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Sunday, 30 August 2009



This is a short, basic manual to keeping your library in a good condition. It does not pretend to be a comprehensive course in librarianship, conservation or archival methods – it is purely some commonsense and knowledge that I have garnered from many people, but most of the information came from my late wife, my friends Cyril Adriaanse and Peter Coates, both of whom worked at the SA Library, my sister Dr Cora Ovens (a lifelong librarian) and Frank Johnston a bookseller from Central Africa, where the bugs bite bigger and better.

Know thine enemy: The three main culprits under our South African conditions are a) Moisture b) Light c) Biological attack. There are many more, but most of these are found in association with the first three, so let us investigate these threats.

Of the tens of thousands of books that have been presented to me by prospective sellers, the greatest number of no-no’s have been books which have been exposed to moisture. In its grossest form, the volume has been dunked, or had water poured over it; there are water-marks across the pages; colours have run, the textblock is rippled; at worst, the pages are stuck together. A more subtle exposure to damp can result in the textblock absorbing so much water from the edges inwards, that the margins of the pages display a ‘high tide’ mark right around, in extreme cases. A hot steamy climate has the further effect of ‘foxing’ the pages of books, that is, the growth of those unsightly brown blotches that seem to get worse year after year. The quality of the paper that the book is made of, has something to do with the degree of foxing, since badly bleached and insufficiently sized paper is most prone; but the micro-organisms that cause the discolouration will grow on even the best cotton-rag paper, or a modern high-gloss paper, given enough time, heat and atmospheric moisture.

Mould is, of course, biological and the companion to severely drenched books. The remnants of this will also stain paper, mostly with green, blue or black shades – all equally unpleasant to look at. I have heard of desperation measures applied by an archivist to his precious documents when they were under a leak in the roof – he bundled the whole lot into a clean deep-freeze. The sub-zero temperatures prevented mould from forming, and slowly the moisture was evaporated from the paper and deposited on the walls of the freezer as ice, leaving the documents in reasonably good shape. It works the same way as putting a slice of bread in the freezer, forgetting about it for three months and then pulling out a dessicated piece of toast. I haven’t tried it myself, but it might just save a precious book. I wish I’d known the trick when we moved into a rented house in White River, Eastern Transvaal, some decades back. All of my books were standing in the lounge in tea crates. Our neighbours invited us over for supper, during which time a small tornado blew the roof off our house and dumped about 150mm of rain onto our goodies. I seem to recall I chucked away several hundred good books. All one can do with an area of mould on a page, is to brush it away gently, without inhaling the stuff. It really is not good for the lungs.

So, water and heat are bad, especially in tandem. What about cold? Well there seems to be some consensus among librarians that a chilly environment is really good for books, but most users would complain loudly if they had to wrap up in anoraks and shawls to do their research. In practice, seventeen degrees is a reasonable compromise – but a very far cry from a Bloemfontein or Johannesburg winter when it can get to way under the zero mark, or an Empangeni or Kalahari summer, when you’re pushing the mercury at forty plus, with about 95% humidity thrown into the bargain in Natal. What do they say?: climate is what you expect; weather is what you get. So you deal with whatever our fair country dishes out by way of ambient temperature. Most of us don’t go as far as airconditioning for our library, but it’s a thought. On the other hand, it’s not essential to be uncomfortable in your reading room, even if you are surrounded by books; to have frozen toes, nose and fingers while you are trying to concentrate on some work, or recreational reading, is no fun. I have a little fan-heater tucked away under my desk – just so that I can kick the switch to on when the cold bites a tad savagely. Talking about heaters though, there is a caveat – fireplaces, though comforting to the body, a treat to the senses of smell, sight and hearing – are a strict no-go area. Unfortunately one only has to look at the ceilings of rooms with open fireplaces to see what happens. A little smoke always escapes from the open hearth, and if there are books in the room, they not only absorb smoke and tars like blotting paper, which then react with cloth, paper and leather in a number of complicated and unwanted ways, but the books smell of smoke. Speaking of which, I have to act the reformed smoker part and thorough spoil-sport: smoke from cigars, cigarettes and pipes descends gently onto any exposed part of a book which is in the same room, it glues itself onto all the abovementioned materials with tenacity, and stinks, forever, quite apart from darkening and damaging bookcloth as well as the edges of the textblock.

