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How to Display Rare Books

By Audrey Golden. Oct 20, 2020. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Rare Books

When you’re developing a rare book collection, chances are good that you want to be able to display it. After all, one of the joys of having a rare book collection is getting a chance to look at it. Yet you may know that some ways of displaying your rare books are better than others for purposes of preservation. To be sure, you don’t want to display your collection in a manner that puts the books at risk of damage. For most collectors, displaying closed rare books requires considerations for exhibiting the objects on shelves (i.e., when you’re not opening them or showing them to someone else), and displaying open books (i.e., when you’re viewing the pages inside the book). Collectors who also own pieces of rare ephemera will need to consider additional options for display.

old-books-436498_1920Clamshell Boxes

One of the best ways to display rare books in an aesthetically pleasing way without risking any damage to the objects is to have clamshell boxes made. As you may already know, clamshell boxes are custom-made, archival boxes for rare books and other objects. They’re fitted precisely to the dimensions of the book they’re made to hold, and they ensure that light, dust, and other damaging elements cannot affect the book inside. Many collectors like to use clamshell boxes for particularly rare items because they allow you to preserve the object safely while also having an aesthetically pleasing item on display. To be sure, many clamshell boxes are designed with handmade papers, making them gorgeous pieces to have on your shelves.

Choosing the Right Shelving

If you’re not going to put your rare books in clamshell boxes but instead want to display them as they are, the next thing you’ll need to think about is your shelving. Naturally, you want to select shelving that allows you to show off items in your collection and that you find visually appealing. At the same time, you’ll want to be certain that you do not choose shelves that could ultimately cause harm to the items in your collection.

The Library of Congress explains that metal shelves tend to be much safer and better for books than wood shelves. Most people would prefer to have wooden bookshelves in their homes for aesthetic reasons, but it’s important to know, as the Library of Congress explains, that “the acids present in wood can migrate into paper and books and cause deterioration.” If you already have wood bookshelves and do not want to replace them, you can line them with a “barrier” that can help to prevent damage from the wood. The Library of Congress recommends using lining “such as polyester film, corrugated polyethylene or polypropylene board, metal foil laminate, acrylic sheet, or glass.” In sum, you’d want to choose a lining that prevents the books from “coming into direct contact with the wood” and that is not potentially damaging to the books.

bookshelf-1082309_1920Displaying Open Books

Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to keep your rare books open for display. However, for temporary display and to show off the great pieces in your collection, you should purchase book cradles and support wedges to ensure that the spine does not incur any type of damage.

Displaying Behind Glass or Acrylic

If you’re considering a custom-made bookcase and want to ensure that your books are protected from dust, you should consider using glass or acrylic protective barriers to prevent dust from getting reaching the materials as easily (as well as other possible household contaminants.

When it comes to ephemera, you likely will need to display the items in your collection behind some type of glass or acrylic. Whether you are displaying on a stand or in a frame, you should certainly display your ephemera behind ultraviolet-filtering glass or acrylic. This way, you can admire your ephemera without risking damage from sunlight. Clamshell boxes can also be great places to store multiple pieces of ephemera in a manner that still makes the ephemera visually appealing for display.

Considering Light and Dust Damage Risks

Wherever you decide to display your books and ephemera, it’s imperative to think about possible risks to the objects. For most rare books and ephemera, everyday damage risks come in the form of dust, sunlight, and insects. Accordingly, you’ll want to keep any shelves dusted, and you’ll want to do everything you can to keep dust away from your book collection. When it comes to sunlight, if you don’t have UV filtering acrylic or glass to protect your collection, you’ll want to make sure you keep it out of direct sunlight.

As we mentioned previously, dust can also damage your rare book collection. Accordingly, when you display it, make sure to attend to any dust risks. And, although it might be unpleasant to think about, certain insects can also do a lot of damage to rare book collections. While many of us have heard jokes—or maybe even made jokes—about “bookworms,” there are many different insect species that like to live in and eat books. To prevent insect damage while you’re displaying your collection, monitor the books and make sure to display them in areas that are not prone to insect activity.

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Audrey Golden
World literature scholar and erstwhile lawyer. Lover of international travel, outdoor markets, and rare books.


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