Bookbinding, and the Care of Books, by Douglas Cockerell

Part II
Care of Books when Bound

Chapter XXI

Injurious Influences to which Books are Subjected

Gas Fumes. — The investigation of the Society of Arts Committee shows that —

“Of all the influences to which books are exposed in libraries, gas fumes — no doubt because of the sulphuric and sulphurous acid which they contain — are shown to be the most injurious.”

The injurious effects of gas fumes on leather have been recognised for a long time, and gas is being, very generally, given up in libraries in consequence. If books must be kept where gas is used, they should not be put high up in the room, and great attention should be paid to ventilation. It is far better, where possible, to avoid the use of gas at all in libraries.

Light. — The committee also report that “light, and especially direct sunlight and hot air, are shown to possess deleterious influences which had scarcely been suspected previously, and the importance of moderate temperature and thorough ventilation of libraries cannot be too much insisted on.”

The action of light on leather has a disintegrating effect, very plainly seen when books have stood for long periods on shelves placed at right angles to windows. At Oxford and Cambridge and at the British Museum Library the same thing was noticed. The leather on that side, of the backs of books, next to the light, was absolutely rotten, crumbling to dust at the slightest friction, while at the side away from the light it was comparatively sound. Vellum bindings were even more affected than those of leather.

The committee advise that library windows exposed to the direct sunlight should be glazed with tinted glass.

“Some attempts have been made to determine the effect of light transmitted through glasses of different colours, and they point to the fact that blue and violet glass pass light of nearly as deleterious quality as white glass; while leathers under red, green, and yellow glasses were almost completely protected. There can be no doubt that the use of pale yellow or olive-green glass in library windows exposed to direct sunlight is desirable. A large number of experiments have been made on the tinted ‘cathedral’ glasses of Messrs. Pilkington Bros., Limited, with the result that Nos. 812 and 712 afforded almost complete protection during two months’ exposure to sunlight, while Nos. 704 and 804 may be recommended where only very pale shades are permissible. The glasses employed were subjected to careful spectroscopic examination, and to colour-measurement by the tintometer, but neither were found to give precise indications as to the protective power of the glasses, which is no doubt due to the absorption of the violet, and especially of the invisible ultra-violet rays. An easy method of comparing glasses is to expose under them to sunlight the ordinary sensitised albumenised photographic paper. Those glasses under which this is least darkened are also most protective to leather.”

Tobacco. — Smoking was found to be injurious, and it is certainly a mistake to allow it in libraries.

“The effect of ammonia vapour, and tobacco fumes, of which ammonia is one of the active ingredients, was also examined. The effect of ammonia fumes was very marked, darkening every description of leather, and it is known that in extreme cases it causes a rapid form of decay. Tobacco smoke had a very similar darkening and deleterious effect (least marked in the case of sumach tanned leathers), and there can be no doubt that the deterioration of bindings in a library where smoking was permitted and the rooms much used, must have been partly due to this cause.”

Damp. — Books kept in damp places will develop mildew, and both leather and paper will be ruined.

Where possible, naturally dry rooms should be used for libraries, and if not naturally dry, every means possible should be taken to render them so. It will sometimes be found that the only way to keep the walls of an old house dry is to put in a proper dampcourse. There are various other methods employed, such as lining the walls with thin lead, or painting them inside and out with some waterproofing preparation: but as long as a wall remains in itself damp, it is doubtful if any of these things will permanently keep the damp from penetrating.

Bookshelves should never be put against the wall, nor the books on the floor. There should always be space for air to circulate on all sides of the bookshelves. Damp is specially injurious if books are kept behind closely-fitting doors. The doors of bookcases should be left open from time to time on warm days.

Should mildew make its appearance, the books should be taken out, dried and aired, and the bookshelves thoroughly cleaned. The cause of the damp should be sought for, and measures taken to remedy it. Library windows should not be left open at night, nor during damp weather, but in warm fine weather the more ventilation there is, the better.

Heat. — While damp is very injurious to books on account of the development of mildew, unduly hot dry air is almost as bad, causing leather to dry up and lose its flexibility. On this point the Chairman of the Society of Arts Committee says:—

“Rooms in which books are kept should not be subject to extremes, whether of heat or cold, of moisture or dryness. It may be said that the better adapted a room is for human occupation, the better for the books it contains. Damp is, of course, most mischievous, but over-dryness induced by heated air, especially when the pipes are in close proximity to the bookcases, is also very injurious.”

