Archivally Preserving Old Books
& the Difference Between Archival Preservation & Conservation
There are distinct differences between archival PRESERVATION and CONSERVATION, and a great deal of it simply boils down to “protecting” something vs. “repairing” something.
Here we’ll cover the easy steps involved in archival preservation (vs. conservation) to make sure this book continues to survive intact, steps that YOU can take when preserving old books in YOUR OWN collection or family archive.
Comparing the front and back of this ledger reveals the challenges of preserving old books,
as the fire damage on the book’s back might suggest the need to call in a trained conservator.
(Please click on either image to see our blog on Conservators: Pros You Should Know.)
As shown in these photographs, at some point this book survived a serious fire, yet the resulting fire damage has actually become an INTEGRAL PART of this book’s history.
While a trained conservator could undoubtedly repair a great deal of this damage, the DAMAGE ITSELF has become part of the family’s history.
So, what to do?
To keep this history intact, the book is going to be archivally “preserved” (i.e. maintained by the owner in its current state in a safe archival bag and an acid-free box), but not “conserved” (i.e. professionally repaired by a trained conservator).
Here are 4 easy steps that you can apply to books in you’re own collection or family archive!
Preserving Old Books: What to Do
1.) GENTLY brush the book off to remove any surface grime or debris ahead of archivally storing it. Using a soft, clean, DRY(!) cloth will usually do the trick, and while wearing disposable white cotton inspection gloves is optional, some people (including the author of this blog) highly recommend it to keep unwanted finger oils and such off of old artifacts & documents. In the image on the right I’ve actually used the gloves themselves to gently(!) clean off any surface dust & grime.
2.) Place the book in its own polyethylene bag or other enclosure that is NOT sealed closed, as books are “living, breathing things” that expand & contract with temperature & humidity fluctuations. It is important that old books like this are protected from outside dust, dirt and potential liquid spills by placing them in archivally safe bags, but when preserving old books you DO want them to “breath” = DON’T seal the bag or enclosure.
This acid-free Metal Edge Drop Front Box has the words “drop front” in its very name, as the front “drops down”
to allow easy access to your materials WITHOUT having to “dig things out,” which can cause damage!
(Please click on the image to see our short video on this versatile box.)
3.) Place the book in an economical acid-free drop front box that will add yet another level of archival protection during storage & handling. Choosing a box that is close to the book’s (or any artifact’s) size is important to keep it from “rattling around” during handling.
Also, in the case of this particular book, while the fire damage happened more than a century ago and the book has “aired out” since then—and thus carries no odor of burned paper or leather—just to be safe it is wise for this book to be stored by itself in order to not “contaminate” other books or artifacts that might be stored with it.
You should consider this too, keeping any “musty smelling” books separated from other books or items in your collection or your family archive.
Drop Front Boxes are PERFECT for easy day-to-day access to your materials, and for safe
long-term storage. They come in a number of colors, sizes, and depths (1.5″ & 3″ deep).
(Please click on the image for more information.)
4.) With the archival preservation needs of this old book addressed, the last thing we would recommend to the owner (or to you!) is to place it on a shelf somewhere in his “living space” in his home or office, as basement or attic storage can lead to damage from wide temperature & humidity fluctuations, or from leaky roofs / pipes / or water heaters.
Having survived for over 185 years(!), this family artifact is now ready for the NEXT century or two, all while remaining both archivally safe & easily accessible—exactly what you want when preserving old books, including any in YOUR OWN collection!
With this overview of the steps to take when preserving old books complete, here are just a few additional examples of the difference between archival PRESERVATION and CONSERVATION.
The same irreplaceable family artifacts from the image above, now archivally PRESERVED in safe
acid-free envelopes / print & slide pages for storage in archival binders / and polyethylene bags
that are perfectly sized for postcards, photographs, snapshots, and even notes to Santa!
(Please click on each highlighted link for more info.)
While major repairs should usually be reserved for trained professionals, some archival CONSERVATION jobs you can do yourself!
The child’s research paper from the 1930s on the left has a tear in it at the crease, due in part to the weakness of the paper caused
by its high acid content (please click here for more info on “acid-free”). DO NOT use “regular” cellophane tape for such repairs!
Instead, use a museum-quality paper mending tape such as Filmplast P, as it’s easy to use, transparent, durable & archivally safe!
(Please click on either image for more information.)
While a quick repair of the torn research paper above can be done by practically anyone, if this document was a copy of the Declaration of Independence then any such repairs would ABSOLUTELY fall to highly trained conservators in specialized labs.
In closing, it is MONUMENTALLY IMPORTANT to practice archival PRESERVATION when it comes to your artwork, photographs, family history artifacts, old books and collections, and all this can be done by you by using 100% acid-free archival enclosures / boxes / portfolios / binders / etc.
Related to this, some damaged artifacts SHOULD be repaired, either by you (i.e. simple, non-threatening fixes), or by someone professionally trained in CONSERVATION (i.e. more complex problems, or for items of great sentimental or monetary value). Consider, though, that some damage SHOULD NOT be repaired—like that old ledger—as sometimes this damage is in fact a key part of the artifact’s history.
Keep these ideas in mind whenever you’re preserving old books or anything else in your collection or family archive, and contact us here at Archival Methods if you have any questions. We’re happy to help!
If you’d like to know a bit more about preserving old books (see image above), be sure to see our other blog on the subject here.
If you have any additional questions, or would you like more information on any of our museum-quality acid-free storage & presentation materials, please contact us here at Archival Methods. We’re always there to help with any archiving, storage, or presentation questions you may have.
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