Dry heat is probably the least problematic condition to deal with. Although certain older, and certainly most inferior types of paper, get brittle in a dry, hot climate, as long as the books are handled with care, they will rehydrate when the ambient humidity rises again. Leatherbound books do need some special care under those conditions though, since even opening such a volume under those conditions could cause the hinge to break, resulting in very expensive damage. This does not mean one should apply liberal dollops of dubbin or saddle soap to those ancient treasured tomes. There are a number of good products available, unfortunately mostly from overseas sources, which further complicates matters, since a number of these substances are in liquid, flammable form, which precludes the bibliophile importing even the tiny amount needed per mail. In effect you have to find a runner, who will smuggle the stuff out in their personal toiletries, disguised as after-shave or something, when they return from their holiday in Britain, Germany, or USA. The British Library does sell a solid wax, though, and this is best applied very sparingly with a soft cloth to the leather, especially at the hinges. Books so treated should be left to stand separate from their shelfmates for a few days, to prevent any possibility of them sticking together. The liquid lotions ( I use a brand from Germany, which my late wife smuggled into South Africa) one applies by wetting a sponge slightly, squeezing it repeatedly until it foams and then applying it in even strokes to the leather. It is left to dry, and then the book is buffed lightly with a soft cloth.

Now let us deal with threat no 2 – that wonderfully abundant sunlight, which makes our country such a bright, cheery place to live in – in general – sunburn, melanoma and severe ‘sunning of the spine and covers’ apart. Any sunlight is taboo on the bookshelf, except possibly if sanitized by passing it through some total sun-block film on the window panes – if that should exist. Even if filtered through a semi-transparent curtaining material, the ultraviolet is still present in quantities that will at first bleach, and in time, totally destroy the cloth covering the boards of your books. Even sunlight reflected off water or a light-coloured painted surface, still has some destructive force left in it. The old builders and architects had good ideas during Victorian times – they surrounded most houses with wide verandahs or stoeps, which gave shade to the walls and interior of the house, as well as keeping stray sunbeams from intruding through the apertures. Nowadays we like to live behind walls made of glass, or sliding glass doors, under skylights or in houses with interior courtyards and patios. This new lifestyle results in much more exposure to the potentially harmful effects of the sunlight on your furnishings and other property viz your library. Without getting paranoid about it, choose a south-facing room where possible, or at least a wall that gets no sun, not even a passing sweep in the late afternoon. If you must face any other direction, you must have some form of blind, slatted, or rolling, if you don’t want to be in deep gloom behind dark curtains.

A last word on sunshine: if perchance you should leave a book out in the sun (as I’m sure we have all done on occasion) and you come back to find that the top cover has curled beautifully like a calamari steak ten seconds after it has hit a hot pan; all is not lost. Generally it just means that there has occurred a sudden imbalance of moisture content between the outer and inner layers of the cover, causing the outer (dry) to shrink, while the inner (ambiently moist) has remained roughly the same as it was previously. Do not try to rehydrate the poor cover by some precipitous means such as spraying it with water. The best cure is to put the book back into your library and to leave it alone for a couple of days. The covers’ moisture content will balance out again in a few days, and once the book has been returned to its place on the shelves, it should resume its correct shape. A similar effect is found occasionally when endpapers are replaced. If too much glue is slapped onto the inside face of the cover before the paper is applied, the paper is wetted, and expands. Once the glue dries, the paper shrinks and you have a book with permanently bow-legged covers. Not much you can do to that except to start over again.

