How to Handle Books

How to Handle Books

How to Handle Books

There are several things that many so called book “lovers” do that can be quite irritating: such as writing or highlighting, dog-earring pages, attaching ex-libris stickers, or otherwise damaging a book. But there is nothing as frustrating as seeing other book dealers and book resellers mishandling books. This can range from splitting up complete sets, throwing books on the floor, flipping antique books open with little regard for their age, filling up a bag full of books that looks like Santa Claus’ sack, etc. In other words, instead of having some foresight into how the future owner might feel, they mishandle and ruin the integrity of a collectible book.

Observe Before Handling

Questions to Ask
Before you grab any book, you should observe and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it a hardcover or softcover?
    • Softcovers can be a bit clumsy at times since their textblocks swell at the foreedge, so removing one might remove several others. Hardcovers usually have dust jackets and require extra care when retrieving.
  • What is the approximate age of the book?
    • Age matters! The older it is, the more likely it is to be brittle, fragile, and delicate.
  • Does it have a dust jacket?
    • The value of a dust jacket on a rare and collectible book can sometimes be as much as the book itself. Take every step necessary to ensure the safety of a dust jacket.
  • What type of material is the book made of?
    • This is pertinent for books bound in leather as it is sensitive to change and can begin to deteriorate from a change in its environment (such as light, heat, moisture). Those with sweaty palms might consider the use of gloves when dealing with certain book materials, particularly those of age.
  • Do I have an idea of the value of this book?
    • While one could hope a book worth a $1 would get the same treatment as one worth $1,000 or more, we realize it is not practical. But what if the book you’re holding is a rare gem, how would you treat it?

Book Retrieval
After you’ve ran through some basic observation questions in your mind, the next thing you should do before picking up a book is evaluate the surrounding area. Check the other books in the immediate vicinity and see if there is sufficient space to pull out the book. Particularly for books on a bookshelf and not in a display case, try and determine if the books on the same shelf will shift and what you can do to prevent yourself harm or the books unnecessary damage. Many times a bookshelf will be packed so tightly that removing a desired book will cause damage to it. For instance, books with dust jackets, that are not yet fitted with a mylar cover, tend to have small creases and tears at the extreme edges of the jacket. These can easily chip further or snag when you are trying to remove the book from its shelf space. After evaluating the surrounding area, make any necessary adjustments by moving other books on the shelf. Always be careful with other books; it would be a shame to damage a valuable book because you were too eager to remove your imminent selection and failed to ensure the well-being of the other items on the shelf.

Especially if you’re looking at another person’s collection, it would behoove you to ask permission first as some collectors would prefer to handle them for you, want you to wear gloves, etc. For example, if you’re at a book fair, they might have signs posted not to handle their books or to ask for assistance. You should respect their wishes! Being a courteous buyer can lead to the possibility of a discount or even future leads on books that you want to purchase.

Use Firm Hands, Light Fingers

Once you’ve observed the area and are ready to pull the book from the shelf or pick it up from its display, you should “think light” with your fingertips and move slowly. Many books are delicate or were previously mishandled. Your goal is to handle a book and return it in the same condition as it was before you looked through it. If the book is on a shelf, do not pull it from its shelf space by grabbing the top spine head. Instead, you should either 1. pinch the binding in the middle of the spine with your finger tips or 2. remove a surrounding book that you know can be removed safely, then take out the book you want. Carefully, slide the book out of its place and hold it with firm hands.

Once in your hands, DO NOT open the book fully. This is the most important thing you can do, and sadly, it is the most common action that people take. What happens when a book is fully opened, especially when people lay the book open flat on a table, is that the bound textblock pulls itself apart at the page you’ve opened along with other delicate sections of the book. This is known as cracking a book, and will cause the binding to eventually detach from itself. If you are not careful, you can even cause an entire signature of pages to detach from the textblock.

Types of Binding Damage

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, rather, a short list of the most common binding damage you will encounter due to carelessness. In order of increasing damage (slight to worst), these are terms of what can happen if you mishandle a book, fail to take care of it, or forcibly open a book beyond what is necessary:

Hard Crease – This can occur during the binding process, as a result of the natural separation between page signatures, or as a result of someone opening a book and creasing the pages apart with their hand.
Spine Lean – Also known as cocked. Usually the result of a heavier book left on top of a lighter book, the front and rear covers will no longer line up and one foreedge will stick out farther over the textblock than the other. Also, the spine might be offset or crooked when you look from one end of the spine to the other.
Cracked – You can have several “cracks” in a book and they can start as a hard crease, or as a result of poor binding material or process. These are typically seen internally but can exist externally on the spine. There are varying degrees of a cracked binding, but mishandling a book can cause a cracked binding to worsen.
Twisted Covers – If a book is left leaning on a shelf or suffers from a poor or damaged binding, the covers will twist sideways apart from each other. This can be unsightly for a valuable book and lead to a shaken, loose, or detached textblock.
Shaken – The stage right before loose, when the binding and textblock are intact but the covers move unnaturally in your hands. This will feel like the book is wobbly and the binding is far from tight.
Loose – This is what happens when the binding begins to deteriorate to a point where pages or page signatures start to fall out of the textblock.
Detached – Typically seen at the book hinges, the textblock will detach itself from the covers.

If you need to check the condition of the dust jacket or have a reason to handle the book for any extensive period of time, consider removing the dust jacket and placing it in a safe place to the side. This prevents any accidental damage, tears, chips, etc. to the dust jacket. The best way to remove the dust jacket is to partially open the front cover, lift the inside flap up and off the front foreedge, lay the dust jacket on a flat surface, as you transition to the rear cover to lift the rear inside flap up and off the rear foreedge.

Respect the Book!

If you love books, you should respect them for more than the material they’re made of. Especially for rare and collectible books that are not yours, the best thing you can do is to not handle the book. If you feel the absolute need to hold it, we hope you will handle them with care. Being delicate requires focus and a great deal of respect for literary history!

Notice: How to Open a Book – From “Modern Bookbinding.”

In regards to a brand new book that is meant to be handled and used, we’ve included a photo of a notice seen in early 19th century books and booksets, upon their first and initial use:

“Hold the book with its back on a smooth or covered table; let the front board down, then the other, holding the leaves in one hand while you open a few leaves at the back, then a few at the front, and so on, alternately opening back and front, gently pressing open the sections till you reach the center of the volume. Do this two or three times and you will obtain the best results. Open the volume violently or carelessly in any one place and you will likely break the back and cause a start in the leaves. Never force the back of the book. “A connoisseur many years ago, an excellent customer of mine, who thought he knew perfectly how to handle books, came into my office when I had an expensive binding just brought from the bindery ready to be sent home; he, before my eyes, took hold of the volume and tightly holding the leaves in each hand, instead of allowing them free play, violently opened it in the center and exclaimed: ‘How beautifully your bindings open!’ I almost fainted. He had broken the back of the volume and it had to be rebound.”

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