Bound Books

Risks of Handling/Use

Generally, handling and use heightens the risk of damage to your materials, be it through neglectful handling (e.g. touching photo emulsion with bare hands) or irresponsible operation of access equipment. This is a risk posed by patrons and staff alike, intentional or not.

Handling and Collections Care

One of the easiest areas to implement protections for collections is through careful handling and sensible collections care. The unfettered use and handling of materials heightens the general risk of damage--be it through neglectful handling (e.g. touching photo emulsion with bare hands) or irresponsible operation of access equipment. Whether intentional or not, this is a risk posed by patrons and staff alike.

Examples of neglect, mishandling, and mismanagement include:

General Recommendations:

Additional Copies

The use of additional copies for reference or display purposes is highly recommended, particularly if the item is an original or valuable. This provides broader access to the content while also protecting the original document from user wear and tear or environmental factors.

Recommendations for care of original object:

To learn more about best practices for use and access, including resources for creating digital surrogates, see Use & Access in the User-Manual.

Orientation in Storage

Books should be stored upright on the tail edge. They should be gently supported and not tightly crammed onto shelves or allowed to slump and sit at an angle. If a book is too tall to fit on the shelf, it should be stored upright on its spine or should lay flat horizontally. A book should never be stored on its fore-edge; the weight of the textblock is pulled away from the spine and may cause the hinges to loosen or break.

Store on metal shelves, preferably powder-coated steel or chrome-plated steel shelves and components. Avoid wood. If wood is unavoidable, made certain that it is properly sealed to reduce gaseous emissions. Avoid oil-based sealants and paints. Always elect for non-toxic or low VOC (volatile organic compound) sealants/paints, if available. Recommended sealants include water-based polyurethane or two-part epoxy sealant.

Storage Container

Valuable or very fragile books may require their own enclosures. This could be as simple as a paper wrapping or as complex as a custom clamshell box, depending on the condition and value of the item. Custom boxes may be constructed in-house using archival (acid-free) materials available through many archival supply companies.

If possible, books of similar size should be shelved together so that they are equally supported on both sides. When removing a book from the shelf, grip it on both sides of the spine near the middle of the book and slide it out from the shelf. Do not pull a book from the shelf by the headcap; it may loosen, break, or cause the spine to tear. Regular housekeeping, including dusting and wiping down shelves as well as collection materials, prevents the accumulation of dirt and debris on and around collection materials. Dust absorbs and holds moisture, which promotes mold growth and pest damage and which accelerates deterioration. Dark storage is best if possible; and, lights should be turned off in storage areas when patrons and staff are not present. UV filters should be applied on fluorescent light tubes and windows in these areas. If possible, shelves should not be butted up directly against outside walls and should be placed away from radiators, vents, and other areas where temperature and RH fluctuate.


If your item has any kind of labeling on the container, the item itself, or any related material, we highly recommend that you return to the Basic Info section and enter this information in the appropriate field(s).

Labeling on a container or on the item itself, if it is in fact correct, can offer important clues about its content. If you are replacing a container that holds labeling information, it is important to transfer this information to the new container or label. Be sure to copy down any titles, dates, or other data found on these items and save your notes. Container labels should be used with caution as they are frequently reused or easily switched by accident.

For sleeves and folders especially, remember that it's generally best to label with a no. 2 pencil. If ink must be used (i.e. on a plastic enclosure), use an archival pigment-ink pen (e.g. Micron).

Physical Damage

The deterioration of a book (or any bound item) will greatly depend on the materials used to make it, including the cover and binding materials as well as type of paper used for the textblock. Mishandling and heavy use may cause damage or soiling. Common forms of damage due to mishandling include broken hinges, headcaps, sewing, and damage (folding and tearing) to boards and pages. Book cradles should be available so that books are not opened too far, which puts stress on the sewn or glued page attachment.

Regardless of its acidity and inherent vice, all paper is susceptible to tearing and other forms of mechanical damage. Water exposure can affect the structural integrity of paper, leading to desiccated or brittle paper, which is more easily torn and damaged through handling. If paper has been folded, creased areas will be especially vulnerable to tearing.

