Storing & displaying books to keep them in best condition

Book shelves

Storage and display are the bane of the bookseller’s and book collector’s existence.  The more valuable the book and the better the condition it is to start with, the more likely poor display and storage are to damage the book.  Reading copies are already so far gone in condition, they’ll tolerate less than optimal condition with little hit to value.  But a fine first edition with a fine jacket needs special handling.

Books need to be kept somewhere cool and dry.  If you live somewhere humid and hot, this will be the thing you spend the most time fighting. You’ll need air conditioning.

Conversely, somewhere TOO dry can damage bindings. Books are like Goldilocks, they like it in between.

Heat can also damage books as it can cause mold and bacteria to grow on the item.

Direct sunlight can cause the cover to fade or crack.

Storing books packed too tight against another book can cause it to warp around the other book if its taller.  Or it may stick to the other book.  Standing it open to display can cause the spine to warp. Standing it up without any support may cause it to tilt sideways.

Handling can also wear the top and bottom of the spine and dustjacket (if it has one) just from it being pulled on and off the shelf or even when it’s jostled. Books with raised lettering will also have it rub off if they’re too tightly packed or if jostled against other books.

With so much that can go wrong, how SHOULD you store and display your books?

Store it somewhere cool and dry, where it can’t be casually touched by people. If it doesn’t need to be displayed at all, large plastic storage boxes are an excellent choice as they keep out dust, pets, moisture, and generally have a humidity and temperature similar to surrounding room.

Books in a storage box should be turned so that they stand as if they were on a shelf or laid flat, depending on size and shape.  They’re best designed to hold their own weight (and neighboring books weight) that way.  Dividers may be a good idea.

However, if you need to DISPLAY the books, things get a little trickier.  Either you the bookseller want to display the book in the store to sell it, or you may get a query from a potential buyer on how best to display it. Generally if you’re going to display books, they’ll go on some sort of bookcase.

Make sure your bookcases are the right SIZE . Books that overhang the edge of the shelf can warp or bend.  Conversely, you don’t want your books swimming in a case that’s too big for the type of books you’ll be displaying.  You might need two (or more) different sized cases to accommodate different sized books.

A glass fronted case may be a good option for more fragile items that should not be casually handled. If you’re building your own case, invest in UV resistant glass intended for artwork.  It’s not much more expensive that regular glass and will prevent fading.

To prevent warping consider getting dividers to go between each book on the shelf and make sure they’re tall enough to provide support to the tallest book.  Pick something with a slick finish that’s nonporous to minimize wear to the cover sliding against the divider. If you don’t have enough books to make them stand on their own, use a bookend and a divider to snug it up against the end of the shelf.  (if you’re having trouble finding bookends that are heavy enough to work, I suggest the glass blocks used to building.  They look nice plain or filled with something, won’t scratch your book, and are quite heavy)

If you stand books upright on shelves, don’t then stack other books on top of them in the gap between the top and the shelf.  This will scuff the tops of all the books.

If you’re going to display them face out instead, get a stand, one that supports the book across the entire bottom, not at only two points.  The prong stands can leave indents after awhile.  Make sure the stand supports it all the way across the back as well so it doesn’t warp under its own weight.

Some particularly large or heavy books may be better stored or displayed flat.  Don’t stack books that way too high or it may damage the spine of the one on the bottom.  Again, it might also cause covers to stick to each other.  Dividers are a good idea, but they don’t necessarily have to be stiff.   If they’re going to also be out on display and leaving a lot of space on top looks odd, you can put a lighter object on top of stack, so long as it’s something that won’t scratch. (or put a divider between the top decorative item and the book beneath)

Stack books like a pyramid to prevent bowing. Square up the bottoms so weight is evenly distributed, with no edges hanging off.  however, if you put too much weight on the bottom book and the book atop it is significantly smaller, it may cause bowing.

How much weight will cause a book to bow? It varies some based on thickness, but generally don’t stack books more than about 12″ (or 30CM) high.  Aside from the weight possibly damaging the spine of the book on the bottom, they may become difficult to move and you’re more likely to damage the book on the bottom if you’re struggling to move the rest of the stack.

No matter how you put them in the case or storage box, make sure not to overpack.  If they’re stuffed in too tight they can warp from the pressure.  Or when you go to pull them out, it’ll put a lot of friction on the cover.  A little air space also lets them breath so you don’t get pockets of humidity.  Make sure you can comfortably fit two fingers in between the books on top and sides.  That should be a big enough airgap. (if you have tiny hands, thumb and first finger.  If you have baseball mitts for hands, ring and little finger)


How NOT to store your books. Cats make terrible bookends.



Facebook Comments

1 Comment

  • Thanks Nora. Good posting. One thing to remember is when pulling a book off a shelf one must be careful not to rip the top of the spine. Tip the book and grab the corner as it comes out. Another reason to NOT pack the books too tightly on the shelf. It can make it hard to remove them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *