Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, April 9, 2018

Shoe Boxes of Old Letters, Photos and Papers -- Part Two

It has been some time since I started this series. I will begin with details by looking at the issue of book preservation. The book above is a good example of what happens when books are used over time and not carefully curated. But first, a look at paper.


Here is a quote from a Wikipedia article entitled, "History of paper."
Paper is a white material primarily used for writing. Although contemporary precursors such as papyrus and amate existed in the Mediterranean world and pre-Columbian Americas, respectively, these materials are not defined as true paper. The first papermaking process was documented in China during the Eastern Han period (25–220 C.E.), traditionally attributed to the court official Cai Lun. During the 8th century, Chinese papermaking spread to the Islamic world, where pulp mills and paper mills were used for money making. By the 11th century, papermaking was brought to medieval Europe, where it was refined with the earliest known paper mills utilizing waterwheels. Later Western improvements to the papermaking process came in the 19th century with the invention of wood-based papers.
Paper is made by pressing moist fibers of cellulose together under pressure and sometimes heat. The cellulose comes from ground up wood, rags, or grasses. As is mentioned in the above quote, the wood-based paper did not make its appearance until the 19th Century. Earlier paper products made from linen or cotton cloth were and still are more stable than more modern paper. Wood-based paper is composed primarily of two polymers: cellulose and lignin. The lignin is what makes paper turn yellow from oxidation when exposed to sunlight and air as it breaks down into phenolic acids which are yellow. The acid in the paper also eventually destroys its structure and becomes brittle and breaks into flakes.

More modern (expensive) paper has a high rag content or is made acid free. Newsprint is the cheapest form of paper and as I have observed in past writing and speaking, can yellow in one day if left out in strong sunlight. 

The point here is that paper and all paper-based products such as books will disintegrate over time. Hence, the need to preserve the paper books as long as possible but also a major incentive for digitizing paper records as soon as possible. 


The main resource for information about preservation in all its forms for all types of records and objects, is the Library of Congress, Preservation Directorate. The Preservation Directorate has specific recommendations concerning the Care, Handling, and Storage of Books. As with all preservation efforts, there is a basic decision level deciding which books or other paper documents are candidates for preservation. Preservation takes time and it could involve some expense, so plan ahead, learn about the processes involved and choose wisely what you preserve.

At the basic level books contain information and can be preserved by making a digital copy. An institution, such as the Library of Congress, preserves books as books. Books as books become valuable due to age, scarcity, condition, or inscriptions. For example, a rare first edition of a book by a famous author could be valuable, but it would be more valuable if it had a verified inscription from the author or a famous person who owned the book. Unless you are an experienced book collector, you probably cannot tell the value of a book without doing a lot of research. The age of a book is only one factor in establishing its value. When I was working with a law firm, we changed law offices and had a sizable library of old law books. We were going to use online legal services and no longer needed the books. No one else did either. Most of them ended up in the trash because there were no buyers and we couldn't give them away.

Genealogists are likely to have a rare book and not know that it is rare. Many family or individual published "surname" books are extremely limited editions. There may be only a few copies of the book in existence because the author self-published the book and only produced a limited number of copies. But surname books are a good example of books that have valuable information but may not be worth much as books. Another type of book that may be in the possession of a genealogist is an old family bible. These books are almost always worth preserving. If you do feel that you want to spend the time or effort to preserve an old book, consider donating it to a university special collections library. If a university library declines to accept a book, it does not mean that the book has no value, it may only mean that the library already has a copy of the book or that the book is not something they are collecting.

To determine the value of a book, you should search for used copies online. Google Books is a good place to start your search. Start searching just as if you were going to purchase the book and see how much you might have to spend to buy a copy of the book.

If you have a book that you determine has some value as a book, here are some suggestions from the  Library of Congress about the proper care when handling the book.
Take proper care when handling books by:
  • Having clean hands and a clean area to use the book
  • Keeping food and drink away
  • Removing the book from the shelf by gripping on both sides of the spine at the middle of the book (push in the neighboring book on both sides to get a good grip), instead of tugging at the top of the spine
  • Not forcing a book to lie open to 180 degrees; instead, prop up the covers of an opened book to decrease the opening angle
  • Not using paper clips, "dog ear" folding, or acidic inserts to bookmark pages
  • Not using rubber bands, self-adhesive tape, any kind of "leather dressing," and/or glue on books
The enemies of books are water, sunlight, and heat. Again, the Library of Congress suggests the following ways to properly store books.
Good storage significantly prolongs the life and usability of books and includes:
  • A cool (room temperature or below), relatively dry (about 35% relative humidity), clean, and stable environment (avoid attics, basements, and other locations with high risk of leaks and environmental extremes)
  • Minimal exposure to all kinds of light; no exposure to direct or intense light
  • Distance from radiators and vents
  • Regular dusting and housekeeping
  • Shelving books of similar size together, so that the face of the covers are maximally supported by the neighbors on each side
  • Keeping upright shelved books straight and not leaning (storing books lying flat is also good)
 If a book is very valuable or in very poor condition or both, you may wish to investigate boxes, book jackets, and other storage methods. The Library of Congress has a list of suppliers but you can search for preservation supplies online. Be prepared to pay a premium for archive level supplies.

This series is going to be quite detailed and long. So stay tuned and I will get to your preservation questions eventually.

See the previous posts in this series here:

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