Previous Blog Entry Next Blog Entry

Send your own questions to me at [email protected]@TheLiB, or +Sarah Houghton.


Hi! Welcome to episode 7 of What Sarah Said.  This question comes to us from Aaron and he writes:

I have a two-part question: I have a large number of heavy history books that I have owned for more than twenty years.  Moving them to a new location, I noticed that the top edges have black spots that cannot be removed.  Fortunately they don’t as of yet penetrate into the face of the pages.  The books were not in a wet location, but humid summers may have had an effect.  I assume that these spots are some sort of living organism eating the books.  Do I need worry about the “spots” continuing to damaged my books?  The books have been moved to a much nicer location.

Second question: Do you have recommendations for affordable shelves to hold heavy books that perhaps have the strength found in a library?  All my old shelves have warped.  My current solution is to use metal utility shelving, which doesn’t look proper for my beloved library.

All right! So the first part of your question: the spots.  I had to hearken back to my training in library school.  I started out wanting to be a rare books librarian so I took lots of classes in preservation and book restoration.  And my first thought was: Oh god, it’s black mold.  And I think that’s right.  Without seeing a picture of what you’re describing, this sounds like black mold to me.  Depending on where they were they could be insect droppings of some sort.  I looked on some preservation websites and found a few that pointed to, you know, spots of that nature, if they really are just on the top of the books, that could be coming from cockroaches, from silverfish, even from deathwatch beetles although it’s unlikely, carpet beetles…it could be a lot of things.  I guess I have more questions. Were you finding insect casings or larvae or droppings of any kind around these books?  Or is it truly just little spots?  And what do the spots look like?  Are they big?  Are they tiny?  I’m going to assume that they’re tiny, and while not uniformly distributed, somewhat–you know if you look at the whole.  And in that case I think you’ve got a case of mold.  It could be mildew, but if they’re spots it’s usually mold.  So that’s bad.

Yes, that’s going to continue to eat away at those books.  Don’t put them near other books…anywhere near any other books, because it will pass instantaneously to whatever’s next to it.  You’re in pretty big trouble.  The only way to treat mold that I’m aware of, and that my research showed me with paper, is to actually use bleach.  And the bleach does have damaging effects on the paper long term.  So while you could bleach it to stop the progression, there’s no guarantee that it’s not going to create more or equal damage as the pages start to get brittle and fall apart from the damage of the bleach itself.

If it was mine, I would probably do a bleach and water solution, 50/50, and then using probably a cotton swab or a ball, depending on how thick and large the books are, and I would just dab a light solution of the bleach along the top of the pages where you do see the spotting and dry them out and see if that makes a difference.  I don’t know if you’ve seen the spots progress…there’s a lot of questions.  But that’s my answer at first blush and if you have more information feel free to follow up via email and I’ll try to do better.

And in terms of shelving.  This is hard.  There’s a lot of library shelving out there from companies like Highsmith and Demco, Gaylord, and some other vendors.  And library shelving is expensive.  So I don’t know much shelving you need, linear feet wise.  If it’s not very much and you want to get a really attractive, nice bookcase that is really sturdy and can hold those heavy books, that’s what I would look at, one of those vendors, and I’ll link to those in the show notes.

But if you’re just looking at something larger like maybe you need a ton of book shelving that all matches together, I wouldn’t look to formal library shelving for that because it is super, super expensive.

I’ve got some pretty heavy books myself that I’m just storing them on standard book shelves that I purchased through regular stores that aren’t very expensive like Target, IKEA, or other places like that.  I do have friends who have some very attractive shelving that they had a local cabinetmaker make for them.  And while it was probably double what you would pay for something that you’re getting at Target or IKEA, you get to pick the wood, you get to pick how big it is, exactly the dimensions.  So you may want to look into local artisans and see if there is somebody who could craft something to specifically meet your space needs and your weight needs, as it sounds like these books are really heavy.

So thank you so much for your question! And tune in next time for the next episode of What Sarah Said!

“What Sarah Said: Episode 7: My Books are Effed Up and Need a Good Shelf”

  1. Porlock Junior Says:

    I wonder if, after the treatment with bleach, it would be helpful to apply, with the same care, a sodium thiosulphate soulution. (photographer’s hypo, for those into deceased technologies) It’s an extremely inoffensive chemical in itself, and it reduces (*) bleach to something completely and permanently innoccuous.

    Not time-tested advice, just applied chemistry.

    (*) Speaking of which, chemists will see what I did there.

Leave a Reply

LiB's simple ground rules for comments:

  1. No spam, personal attacks, or rude or intolerant comments.
  2. Comments need to actually relate to the blog post topic.

You must be logged in to post a comment.