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Safe handling of books and documents

If old books, documents, postcards, prints and photographs are to be preserved in good condition, then they need to be handled carefully and treated with respect. They are delicate and fragile objects and therefore vulnerable to rough handling. Wear and tear arising from this can be an insidious process. It generally proceeds slowly, out of small unconscious actions, and is only noticed when significant damage has been done.

Handling material with dirty hands leaves unsightly marks which can obscure the text and illustrations. Paper fibres can weaken and discolour because of the chemicals contained in the dirt and oily secretions from the skin. These oils will also cause the dirt to penetrate into the body of paper, making it very difficult to remove. Protect books and documents from contact with food, drink, dirt and tobacco smoke, and do not lick your fingers to turn pages or use your finger to follow the text. To prevent damage to sensitive emulsion surfaces of photographic prints and negatives hold them at the edges, or better, wear white cotton gloves.

Felt tip, ball-point and fountain pens are all prone to leaking and it is all too easy to make unintentional marks. Since ink stains are very difficult to remove, it makes sense to use lead pencils when making notes from books and documents. Provide a clear, uncluttered and dry work surface on which to consult books and documents so that they do not catch or rub against anything that might damage them. Table surfaces will need dusting first, they are never as clean as they seem. Otherwise lay a clean sheet of white paper over the top. Books and documents will need support whilst being consulted to prevent damage to the binding and edges of the paper. They must not overhang the table or be held in the air, but should be kept flat on the table. Binding materials, paper, ink and pigment films are all vulnerable to abrasion. Never rub your arm, hand, ruler or exercise book across the surface of a document or drag a book across a table top. Books can suffer in numerous ways through rough handling. Simply by leaning and pressing down on the pages of an open book will cause the binding structure to weaken. Eventually the spine will collapse and the covers will detach themselves. Never place a heavy object on an open book, or use it to provide support for writing notes.

If a book is pulled at the top and dragged from its shelf, the material on the bottom edges of the covers will wear away to expose the underlying board and the spine will become damaged and eventually break off. The correct method of removing a book from a shelf is first to move the adjacent books carefully to one side. This will prevent side abrasion when the book is removed. Next the book should be grasped around the waist and lifted from the shelf. Create sufficient space on the shelf when replacing books and lift them back in a similar manner.

Flicking through the pages of documents and books is a bad practice because paper is easily damaged at the edges. Not just the paper but the text may also be damaged in this way if it runs near to the edge. Pages should be turned one at a time where there is a clear margin free from text and where the paper is sound.

Please use these guidelines when handling your own books and documents at home or when you consult rare books or unique documents in a library or record office. That way you can help ensure that history and knowledge are better preserved for future generations.

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