Dust. — Books should be taken from the shelves at least once a year, dusted and aired, and the bindings rubbed with a preservative.

To dust a book, it should be removed from the shelf, and without being opened, turned upside down and flicked with a feather duster. If a book with the dust on the top is held loosely in the hand, and dusted right way up, dust may fall between the leaves. Dusting should be done in warm, dry weather; and afterwards, the books may be stood on the table slightly open, to air, with their leaves loose. Before being returned to the shelves, the bindings should be lightly rubbed with some preservative preparation (see chap. XXII). Any bindings that are broken, or any leaves that are loose should be noted, and the books put on one side to be sent to the binder. It would be best when the library is large enough to warrant it, to employ a working bookbinder to do this work; such a man would be useful in many ways. He could stick on labels, repair bindings, and do many other odd jobs to keep the books in good repair.

A bookbinder could be kept fully employed, binding and repairing the books of a comparatively small library under the direction of the librarian.


The insects known as bookworms are the larvæ of several sorts of beetles, most commonly perhaps of Antobium domesticum and Niptus hololencus. They are not in any way peculiar to books and will infest the wood of bookshelves, walls, or floors. A good deal can be done to keep “worms” away by using such substances as camphor or naphthaline in the bookcase. Bookworms do not attack modern books very much; probably they dislike the alum put in the paste and the mill-boards made of old tarred rope.

In old books, especially such as come from Italy, it is often found that the ravages of the bookworms are almost entirely confined to the glue on the backs of the books, and it generally seems that the glue and paste attract them. Probably if corrosive sublimate were put in the glue and paste used it would stop their attacks. Alum is said to be a preventive, but I have known bookworms to eat their way through leather pasted on with paste containing alum, when, in recovering, the old wooden boards containing bookworms have been utilised in error.

When on shaking the boards of an old book dust flies out, or when little heaps of dust are found on the shelf on which an old book has been standing, it may be considered likely that there are bookworms present. It is easy to kill any that may be hatched, by putting the book in an air-tight box surrounded with cotton wool soaked in ether; but that will not kill the eggs, and the treatment must be repeated from time to time at intervals of a few weeks.

Any book that is found to contain bookworms should be isolated and at once treated. Tins may be put inside the boards to prevent the “worms” eating into the leaves.

Speaking of bookworms, Jules Cousin says:—

“One of the simplest means to be employed (to get rid of bookworms) is to place behind the books, especially in the place where the insects show their presence most, pieces of linen soaked with essence of turpentine, camphor, or an infusion of tobacco, and to renew them when the smell goes off. A little fine pepper might also be scattered on the shelf, the penetrating smell of which would produce the same effect.”

Possibly Keating’s Insect Powder would answer as well or better than pepper.

Rats and Mice

Rats and mice will gnaw the backs of books to get at the glue, so, means should be taken to get rid of these vermin if they should appear. Mice especially will nibble vellum binding or the edges of vellum books that have become greasy with much handling.


Cockroaches are very troublesome in libraries, eating the bindings. Keating’s Insect Powder will keep them away from books, but only so long as it is renewed at short intervals.

Placing the Books in the Shelves

The Chairman of the Society of Arts Special Committee says on this point:—

“It is important that a just medium should be observed between the close and loose disposition of books in the shelves. Tight packing causes the pulling off of the tops of book-backs, injurious friction between their sides, and undue pressure, which tends to force off their backs. But books should not stand loosely on the shelves. They require support and moderate lateral pressure, otherwise the leaves are apt to open and admit dust, damp, and mildew. The weight of the leaves also in good-sized volumes loosely placed will often be found to be resting on the shelf, making the backs concave, and spoiling the shape and cohesion of the books.

“In libraries where classification is attempted there must be a certain number of partially filled shelves. The books in these should be kept in place by some such device as that in use in the British Museum, namely, a simple flat angle piece of galvanised iron, on the lower flange of which the end books rest, keeping it down, the upright flange keeping the books close and preventing them from spreading.”

He also speaks of the danger to bindings of rough or badly-painted bookshelves:—

“Great care should be exercised when bookcases are painted or varnished that the surface should be left hard, smooth, and dry. Bindings, especially those of delicate texture, may be irreparably rubbed if brought in contact with rough or coarsely-painted surfaces, while the paint itself, years after its original application, is liable to come off upon the books, leaving indelible marks. In such cases pasteboard guards against the ends of the shelves are the only remedy.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52