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THIS IS THE SECOND IN OUR 3 PART BLOG SERIES ABOUT BOOK CARE. IN THIS POST WE OUTLINE OUR RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CARING FOR LEATHER BOOKS THAT ARE OLD OR ANTIQUE BINDINGS.
If you would like to learn about caring for a new leather book, you can find that blog post here.
Caring for old leather books can be a complicated and delicate process. It really comes down to knowing the age and condition of the binding in question. Best practise would be to have your book examined by a book restorer or conservator to determine whether any work should be done. Attending to damage quickly is one of the best ways to prevent further and often irreparable damage from occurring.
Leather that has become powdery and is beginning to disintegrate is known as having ‘Red Rot’. It is recommended that these books not be handled, and that they undergo some type of restoration to retain as much of the remaining cover as possible. Never try to use any type of leather dressing to ‘restore’ leather that has become powdery. Another possible course of action is to invest in a custom made archival housing for the book. A clam shell box, Solander box or other box of archival quality will help to protect the binding from air borne elements that may cause further deterioration.
Generally speaking, an old leather book that is either in fairly good repair or has undergone restoration should be housed in a bookshelf where the covers are totally supported. A small to medium sized book can be placed on a shelf in an upright position (not leaning) with similar sized books or book ends supporting its sides. A very large book, such as a Victorian Family Bible is best stored lying on its side so that the weight of this immense volume is fully supported. In addition to storing on a bookshelf, an archival housing as mentioned previously would be of benefit to a very old or precious book. This should be custom made for the book out of archival quality, acid free materials.
All books, including old leather books should be kept somewhere where the temperature is stable - room temperature or cooler. They should not be directly exposed to sunlight or any other harsh lighting. Ensure that the bookshelf where your book is stored is not in close proximity to heating or cooling vents and the room is not overly damp or humid (recommended humidity is around 35%)
Books are meant to be functional, however extremely old books can become very delicate and quite brittle. It is recommended not to over handle these books. You can do this by placing a book on a table to read and not touching the pages except to turn. Do not press the book down in order to force it to lie open as the stress can damage the hinges and put strain on the sewing, causing pages to come loose.
Never, ever attempt to repair an old book (or any book for that matter) with household adhesive tapes and glues! These may ‘do the job’ for a short time however they cause a lot of further damage!
Dressing the leather has been and still is, a common part of book care and preservation. Whether dressing a book on a regular basis (every 1 to 2 years) actually helps to prevent the leather from deteriorating is fiercely debated. Most research suggests that at best, leather dressing instantly improves the feel of the leather and can improve the flexibility of the hinges if the book is one that needs to continue to be used. In my experience at the bindery, I find that dressing the leather improves the look and feel of the leather and also seems to prevent the leather from drying out or cracking. I apply a leather dressing to completed restorations and new bindings, but as previously stated I would never apply this type of dressing to a book with red rot (unless it has been fully restored or rebound). If you choose to dress your old leather bindings I would recommend doing so no more than once every 1 to 2 years using a good quality dressing such as JHS Leather dressing or Marney’s Leather Dressing.
As always, please add any comments or questions below. If you have a enquiry about a particular restoration or custom binding need please fill in our online enquiry form.
Our next, and final book care blog post in this 3 part series, covers general care of non leather books.
Hope this answers some of your questions.