Impact of Damage on Visual Information

When evaluating the impact of damage on visual information, look for mechanical damage as well as deterioration and decay that obscures or limits access to information. This could include yellowing and embrittlement, both types of damage especially symptomatic of newsprint and other wood pulp papers. It could also include fading, darkening, warping, cockling, blocking (especially of coated papers), tearing, mold, and insect infestation.

Adhesives used may also deteriorate over time and cause the binding to weaken or come apart. Natural rubber-based and animal hide glues are particularly unstable. Environmental factors such as temperature, relative humidity, and pollutants may result in deterioration of paper and other materials used in the binding. Fluctuating temperature and RH cause paper to swell and contract, which can put stress on the binding and covers. This stress may manifest in the form of cockling, deformed covers, or loose binding. High heat will cause paper to yellow and become brittle, and it will accelerate deterioration. An environment with a stable temperature below 65°F and relative humidity between 35–45% will preserve items and helps prevent pest infestation and mold.

Foxing is a common form of paper deterioration, which is frequently seen in books. Although the exact causes of foxing are varied and not easily identified, it is often the result of fungal growth or metal impurities present in the paper combined with high humidity. Foxing will appear as reddish-brown (rusty) flecks on the paper. They can appear across the surface or be situated in clusters in "bullseye" (small and round, dark center) or "snowflake" (larger, irregularly shaped blotches) shapes.

Red rot is a type of deterioration particular to leather. It is common in leather bindings produced between the 19th centuries. Ret rot is the result of acidic byproducts in the leather reacting with poor environmental conditions. Pollutants and high heat are especially likely to weaken the collagen fibers within the leather. Red rotted leather is characterized as a soft crumbling of a reddish brown powder. There is no way to reverse this deterioration, but the leather can be consolidated so it does not crumble further. Consult a conservator before applying consolidants to objects. An alternative treatment, which does not stop the red rot but contains it for easier handling, is to cover the book in a polyethylene sleeve or wrap it in acid-free paper or other archival-quality enslosure.

Mold / Pest Damage

Mold may develop on items stored in a warm, damp environment. Fluctuating temperature and RH may also cause mold to bloom. Mold can leave staining, even when it is no longer active. Pests may leave physical damage or stain cover material and pages (particularly silverfish, cockroaches, and rodents).

Pests like insects and rodents tend to like paper and textile materials. High humidity (higher than 68% RH) promotes mold growth and insect infestation, both of which can cause permanent damage. When assessing the exposure of your collections to pests, it is necessary to look not just at the materials themselves and their containers, but also to look at the larger environment. Insects and rodents tend to leave droppings in areas they inhabit. Insects tend to leave behind a substance called frass, which is the undigested fibers from paper. If you see droppings and/or frass in the storage area, it is a strong sign that your materials are being exposed to pests. Small, irregular holes on paper-based enclosures are also a sign that pests have attacked your materials.

Some tips for reducing your materials' exposure to pests are to refrain from eating anywhere near your collections materials. Crumbs draw pests, so keep food far away from your collections. Another tip applying to both pests and mold is to be cautious about donated materials when you receive them. Pests and mold can hitch a ride into your facility on these materials, so having a good, clean staging area where you can inspect donated items for, among other things, pest and mold evidence can help you reduce your storage environments' exposure to both.

Paper Decay

Paper is sensitive to light and water exposure, high humidity, and high heat. Exposure to light and/or heat will accelerate deterioration in the form of yellowing and sometimes embrittlement. Quality of the paper support will weigh heavily in permanence. Residual acidic chemicals, such as lignin or those used to process fibers, on the paper could accelerate breakdown. Alum/rosin sizing, which is impregnated in mechanical wood pulp papers to improve the printing surface, will lead to acidic embrittlement and yellowing of the paper support.

Acidic paper (pH below 7.0) commonly exhibits deteriorative traits. Colored media on the paper support may fade rapidly. Water exposure can ultimately lead to desiccated or brittle paper, making it more easily torn or damaged through handling. Fluctuating temperature and RH may result in warping or cockling of the paper surface. High humidity (higher than 68% RH) promotes mold growth and insect infestation, both of which can cause permanent damage.

