Protecting Paperbacks: A Primer

Thought paperback books weren’t worth much? You might be surprised. For example, first edition copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956)—originally published in paperback— can fetch from $570 to $4,750. Pristine comic book collections are hot now, too; a copy of Action Comics #1 sold on eBay for $3.2 million in 2014. Preserving a paperback collection is worthwhile, whether you’ve got a Howl or not. That said, paperbacks have different needs than their hardcover cousins.

We had the opportunity to talk with Bexx Caswell-Olson, Director of Book Conservation at the Northeast Document Conservation Center about best practices in paperback conservation.

 “A good storage environment is absolutely crucial to preservation of your materials,” Caswell-Olson notes. “You should always store your books in an environment that you, yourself, would feel comfortable living in full-time.” That means using finished living spaces or climate-controlled areas in lieu of unfinished basements or attics.

 In addition to climate-controlled areas, avoid leaving paperbacks in direct sunlight. “It causes fading, and can also speed up the aging process and cause books to darken and become brittle. This is especially true for the [cheap]wood pulp paper often used in paperback book production.”  Luckily, this fix is as easy as drawing the curtains. Take your sunscreen a step further by coating windows with UV film to block harmful rays. Switching out incandescent bulbs for LED bulbs is another simple conservation measure.


 The material of a bookcase can also have an impact on a collection’s health and longevity. Caswell-Olson advises against untreated wood bookcases because the acidity of the wood damages books. But all is not lost if your shelves are maple or birch: “Make sure that they are painted or sealed with a formaldehyde free polyurethane finish. That will help keep the acid in the wood from damaging paper materials,” she says. Librarians and archivists actually prefer powder-coated steel shelves, but that might not be possible--or aesthetically pleasing--in a home environment.

 Good housekeeping will also protect paperbacks. Keeping food away from books and regular dusting will help deter rodents and insects. “By removing dust, you remove some of the books’ attractiveness to certain pests,” suggests Caswell-Olson. "Some insects eat paper, but it is more common for insects to eat the glue used in the binding. All insects of concern are attracted to damp, dusty areas."

In general, paperback books are not made from the same high-quality paper as hardbacks, and as a result, pages tend to darken and become brittle quite rapidly. “There's not much that can be done to prevent that,” Caswell-Olson notes, but there are sprays like Bookkeeper Deacidification Spray that prevent--but cannot reverse--existing damage.

 Bexx Caswell-Olson strongly advises against the habit of cracking a paperback spine while reading. Cracking the spine breaks the adhesive holding the book together, leading to loose pages that are more susceptible to falling out.

 There’s one myth Caswell-Olson wants to bust about handling collections with white gloves. “When you're wearing gloves, it's hard to feel what you're doing and so you're more likely to accidentally tear a page when you're turning it.” Washing hands with soap and not touching anything greasy is sufficient before handling precious materials, especially books. That said, gloves are still recommended for items like film, photographs, and fragile textiles.

 With 2019 on the horizon, why not resolve to enjoy your paperbacks for years to come by protecting them. With thanks to Bexx Caswell-Olson and her conservation advice!

 Elisa Shoenberger is a researcher and writer. She has published articles and essays at the Boston Globe, the Rumpus, Electric Lit, and other outlets. She is a regular contributor to Book Riot and is the co-editor and co-founder of  The Antelope: A Journal of Oral History and Mayhem.