Preservation Pop Quiz! Shelving oversize books: spine up or spine down?
For Preservation Week, I browsed the stacks in the art section looking for oversize materials in need of help. After all, preservation isn’t just for rare artefacts or antique family photographs. We want to preserve our circulating library books, too! Practices like proper shelving and handling help to prevent damage before it happens, extending the lifetime of library materials.
We have lots of oversize books, especially in the art section. It’s great to see large, full-page renderings of artworks, but some books are too tall to fit on the shelf in the usual way, spine facing out. So how should they be shelved?
The answer is spine down, and the reason has to do with the way books are constructed.
Overall, books are pretty sturdy. The basic design for a book or codex was a huge upgrade from the previous model (scrolls). Basic book design has lasted for hundreds of years, and even some individual books have lasted for hundreds of years- with proper care.
For large books, the spine and hinges are a major weak point. The pages (or textblock) are protected and supported by the cover and spine, but after a while the weight pulls on the structures that connect the textblock and the cover. In the photo below, you can see that the boards (covers) of a book are just a little bigger than the pages, which protects them from wear and tear. However, it also means that all the weight of the textblock is supported by the boards and spine.
Imagine putting an anvil in a backpack and then standing and wearing the backpack for several hours. That’s the kind of stress a book’s spine gets from the weight of the textblock! In the second photo, you can see the spine of the same book and a little curve where the textblock is bound together.
Still, it doesn’t look too bad. This book is too tall to be shelved regularly, but it’s not especially big or heavy. Plus, this book lives in the middle of a whole row of books. The rest of the row helps hold it up and relieve the strain on the binding, so being shelved spine up hasn’t done much damage. The same isn’t true of the next examples, which are bigger and heavier and were shelved on the end of a row.
One little bookend was not heavy enough to hold up a whole shelf’s worth of books; it was pushed to the end of the row. In these unfortunate books, the heavy textblock wrenched the binding apart along the hinges (the seam where the endpapers connect the textblock to the covers).
Remember to shelve your oversize books spine down to support the weight of the textblock. And don’t forget the bookend! It may seem fussy to worry about books leaning over because of a few extra inches of shelf space, but over time the book can twist right out of shape. If you have the shelf space, you can shelve oversize books horizontally, which also makes it easier to read the title or call number on the spine. Horizontal shelving is not an option for our general collection, but some of our rare books are shelved that way. Check back later this week for a behind-the-scenes look at the archives. And if you have bookshelves at home, tidy them up during Preservation Week!
Oscar Rennebohm Library959 Edgewood College Drive - Madison, WI 53711608-663-3300