Handling Rare Maps and Books

We are often asked how one should handle rare maps, antiquarian books, scientific instruments and other apparently fragile material.

The truth is that, on the whole, the books that we carry in inventory tend to be rather sturdy in fine leather or vellum bindings, and most fifteenth-eighteenth century hand-made laid papers tend to be robust and, unlike nineteenth century and modern papers, have not been weakened using nasty chemicals in order to make them whiter. One should, therefore, feel relatively comfortable handling works of art on paper with confidence. That having been said, here are some basic habits that you can adopt that will help to ensure that your rare books and maps remain in fine condition for many hundreds of years to come.


1. Be clean

Wash and dry your hands before and after handling rare maps, books, works of art on paper and scientific instruments. This not just to prevent you from transferring grease and dirt to the work of art, but also to minimise the risk of spreading moulds or fungi to the book, or, worse, you contracting some grim seventeenth century lurgy from the book!

2. Be gentle

If you are removing books from shelves, do not pull them from the top of the spine, as this can cause damage to the book’s headband.

Do not spin globes! Just don’t. Ever.

3. Be supportive

Most books are not designed to open flat, so you should support them during use. Use foam book braces to provide support while limiting the opening angle.

Books are complex structures which can easily be placed under stress or tension. Whilst basically sturdy, they can appear more robust than they actually are. Different binding styles need specific support methods to prevent strain and damage in use. You should pay attention to the spine area as this can split and weaken the binding structure.

4. Be thoughtful

If you must stack books, limit the number of items that you move or stack at one time to two or three. Create stable piles of books by alternating between spine and fore edge.

Do not keep paper items in books, such as newspaper clippings, greeting cards, Post-it notes or a bookmark. The same applies to other items that we have found in books over the years, including paperclips, pens and pencils, leaves, flowers, photographs, currency, hair and (yeuch!) other human tissue. They can leave permanent marks in books and/or in your psyche, and cause offsetting to pages.

5. Be a “passer” not a “turner”

When browsing a stack of maps and works of art on paper, try to avoid turning sheets over as this will risk tearing or stressing the sheet. Rather, pass works face-up from the top of the pile on the right to the top of a new pile on the left. Once you have finished working through the stack, pass the sheets back one at a time to preserve their original order.

6. Be attentive

When handling folded and rolled items, such as maps, make sure you pay attention to their format and condition, and remember the order and direction of the folds or roll when you unpack the works so that you can repack them in the same manner once you are finished.

Have weights and foam pads to hand, and enough space to unfold the items. Weights should not be placed on folds or damaged areas. A foam wedge from one side can support foldouts in books. Multi-directional foldouts may require snake weights.

With a folding map, look for endpapers pasted on the verso: these should end up as the first and last sheet as you re-fold the map.

If a folding map is difficult to remove from its case, blow gently on the open end: this should help to release the map.

Finally, we cannot close this section without a note on white gloves. We DO recommend wearing gloves when handling objects that might tarnish or stain, such as varnished or polished scientific instruments, including globes or planetaria. However, we do not suggest that you wear gloves when handling books or works of art on paper.

Rather than take our word for it, here is what the British Library has to say on the subject:

White Gloves or Not White Gloves

Whenever a British Library manuscript is featured in the press or on television, we inevitably receive adverse comments about our failure to wear white gloves! The association of glove-wearing with handling old books is in fact a modern phenomenon, and one that has little scientific basis.

The British Library has published advice on the use of white gloves. Essentially, we recommend that it is preferable to handle manuscripts with clean dry hands. Wearing cotton gloves to hold or turn the pages of a book or manuscript actually reduces manual dexterity, and increases the likelihood of causing damage. Gloves also have a tendency to transfer dirt to the object being consulted, and to dislodge pigments or inks from the surface of pages.

It’s also reassuring to know that it was recognized in the Middle Ages that wearing gloves to handle books was to be frowned upon. There is a story of a certain Lady Zwedera, a new recruit to the congregation of Deventer (in the modern Netherlands), who “happily wore clean white gloves on her hands, as if she liked cleanness, and said that she did so lest she mark the books from which she often and diligently read the holy scripture; but when she heard from one of the fathers that because of such cleanness, which carried before it a certain extravagance, she would suffer purgatory, she at once abandoned them”. So now you know the dangers that may confront you if you don the dreaded white gloves!