Biological attack is next. I am sure there is no book collector alive that has not been rewarded by the quicksilver flash of a fishmoth (aka silverfish, Ctenolepisma longicaudata and several other species worldwide) slithering out of the just opened book and almost miraculously disappearing from sight again. The signs are there, usually on the edges of the endpapers, where the textblock doesn’t lie quite snugly against the boards due to the bookcloth having been folded over; or where a map is folded into the textblock; an exposed edge may be riddled with holes. Even some covers don’t escape the attentions of these voracious beasties, as they manage to chew away the starchy size between the threads of the bookcloth, leaving faint whitish trails which almost look like scratches. A very helpful Iziko website suggests you make a mixture of the following:
5 parts gum Arabic
5 parts sodium fluosilicate
4 parts flour
6 parts sugar
40 parts water (enough to make a thick paste)
Stir for hours (since the sodium fluosilicate hadly seems to dissolve at all) dip strips of card into the mixture and leave to dry. Hang them up all over your bookshelves. If you have difficulty finding the latter ingredient, you’re in good company; if you do find it, the chemist will be strangely reluctant to give it to you.

Other sites’ suggestions range from sprinkling whole garlic cloves (!!), to salt, boric acid powder or diatomaceous earth around your library, or leaving rolled up damp newspapers (which the silverfish are supposed to frequent for a drink, supposedly) and then burning it the next day without unrolling. Of course, you would never know how successful you have been, would you? Jokes aside, my conservator friend says crushed mothballs, sprinkled in a thin line on the shelf behind the books, keeps silverfish away – if you don’t mind the characteristic smell of naphthalene, or the fact that this lingers on the pages of the books, might make you sneeze when you read – and increases the combustability of your home, as it is volatile and forms a flammable vapour. I rather like the smell; it takes me back to my childhood, when granny took out her double fox-furs and slung them over her shoulders to keep out the cold on a winter’s day. Choose your weapons. Or you can ignore the pests.

One doesn’t hear too often of bookworms any more. Actually they are beetle larvae; from the death-watch beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum, or the furniture beetle, Anobium punctatum and I am certain, a whole horde of other species native to Africa. The tell-tale tracks of these are small holes, sometimes less than 1mm in diameter, running often at right angles through hundreds of pages, mostly near the spine. I only once, in the spirit of investyigation bought a book which had been infested with this plague. However, when I took it to pieces trying to find the culprit, I had no luck. Most likely the larva had pupated and flown the nest. Obviously if one sees little heaps of sawdust on one’s bookshelves, prepare to go to war with a vengeance. Infested books can only be successfully treated with fumigation using some really dangerous stuff, so best to leave it to professionals.

Termites are a scourge in the southern United States nowadays, primarily since their houses are constructed mainly from wood; less so in South Africa since we have stopped living in wattle and daub huts with cattle-dung floors. However these stealthy invaders tunnel away so craftily, from floor up into the vertical supports of bookshelves, from where they will branch out laterally into stopes to reach pay-dirt – to whit, the books. The only way of detecting them is to turn up your hearing aid, so that you can hear them as they chew away on dark nights (honestly) or to read your books frequently, so to discover their mining activities before an entire seam of books has been reduced to hollow shadows of their former selves. I recall a passage written by, I think, one Annie Martin in her charming book Home Life on an Ostrich Farm (G Philip, 1891) where she describes these repeated termite incursions and subsequent loss of her bookshelf. Her solution was to suspend a shelf by means of four wires from the ceiling beams, thus robbing the insects of their tunneling route. Only problem was, her brak roof then leaked copiously, right above her bookshelf. Makes one wonder how any books survived the African onslaught for longer than a hundred years or more.

