose photos should be stored in a photo-safe box so they do not rub excessively on each other. Rubbing can damage the image over time. Albums should be stored upright like books but in an area that won’t let light shine onto the pages.
Ideally, photographs like a little bit drier and cooler environment than books. 30% to 40% relative humidity is ideal. The temperature should be slightly cooler than for books, too.
What about other family heirlooms that aren’t books, paper or photographs?
If you are preserving wedding dresses, vellum or parchment diplomas, historic furniture, artwork or other non-book and –paper materials, please visit the Smithsonian's Collection Care pages or the Caring for your Treasures page at the American Institute for Conservation website.
What is the best way to handle a book so as not to damage it?
Do not lift a book by its cover alone, as the cover, or "boards," cannot sustain the weight. Take care not to drop a book; this will almost always strain its hinges.
I read that it isn't good to pull a book off the shelf from its spine. What is a better way to get the book I need?
Never pull on a book's head-cap but rather move its neighbors back slightly in order to grasp the book at mid-spine.
Is it okay to make photocopies of books?
Excessive flattening out on a copy machine puts sever strains on the spine. Even if the binding does not crack, it has been weakened along the hinges and at the spine. Be cautious!
How should I keep my home library so that my books are not harmed?
A book should rest in an upright position on its tail or lie flat, not leaning, so as not to put a strain on the hinges. If it is not possible to shelve a book upright, you may shelve it spine side down. A book should never rest on its fore-edge. A shelf should not be tightly shelved, but rather allow space to be able to pull the book off easily. Another important thing to remember is to keep books out of direct light - both sunlight and artificial.
What is a good way to mark pages that I want to find again?
Placing objects such as pencils or several thicknesses of paper inside the books puts severe strain on the spine. Sticky notes are fine to use on a short-term basis. Never write in books with permanent ink of any kind.
Should I wear gloves when handling photographs or paper documents?
If your hands are clean, it is not necessary to wear gloves when handling paper or reading a book. When examining photographs, do not touch the image directly with your fingers. If there is a danger of doing that because the image bleeds all the way to the edges, a pair of well-fitting cotton gloves will protect the photograph.
If your books get wet, it is important to act quickly to dry them out before mold starts to grow. You usually have a 24 to 48 window of time before mold will grow, but this depends on many factors including how warm the environmental conditions are.
Care must be taken when handling wet books. Both the binding and the paper is very fragile when it is wet. The easiest way to dry the book is to stand the book upright and fan the pages. A fan on the low setting or another source of gentle breeze will help dry the pages. If the book will not stand up, use plastic supports (such as bookends) to help keep it upright. Please note that once paper is wet, drying it in the method will cause it to cockle. In other words, the pages (and perhaps the binding) will not dry flat.
If the book is of particular value and you want to try to preserve the original condition as much as possible, you can place the book in a well-sealed plastic bag (such as a Ziploc) and place it in the freeze. This will prevent any mold growth and give you time to find a conservator or bookbinder who can save your books. Use caution if the book is bound in leather or vellum since freezing can damage those materials.
If you find mold on your books (either from a previously unknown water leak or from poor environmental conditions), you must be very careful on how you handle the books. It is best to contact a trained conservator who can clean the mold from the book. If you do try to clean it yourself, do it in a well ventilated area away from living areas and any other books or family heirlooms; the outdoors is best. Hold the book firmly shut so the mold spores won’t get between the pages and take a soft, disposable brush and gently wipe the mold downwards off the book. If there is mold between the pages, open the book on a solid surface and brush the spores away. It is best to cover this surface is newspaper or something else which can then be discarded.
If the mold smears rather than brushes away, that means it is active mold and can potentially be more dangerous. Put the book in a well-sealed bag, place in the freezer and contact a conservator or an expert in mold remediation before proceeding.
Remember, mold is potentially very dangerous and can cause severe health consequences. For further information on how mold can affect your health and how to control it in your home, read this article from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.