Tips of the Trade
Preserving Antique Books
Appraiser Catherine Williamson and host Lara Spenser discuss antique book preservation.
Repeated bending of a book over years will cause deterioration in the spine.
The paper portion of this binding would definitely be harmed by an oil-based leather treatment.
Traditionally, treatments for leather bindings are concoctions of lanolin and neat's-foot oil.
Baseball players oil their mitts, cowboys oil their saddles, and for centuries, lovers of old books have oiled their leather book bindings—and still do today. Many have even made a ritual out of the practice, re-oiling their leather book covers on their birthday each year, an act they assumed was a gift to themselves, their books, and to posterity.
Does the time-honored practice of oiling leather books help preserve them—or do them harm?
Marc Reeves, though, a conservator in the special collections department of the New York Public Library, is among a growing majority of book caretakers who believe the best recipe for preserving leather-bound books includes no oil at all.
"If you took a vote now, many institutions, especially the larger ones, would say they are not actively pursuing oiling programs," he says. "I think the research, as it is, indicates that there aren't many benefits and there seem to be potential problems with it. The adage 'Do No Harm' works as well for book conservation as it does for medicine."
The New York Public Library gave up oiling books in the 1960s and Reeves and other conservators recommend that private book owners do the same. That's because they have found that oiling sometimes darkens leather and can create unsightly blotches if not applied properly. The oily finish also presents another rub: it can infiltrate the pages of a book long after its owner has re-shelved it.
"We've seen a lot of books where the oil comes through the thin leather spine," says Reeves. "It can bleed right through and then you have a half-inch of oiled paper throughout the whole book." Oiled pages can decimate a book's value. To reverse the damage is extremely difficult and costly.
Oil was traditionally applied to old leather books to prevent or stem a condition that bibliophiles refer to as "red rot," which describes leather that has deteriorated into a red powder. The common wisdom was that drying of the leather caused this powdery deterioration—which explains why oil was prescribed. But Reeves says that red rot is caused by a chemical deterioration of the leather, and oil can't stem this chemical breakdown. "When you add oil to this dry powder all you get is an oily paste," the library's conservator says.
Other coatings, chemical treatments, and surface consolidants for leather are available on the market. Many, however, can damage the binding if applied incorrectly to the right leather, or if used on the wrong leather. Once applied, the chemicals cannot be removed.
Like a green grocer trying to conserve his produce, Reeves says that the best an owner of leather-covered books can do is slow down the inevitable deterioration using other means besides oil.
"You can't replicate rare book environments in large libraries, but you can avoid the extremes," Reeves says. "What we're really talking about is lengthening the lifetime of these objects."
Leather-bound books deteriorate more quickly when they are stored in high temperatures, at extreme humidities, or in air with high concentrations of gaseous pollutants, such as those found in car exhaust. Short of donating books to libraries with air filters, little can be done at home to protect books from gaseous pollutants. But a book lover can protect leather bindings from the other two culprits.
"Stay away from basements and attics," Reeves says, pointing out that attics often have high temperatures and that basements often have high humidity.
The conservator also suggests that owners of leather books consider purchasing archival boxes or sleeves for valuable leather books—the New York Public Library has boxed about 200,000 leather-bound volumes. Archival boxes, which can be bought for under $10 each from conservation supply firms, protect leather bindings from the normal wear-and-tear that comes with handling. These casings and paper sleeves also protect books from dust. Less dust means less need for dusting, which again minimizes the handling of these often fragile books.
What ultimately determines the life span of leather is not whether it's oiled, but how well it was made. Leather made before the beginning of the 19th century usually lasts longer than leather made afterwards, because the earlier leather was manufactured with more care and more time.
"Sometimes you'll find a 10th-century leather binding in tremendous condition," Reeves says. "Then you see a leather binding made 20 years ago that's already deteriorating. In some ways, what you start with is what you end up with."
To learn more about preserving antique books, see:
Caring for Your Collections, edited by Arthur W. Schultz, 1992.
A series of essays by expert conservators on how to preserve all kinds of treasures, including books, paintings, prints, photographs, textiles, ceramics, glass, and musical instruments.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Books & Manuscripts category:
Eleanor Roosevelt Archive (Philadelphia, 2007)
Rare Portraits Survive Museum Blaze (In a Way) (Mobile, 2007)
Early Mormon History Explained (Salt Lake City, 2007)
Dakota, Lakota, Nakota: Languages of the Sioux (Bismarck, 2006)
Standing Up to the Academy (Bismarck, 2006)
Collecting Mistaken Maps
Sentimental Favorites, Roadshow Flops
Searching Out Maps
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.