A real home-wrecker is the cockroach. I’m talking of these large black, flying jobbies, the size of a small bat – which issue from the city sewers and drainpipes when darkness falls. There is no warning; suddenly you have a book that almost looks as if a rat or a small Chihuahua had been chewing at it. The cloth is in tatters, or patches of it are eroded to a latticework of threads, and it’s a matter of re-binding if you want to save your treasured collectors’ item. It is almost impossible to guard against them. Keep your library doors and windows closed at night; if there is a bathroom, plug the drains; above all, be watchful and whack the damn things whenever you see one. For all the above living pests, I do the following: every three months or so, I buy a couple of packets of Fumitabs from the chemist. These ominous looking (and smelling) globs come in foil-packs of three. They contain some pretty potent poisons, so don’t lick your fingers after handling them. Place one or two of the family-sized pills on a brick in each room, depending on size, seal all airbricks and other apertures in the room, light them, and scarper quickly. They emit a choking smoke for a few minutes, after which they self-extinguish. You may then leave the house for the rest of the day, making certain that your dog/cat/canary/child have all left the building. Do not leave your wors in the kitchen to defrost, or your bread, or any other loose comestible which you intend to partake of. Everything is bathed in deadly fug, and hopefully some six or eight hours later you can come back and reoccupy your home after opening all the doors and windows. Problem solved – for a while. One of my clients from Zambia has just sent me this hot tip – he recommends Bayer’s "Max Force", a cream injector syringe which enables one to run a bead around the bottom edge of a book case which keeps them at bay. I shall certainly try this as soon as I can lay my hands on some.

Rodents are not normally a real threat to books in modern homes. Those occasional lovely little grey house mice that some years ago wandered into our house and set up home in the fibreglass insulation of the kitchen stove, confined themselves to the crumbs of the table, so to speak, until the cats made short work of the whole family, which had increased to seven at one stage. They would take turns in popping up out of the spiral plates (cooled) of the stove during meals – as if to see what was on the menu. Anyway, rodents don’t eat books unless a famine strikes; at worst they may convert one into nesting material, or they might test their incisors on an edge, leaving characteristic chisel-marks. Free range pet birds, such as parrots, can be a menace too, according to a colleague who was asked to value a severely nibbled collection of books. Dogs have the delightful habit of lifting the odd leg here and there to demarcate their territory, while cats spray with wild abandon when the moon is right. Both are to be distinctly discouraged in a library unless they are adequately trained in human etiquette.

Now for some more general, and probably very obvious hints on book handling and storage. Metal shelves are best. That’s official; but I don’t care, I like wood, proper wood. Luckily I used to be a sawmiller, so I gathered a whole batch of strange timbers, Kiaat, Chestnut, Camphor, Cedar, Cypress, Cherry etc, all of which have been used to manufacture the shelves all over my house and business. Most of the shelves have no backs, but they are fastened to the walls by means of sturdy bolts ten millimeters away from the walls, as I suffer from a fear of falling bookshelves. This means that even if one of those occasional Northwest gales should occur, which has on one occasion been so strong that it drove the accompanying rain right through a double brick wall in my lounge (on the wall where my books are); the water could run harmlessly down the walls and onto the floor, without getting the books wet. It doesn’t need a disaster to wet your books. Walls are damp structures all too frequently, and books act like blotting paper. If your shelves are against the wall, nail a strip of timber along the back of each to keep your books from touching the masonry. If your bookshelf is backed, see that there is a space between the wood and the wall to allow for ventilation.

Don’t jam your books in too tightly. It’s not good for them, and it’s even worse when some ham-handed person insists on using a probing digit to extract a volume that is tightly jammed into place. Hence ‘slight damage to top of spine’. Better that the book should come to you willingly, that it should slide out of and back into its place. On the other hand, having gaps in your collection, resulting in the classic picture of a few upright volumes with one or two leaning at any angle against them, is not ideal either. The leaning books tend to get a permanent cocking of the spine which is difficult to remove once set in place. Best then to use a bookend, but if you haven’t got any, a pile of horizontal books will do just as well to hold the others upright – and the titles are still readable on the spine. Books should not be inanimate ‘collections’ for display purposes only. They should certainly be taken out, handled, opened, browsed through, and replaced. Within bounds, this is good for a book and I am not about to bring on the white cotton gloves – but clean hands are essential, and if you smoke a pipe, this most definitely applies, since the finger or thumb you use to tamp your ‘baccy down, leaves a horrible mark on a page as you turn it. The handling means that the volume is inspected periodically for damage, which may be caught in the early stage and remedied, the pages are aired, which helps to protect them against foxing, and the work could even be left standing on edge overnight (between some supports if it is a large book) with the pages slightly ajar as it were, if there is even a suggestion of a musty odour.

