Basic Rules for Handling Old Books


1)  Always wash your hands before working with old paper or parchment documents.  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, wood pulp or linen-based 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, and the bacteria and acids will 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 not to add to this damage while studying and taking care of the book.  When working with parchment leaves or manuscript books, remember that moisture from the fingers will be absorbed by the skin, causing inevitable stretching as the substrate realigns its fibers from their stretched shape toward the skin’s original shape.  If your hands naturally tend to sweat or if your sweat is more than usually oily or acid, wear the white gloves.  Of course, never drink or eat in the same room with archival materials.


2)  When you have washed your hands, if you are not already an Archival Assistant for a specific project, fill out the Special Collections “Researcher Registration Form.”  This is a typical formality observed by all archival collections.  While working in any rare book archive, always use pencils, never pens or any other indelible markers (e.g., highlighters), and never make marks on the artifacts you have borrowed for study.  You may see such marks in pencil made by librarians or researchers in previous eras, but the standard of preservation has changed.  Those marks are now used to document its provenance.


3)  Before you start a work session, take a moment to slow down your movements and concentrate your attention.  Modern attention spans and handling force are conditioned by trade paperback books, computer keyboards, and mice, all of which are forgiving of rough handling and easily replaceable.  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, but rather they must be interrogated very gently and patiently to discover what they have to tell us.  Practice sitting in place and thinking about what you are about to do before you do it.  Meditate about what you are attempting to understand.  Do not turn pages rapidly, or hasten to finish a project because of external deadlines (start of a class, end of the day, etc.).  Plan your schedule so that, when you near the end of a work session, you have allotted at least enough time to take care of the book and all equipment before you have to leave, and never leave in a rush.  Make sure the book has been checked in by the Special Collections Librarian and properly repackaged for storage, with its identifying archival number tags properly visible, and above all on the proper shelf or in hands which will take it there without fail.  Remember that some of the oldest books in the collection were undiscovered for decades because, although they had been given accession numbers, we had lost track of what they were or where they were.  Let it not happen again.


4)  To help you keep track of the books you are working with, keep a journal and take careful notes of each day’s work.  Do not neglect to note what you see or you may have to subject an old book to further damage while re-opening it.  Before you begin 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 Bright accession number.  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 (esp. at the back of the book rather than the front), you are dealing with 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:

(Reference reading: 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.


5)  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).  Handle all archival materials gently, as you would an infant or invalid, and in general, 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.  Handle such books with even more care until you can tell what they can take.  In general, “never take a book anyplace it does not want to go” (a motto of the Rare Book School, Charlottesville, VA). 


6)  To help fragile books tolerate your needs to investigate them, use book cradles and pads to support the book at the angle of openness that best compromises between your needs as an analyst and the book’s desires as an ancient artifact.  In general, old books do not like to be opened flat.  Much can be learned from a partially-opened, well-supported old book.  ESPECIALLY, DO NOT OVER-STRESS THE SEWING OR PAGES BY ATTEMPTING TO OPEN A TIGHT BINDING TOO WIDE!  Rebound book bindings often are extremely tight and impinge upon the text-block, sometimes appearing to “swallow the text” into their gutters.  Restraint is the key.  Ask for help if you are in doubt.


7)  If bindings are loose or boards are separated (or separating) from the binding, this does not mean the book cannot be handled.  Take note, be careful, and when in doubt, ask for a more experienced analyst’s opinion 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 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 you as you touch it, but reward the book’s instruction with care.  And yes, small flakes of paper do fall from brittle old book pages.  If they contain no text, and if they are small, 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 your instruction, so try to minimize their creation.  If a volume threatens to get out of control re: brittleness, prop it securely, stop where you are, and ask for help.


8)  To motivate yourself for the challenges you will face, read Isaac D’Israeli’s “Destruction of Books,” from Curiosities of Literature


9)  If you want to get serious about bibliographic analysis, tell the Special Collections Librarian, that you want to work there, and consider taking English 241 if you have not already done so.