How NOT to Store Books

We were called to an estate in an eastern college town to view "grandfather's books." Ms. Rome and her brother met us at the side gate and we were offered coffee and weather-related conversation before the book viewing was to begin. Having already enjoyed breakfast at a local diner, we declined and asked if we could move on to the library.

We were led through the living quarters of the house, up to the second floor, then further on, up a flight of creaking wooden stairs to the third floor attic. From there we headed down a dark hallway and around a corner to a large wooden door. As it was, although grandfather Rome was a voracious collector and lover of good books, his dear wife of 62 years was not. She demanded he store 98% of his library in the attic. Only about 300 of his "favorites" were kept in the climate-controlled area of the house. Such are the dictates of love and marriage. Ms. Rome blushed and alluded to her grandma's aversion to dust and things which bore the ravages of age. But, she explained, theirs was a happy marriage of 63 years, so one could not question their understanding. Then, with a great flourish, she unbolted and swung open the attic door, extending her arm toward the rows of shelves.

Immediately we were struck by the dry, still air. I begged to begin on a positive note and remarked that the dear old man had the good sense to put his books in a dark place, not to be affected by the sun's rays. However...because of the absence of any ventilation and the extreme temperatures of the summer and winter months, over the years much of the paper and many of the bindings had dried to the point of brittleness. Quite a few of the 5,000 volumes were bound in leather, and now the covers had become flaky and powdery. Before we touched the first book, Ms. Rome explained that about 15 years earlier her grandfather had hired two boys to haul the collection from the lower floors up to the attic. I was heartened by this, believing that the collection had been fortunate enough to stand in the living quarters of the house. But soon I guessed that this had not been the case. Upon close inspection of the books we realized that at an earlier date, a good portion of the collection had suffered due to being shelved in the basement. The clues came fast: wavy pages, discolorations at the foot of the bindings and a light mildewy smell. It seemed that a flood in the 1960s damaged many of the volumes. A good portion of the pages now had age spotting and "foxing," and some of the books even had pages stuck together. Effects such as these are more common and less preventable in tropical climes; but because of the proximity of the water and dampness here, in the northeast, the books suffered the same fate.

Ms. Rome and her brother felt that because the books were "old" and of good scholarly subject matter that condition did not really matter. She had checked some of the titles against price guides and old catalogues which her grandfather had owned and felt that these were worth "top dollar". I tried to explain that to take a risk and invest in such books was within our interests, however, the investment would be greatly lessened because of the general condition of the collection. "Condition, condition, condition", I told her, the first three things a book buyer concerns himself with; and I was no different..

How TO Store Books

The dangers of storing books in a basement should not be ignored. The threat of flooding and consistently damp conditions make maintaining a library in a cellar a futile endeavor. Regardless of a dry history, unexpected weather can change things in a hurry. Grandfather Rome experienced only one flood in his basement, and that's all it took. Similarly, in storing the books in an oven-like attic the elder Mr. Rome baked all the suppleness and general useability out of his books.

One should keep books in an area of moderate temperature, dry yes, but not arid. Normal barometric conditions will not aversely effect paper, cloth and leather. Direct sunlight is a natural enemy of books and paper; shelves should never face windows. It takes very little direct sunshine to fade or discolor a binding.