Basic Rules for Handling Old Books


1)  Always wash hands before working with old paper or parchment documents and use only pencils when working in rare book collections.  Modern in-print texts can be replaced and in most cases we do not care what a specific copy contains, but rare old books have to be treated like the irreplaceable artifacts they are.  Contact between human skin and any organic “substrate” (i.e., cloth, paper, or animal skin) will contaminate it with skin oils, bacteria and sweat.  The oils darken the page and make it harder to make out faint marks.  Bacteria and acids from human sweat can dissolve the substrate entirely, destroying the book from the corners and fore-edge inward.  You will see evidence of this kind of damage in pre-1800 printed books that have been heavily used before coming into a collection.  Our goal is to limit this damage while studying caring for the book.  When working with documents made of parchment (i.e., animal skin), handle pages carefully from the edges with your fingertips.  Remember that moisture from fingers, and especially from the palms of hands, will be absorbed by parchment, causing it to curl as the substrate realigns its fibers from their stretched shape toward the skin’s original shape as it fit around the animal (see Christopher Clarkson, "Rediscovering Parchment: The Nature of the Beast," The Paper Conservator 16 (1992), pp 5-26.).  Students who know their hands naturally tend to sweat or if your sweat is more than usually oily or acid, should ask to wear the white gloves.  We have many pairs of them.  Of course, we never drink or eat in the same room with archival materials.


2)  Pencils are the only marking instrument allowed in rare book collections.  This is an universal rule.  Many collections, like the Folger Shakespeare Library or the Beineke Library at Yale, will require all visitors to surrender  pens to the curators before they will be allowed to work in the collection.  The reason for this should be obvious--nothing should be allowed to make permanent marks on any rare book or archival document, and student researchers should not even make pencil annotations directly on a rare book or document.  Such marks in pencil can be seen, made by librarians or researchers in previous eras, but the standard of preservation has changed.  Those  "fossil" marks are now used to document a document's provenance.


3)  If students are coming to work on their own rather than going to a regularly scheduled Book Studies course meeting, they should stop at the reception desk and fill out the Special Collections “Researcher Registration Form.”  This is a typical formality observed by all archival collections.  This helps the curators keep track of who has been using what materials and enables them to limit damage to frequently used items.


4)  Before starting a work session, take a moment to slow down all movements and concentrate attention.  Our modern attention spans and the way we handle objects are conditioned by paperback books, smartphones, computer keyboards, and mice, all of which will forgive rough handling and can easily be replaced.  The rare book or manuscript is the product of an earlier era, meant to be handled with a softer touch and understood by a slower, more intent gaze.  Books do not “glow” or “blink” their messages.  They must be interrogated very gently and patiently to discover what they have to tell us.  Students should practice sitting in place and thinking about what they are about to do before they do it.  Meditate about what we are attempting to understand.  Do not turn pages rapidly, or hasten to finish a project because of external deadlines (end of a class, end of the day, etc.).  Plan schedules so that, near the end of a work session, there will be enough time to take care of the book and all equipment before leaving.  Never leave in a rush.  Make sure the book has been put back on the English 341 book truck, or checked in by the desk attendent or the Curator of Special Collections and Archives, and properly repackaged for storage, with its identifying archival number tags properly visible.


5)  To help you keep track of the we are working with, keep a journal in pencil and take careful notes of each day’s work.  Students should not neglect to note what they see or they may have to subject an old book to further damage while opening it again.  Before begining the more thorough, methodical analysis of the book, note the day’s date and briefly describe the book by author (usually just last name, if known), short title, city, publisher, date, LOC or DD number, and, if it has been in the Goucher Library Main Collection, its accession number (a five digit number penciled on the back of the title page).  Books donated directly to Special Collections are not given accession numbers, but each one has an "accession file" that records its provenance and description. Earliest printed books include both a printer and publisher or patron, and it can be a matter of scholarly debate which is more responsible for the edition, so just quote the title page (e.g., “Printed by Adam Islip, at the charges of Bonham Norton”). If there is no title page, but only a “colophon” or printer’s statement asserting the date and place of the book’s completion (at the back of the book rather than the front), it is a very old book—be especially careful.  Colophons tell us, in sentences that are located after the last line of the main text and that take the form of “This book was printed in XXXX year and YYYY city by ZZZZ (the printer).”  For an example, see this web page:

(If you are interested in colophons, see Curt F. Bühler, “False Information in the Colophons of Incunabula,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 114:5 (20 October 1970) 398-406.) l Available online via EbscoHost: MLA International Bibliography.)


6)  Pay attention to the external physical condition of the book, especially its cover, spine, sewing of its leaf gatherings, and soundness of the substrate.  Especially be alert for “broken” bindings that are loose or coming apart, and for brittle paper (see “brittle books” below).  This is very common, the way even well-made bindings respond to hundreds of years of use.  Handle all archival materials gently, as if they were infants or invalids.  Pay careful attention to what they are telling you by their reaction to your touch.  Stiff resistance means possible brittleness.  Broken paper page edges definitely indicates brittleness.  Students should handle such books with even more care until they can tell what the books can bear.  In general, “never take a book anyplace it does not want to go” (a motto of the Rare Book School, Charlottesville, VA). 


7)  To help fragile books tolerate our needs to investigate them, we will use book cradles and foam pads to support the book at the angle of openness that best compromises between our needs as analysts and the book’s requirements as an ancient artifact.  We will use "book snakes" (softly padded weights) to hold the book's pages open so that we will not have to touch the pages except to turn them.  In general, old books do not like to be opened flat, so keep them in a "V" with front and back boards (covers) supported by foam pads or cradles.  Much can be learned from a partially-opened, well-supported old book.  ESPECIALLY, DO NOT OVER-STRESS THE SPINE'S SEWING OR INNERMOST PARTS OF PAGES BY ATTEMPTING TO OPEN A TIGHT BINDING TOO WIDE!  Books that have been rebound, perhaps more than once, often are extremely tight and hard to open.  The sewing at the spine can impinge upon the text-block, sometimes appearing to “swallow the text” into their gutters.  Use a magnifier and a light to read partially obscured text, but do not force the binding.  Restraint is the key.  Ask for help and it will be gratefully given.


8)  If bindings are loose or boards are separated (or separating) from the binding, this does not mean the book cannot be handled.  Be careful, and when in doubt, ask for a more experienced analyst’s opinion and help before moving forward.  Book-handling judgment must be developed by experience via the fingertips, eyes, ears, and even nose.  For instance, very dry old leather smells and feels differently from moist, well-conditioned old leather, and its likelihood of cracking or breaking also can been guessed from its tendency to smudge hands or paper, to shed “dust” or flakes, etc.  Each book is an unique organic artifact that will teach us as we touch it.  Reward the book’s instruction with care.  And yes, small flakes of paper do fall from brittle old book pages.  If they contain text or other markings, they must be kept with the book where they fell from the binding.  If serious damage occurs, report it.  If small page flakes contain no text, sweep them up and keep them from accumulating in the work area, especially the imaging lab where they get into images, the camera lens, etc.  They are the price of our instruction, so try to minimize their creation.  If a volume threatens to get out of control re: brittleness, prop it securely, stop and ask for help.  Even some very small books require two people to handle them safely, and very large ones almost always do.


9)  For more general advice, read these "Maxims for Special Collections and Archives Research." 


10)  To get some sense of the challenges old books have faced, read Isaac D’Israeli’s “Destruction of Books,” from Curiosities of Literature