Heavy, old books should be opened and read in a book-cradle. Opening them on a flat surface puts a strain on elderly bindings, and could crack the glue used on the back of the textblock. Large folio size volumes are the most difficult to handle under the best of circumstances. A big table is a prerequisite; but in some cases the books are so large, and the paper so heavy and fragile, that one should think about using both hands to turn a page – one at the bottom corner and the other at the top. Even moderately large books can be damaged by the reader who persists in wanting to turn a page by inserting his thumb somewhere round about the middle of the bottom margin, and flipping the page from right to left. This frequently results in tears on the bottom edge of the page near the spine. The correct manner is to feel your way into the textblock at the top right hand corner of the open book, insert the hand fully and help the page over to the left. Left-handed people had better get used to this – there’s no alternative – except taking up Hebrew.

Dust is another, albeit minor, enemy. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath, and also into every nook, cranny and book, if you leave it in any place for long enough. Let us say your library has matured for another year, loved and admired, and occasionally perused in part. A little housekeeping is indicated, say once a year, or maybe every two or three. A feather mop will do at a pinch, but it’s going to be a sneezy, wheezy sort of job, really only fit for outside the house; which in turn, is not ideal for the books. So technology should be called in – a vacuum cleaner, of the small, hand-held sort, one with a little doodah at the business end, which has got a nice soft F├╝hrer moustache, with which to kiss your books. If the item to be cleaned has a dustjacket, lay the book down, open the front cover, flap back the dustjacket, use said vacuum cleaner to remove dust, dead insects etc from covers, replace dustjacket, close book, turn it over and repeat the performance for the back cover. That way you have examined the entire book. But wait, the edges of the textblock, and especially the top edge, gather large quantities of dust, which eventually seep in between the pages and so dirty the entire volume. So once again the vacuum brush is employed, either while the book was lying flat with its dustjacket flapped out of harm’s way, or after the first action is completed, one takes the book and vacuums the entire textblock edge, taking care not to damage the precious dustjacket in any way. This is a lengthy process, best handled by a minimum of two people, who enjoy each other’s company and have something to chat about as they go about this exquisitely boring task.

Lastly, let us consider a little library hygiene of a different sort. Ordering your collection in some fashion so that you can actually find that reference book that you need right now, or that beloved novel that you incautiously (as even friends can’t be trusted to return books) want to lend to your best friend who has come to visit. The librarians devised the so-called Dewey system (or rather Dewey did), which is all very good, and those accession numbers on the spine, which so grate the buyers of antiquarian books who buy library discards, are all good, useful stuff. Problem is, nobody except librarians can be bothered to swot up a book of some hundreds of pages, and to memorise all the guff within. So one reverts to an alphabetical order. Ah, but there are so many different subjects – best one keeps each of them separate, in alphabetical order, so one allocates a few metres of shelf space here for this subject, followed by another few metres there for the next. Uh, small problem, Subject A has a few large folio volumes, which only fit into the shelf earmarked for Subject D; the same applies to Subject C. So already Subject D looks like a dog’s breakfast, three subjects in it, either with dividers between, or in general disarray – but at least alphabetical. Problem is, how do you remember five years on which subject has a few books tucked away on an odd shelf among a bunch of other stuff? Then there is the problem of allocating a volume to a certain category. Take the category art - possibly antique furniture, being a craft should be in another, or maybe it should be in architecture, as the objects are found in houses, or maybe even in history. There is no hard and fast rule as to what is right or wrong. One has to please oneself, but some order is essential, as is some record of what you own. Almost every month clients clamour to buy books, that I can positively prove to them, they have already bought from me a few years back. So frail is the human mind; mine included. Which is why I have invested a certain amount of money and time and effort in maintaining a database record of every book that I have in my possession, as well as its whereabouts. That’s still not infallible – but it helps. If your collection contains a treasure or two – or many, then keep some sort of record of what the value is, in case some form of public transport should prematurely curtail you natural span. It will help your executors in disposing fairly of your assets after your demise, and it will prevent your lovingly amassed collection from landing on the dump.