Even pH neutral papers become increasingly acidic over time as lignin naturally generates acids during the aging process. Papers, including book leaves, that are darker and more brittle along their edges than center demonstrate an absorption of airborne pollutants that have formed acids.

Soil and dust may become ground into paper fibers, permanently soiling or staining the paper surface.

Ink/Media Deterioration

Most printing is done with carbon black ink. Carbon pigment ink is the earliest type of ink. It can be identified by its deep black color and occasional slight surface sheen. Historically, black pigment was derived from charcoal (carbonized wood) and later from fine soot (producing a similar ink referred to as lamp black) mixed with a gum arabic or oil carrier. Carbon printing ink is very common in books and text forms like letterpress, typescript [typewriter ink], and offset lithography. As this ink was often oil-based, its printed text will often exhibit slight toning beyond its edges ("halo" effect) and/or shadow onto adjacent pages. Good quality carbon inks do not discolor with age, but they can smudge in high humidity since they are slightly water soluble. Poor quality carbon inks may turn a brown color over time. Additionally, these inks can have flaking problems, especially if they are thickly applied or applied to a polished (highly calendered) paper.

Characteristics of ink and other media vary depending on their composition and method of formulation. As such, the stability of media has a long-term effect on its paper support, and vice versa. It should be assumed that all media has potential to fade under extreme light exposure and that ink will bleed or transfer if exposed to moisture.

For assistance evaluating symptoms of media deterioration, see the Collection ID Guide section on Common Types of Media.

Cover Attachment

Over time, covers may be become detached from a textblock. The risk of this is dependent on a variety of factors, but it is more likely if the item is bound in with an adhesive, rather than laced in. Eventually, the internal hinge of a bound item may loosen and pull away from the cover.

Cover Materials

Cover materials are highly dependent on publication era, location, and purpose of the item. Leather and cloth are the two most common covering materials, but books may be bound in paper, tawed skin, and parchment.


Leather was the most common covering material until the 19th century, and it continues to be used today. The leather used most often for books is calf, goat, pigskin, or sheepskin. Different leathers have varying durability but, in terms of preservation, should be treated the same. Leather is prepared by removing hair from animal skin either mechanically or with chemicals and then followed by a tanning process. Leather produced through the 16th century is generally stable and often found in good condition due to its slow tanning process, which resulted in leather that was resistant to decay and acid deterioration. As demand for books grew in the 17th century, so too did the demand for leather.

Split leather: Leather, particularly that which is used in bookbinding, has often been split in order to thin the top-grain by separating it from its underside. This "drop split" may be used to produce suede. Suede is produced from the underside of softer animal skins (e.g. lamb, goat, calf) or produced through splitting the hides of thicker cow or deer skins. As it does not include the exterior skin layer, it is therefore softer, fuzzier, less durable, and more susceptible to staining and water damage than full-grain leather. Suede was used infrequently for books in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Leather from the 19th century will often deteriorate quickly, due to the aggressive chemicals used to speed up the tanning process. All leather is inherently acidic, but excessive acidity in combination with exposure to atmospheric pollutants may result in "red rot," a form of leather decomposition that appears soft and will crumble into a reddish-brown powder. Historically, leather dressings have been applied to leather bindings with the intention of preserving the leather’s surface and suppleness. However, recent research suggests that these dressings likely do not provide any noticeable preservative effect to leather bindings.

Books with slight leather components might be (inaccurately) referred to as "leather bound." Here are more specific terms regarding the ratio of cover and spine materials: "Full binding" is a term used when the cover and spine are covered in one material (e.g. leather); "half binding" is if a material is split across the spine and on the corners and foredge, at roughly a 1:1 ratio to another material. "Quarter binding" is if only the spine is covered (1:3).


Book cloth came into widespread use in the 19th century, c. 1821. Prior to the that, books were primarily bound in leather. Particularly earlier in the 19th century, an array of fabrics were used, including silk, velvet, and starch-filled muslin. Cotton and linen were the most common, however. Buckram is a sturdy cotton or linen cloth, which has been coated and calendared for use as a book cloth. Book cloth may also be embossed with different textures and can be made to imitate the texture of leather. There are three main types of book cloth treatments: starch-filled, pyroxylin-treated, and acrylic-coated.