13 Tips From a Rare Books Expert to Keep Your Books Looking Great

Use these tips to keep your books looking good as new.
Use these tips to keep your books looking good as new. / Daniel Grizelj/DigitalVision/Getty Images

If you’re like me, you see books the way others see their closest friends and family. You return home and feel welcomed by the shelves, surrounded by the people who understand you. And, just like people, these companions need a little care and attention if you want them to remain with you. Luckily, books are easier than humans—only a few basic rules will keep them happy. Here are a few principles I’ve learned in my work as a rare book dealer.

1. Use a bookmark—but don’t leave it in there forever.

A close-up on the corner of a book with a page folded.
Don't do this to your books! / LDF/E+/Getty Images

We’ve all been interrupted mid-chapter—who hasn’t been guilty of splaying a book text down onto a table? A little planning will save your book from dog-earing and any other little injustices you put that binding through.

However, if you leave a bookmark in a book for years (that plan to read all of War and Peace last summer just didn’t pan out), it’s easy for bookmarks themselves to put undue pressure on the binding or leave unwanted traces, like outlines.

2. Keep newspaper clippings away from your books.

Speaking of unwanted traces, newspaper typically has a very high acid content, which can eat away at neighboring paper over time and leave an ugly burnt-orange shadow in its place. As a bookseller, I’ve seen many relevant newspaper clippings tucked into secondhand books, and I always cringe when I look under the clippings to find that tell-tale shadow.

3. Tape is a no-no, too.

A roll of tape on a black background
Books + Tape = Bad News. / Martin Hospach/fStop/Getty Images

Household adhesives, like Scotch tape or Post-it notes, similarly shouldn’t be used in books. A well-intentioned repair of a ripped page with Scotch tape is one of the worst things you can do to a book; better to leave it ripped. Seriously. In a few years every part of the paper touching that tape will be orange.

4. Take off the dust jacket when reading (but don’t you dare throw it away).

The dust jacket is your book’s first defense against the little bumps and nicks it will face in its lifetime. It’s also your book’s beautiful face: There’s no need to subject it to further aging. But keep the jacket in a safe place while reading. If you have any hope of keeping your book looking shiny and new, that jacket is important.

5. Avoid writing in your books.

A person holding a pencil to an open book
Resist the urge to write in your books. / DNY59/E+/Getty Images

Don’t even think about writing your name on the first page; modern ownership inscriptions are considered unsightly flaws in the current collectible market. But if you cannot resist the compulsion, use pencil. Even better: Keep a modern commonplace book, a notebook (digital or print, I won’t judge) where you record quotes and thoughts from the books you’re reading.

6. You really are allowed to read them. Just be nice about it.

You don’t need to open the book so wide that it breaks the spine. You can feel when you’re putting unnecessary pressure on the book, so just stop.

7. Don’t pull the top of the book’s spine.

A person pulling a book off of a shelf with their finger on top of the spine
Avoid grabbing the top of the spine. / Fotografía de eLuVe/Moment/Getty Images

It’s so handy, that extra bit of material on the head of the book’s spine. Perfect for curling under the tip of your finger and pulling the book down from the shelf. Stop right there! That little section of the book is one of the weakest parts. The more you fiddle with it, the more likely you are to damage the book. Just reach a bit further back and pull the book down by the edges of the text block, or grab the book by its sides.

8. Dust your books.

This is a small task that will save your books from all sorts of grime. Start the duster at the spine and sweep away from it, toward the edge of the text block where you open the book. It’s a small hassle to keep your books looking fresh.

9. Keep books out of direct sunlight.

Two books on a table in a sunbeam.
Books prefer shady spots. / Catherine Falls Commercial/Moment/Getty Images

Just like a sunburn, too much exposure to UV rays will change the color of your books. Some colors are notoriously fugitive, like the red band on the dust jacket of the first edition of The Sound and the Fury—but an unfaded red band on that jacket can make a difference of $10,000 in the rare book world.

10. Pick a room temperature and stick with it.

No attics! No garages! No cars! Books ideally like their surroundings a little bit cool, but the most important aspect of temperature is consistency. Any room that experiences wide variations in temperature is going to wreak havoc on your books.

11. Give books breathing room.

A lot of books crowded together, seen from above.
These books need some breathing room. / Alexander Spatari/Moment/Getty Images

If you pack too many books on a shelf, the pressure will squeeze the bindings and hurt the integrity of their structure. Be generous with the space you give them; is it really so bad to have to purchase another bookshelf?

12. Stack big books on their sides.

Vertical stacking is fine for smaller books, but for larger volumes, the weight of all that paper will pull on the hinges over time. Don’t stack too many on top of each other, though: then you’re back to the problem of pressure on the bindings.

13. Watch out for mold.

Three old moldy books stacked on top of each other
Mold and books are a bad combination. / harpazo_hope/Moment/Getty Images

According to Michael Frazier, conservator at University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s Special Collections, mold is “a tricky and dangerous business.” In other words, any time the word MOLD appears in a sentence with books, it should be read in ALL CAPS. If you see MOLD on a book, isolate that sucker ASAP. If you can bear it, you may just need to dispose of the book entirely. If not, throw it in the freezer (seriously) and talk to a specialist. In the meantime, address the source of the outbreak (perhaps a leaky pipe?).

Take care of your books, and they’ll take care of you. Who knows? Maybe you have a few first editions that may eventually be worth something if you’ve kept them looking like new. And if you want to read more on the details of storage and handling from the pros, preservationists have created detailed websites on the subject, which you can peruse to your heart's content.

A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.