On Antiquarian Books

Picture if you will a small bow fronted shop in Dickensian London with a dark interior. And despite the lack-lustre window display behind the leaded glass panes, if you venture across the threshold you find yourself in a shadowy interior with bookshelves stretching to the ceiling, row upon row. Shelves are piled with leather-bound tomes, with gilt embossed edges and marbled varnished papers, with sheets of tissue veiling lithograph or copperplate illustrations within, and the sides tantalise with their glimmer of gold or swirling ink patterns. In the corner, hunched at a desk, sits an old man with a bald pate, wearing diminutive round wired spectacles on the very tip of his nose. He doesn’t look up as the clapper inside the doorbell announces your presence – too immersed is he in his work, as he enters the details of a recently acquired pile of first editions into his ancient ledger, employing a perfect copperplate handwriting. Time slows down. And if you love books, you will be in a kind of heaven. The sights, the feel, the smells to relish of times gone by, held within the hard cover boards like forgotten treasure. This is in the archetypal antiquarian book shop.

About 25 years ago, my hubby came home from work with a box of antique books which had been given away as having no value. Inside were some of these:

Titles include:

The Story of the Heavens, 1897
Deschanel’s Natural Philosophy, 1894
Wordsworth’s Poetical Works
The Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson 1898

Most of them had a gilt stamp on the covers with a coat of arms enclosed within a buckled belt, reading ‘Oxford Diocesan Board of Education’ . And on the inside cover of four of them, the owner was revealed as Albert K. C. Badger, who had received the books as prizes for his studies in mathematics at Culham College, Oxford.

Culham College, as it turns out after a google search, was a training college for Schoolmasters, founded by Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, in 1851. So let’s hope Albert K.C. Badger went on to be an excellent teacher, and with a name worthy of being a character in an Alastair Sim black and white classic film, I somehow don’t doubt it.

And then there were titles like ‘Dumps, A Plain Girl’ by L.T. Meade, originally published in 1905, which according to the inside cover, Uncle Charlie and Auntie Emily gifted to their niece, Susie, who I do hope didn’t take the title personally ;>) And one of those wonderful household management books called ‘The Home Of Today’, with its photographs of Art Deco living room interiors, featuring ladies sporting bobbed hair and wearing duster coats as they vacuum their drapes or stand by a mixing bowl in their streamlined ‘state or the art’ kitchen. And there are the black and white illustrations of ladies performing handicrafts right through to showing the different cuts of meat, together with sage advice on buying furs and how to entertain at those all important summer parties, bridge parties, and tennis teas.  Just imagine the life!

So hubby and I became the custodians of these book delights for their content appeal, for their potential use for still lifes within painting (so I told myself), and to grace our bookshelves with some gravitas.

But have you ever wondered how one is supposed to look after these books, all too prone to foxing through the acid content of the paper used at the time and a process of slow disintegration, where they reveal their construction when the paper titles wither and fall off like dead leaves and as the calf skin bindings peel away from the spine?

Well one afternoon a few years ago, I found myself doing some volunteering in book conservation with a group of older retired people who belonged to an organisation called NADFAS (National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Societies). Wanting to try something different, I found myself a member of the organisation for a year for the purpose of attending their lectures with an artist  friend. I’d finished my degree and fancied listening to some art history talks. We discovered it was quite an elitist organisation with many ‘county’ people, as they are called here (land owners and race goers), attending. Was I surprised? Yes, a little, as I saw it as a perfectly natural thing for anyone from any walk of life to be interested in the decorative arts. Well as I sat fidgeting in the audience, I soon became aware of the  serene composure of other members in the audience, so straight-backed, heads forward and ears attending, with their hands folded in their laps throughout. And I felt they were a breed apart.

But nevertheless, I came to find myself one summer afternoon that year, sitting at a huge oak table in an sparsely furnished upstairs room in a stately home here in the Borders, feeling like a character in a Jane Austen novel. All that was missing was my high waisted empire dress and elaborate hair do with cascading tendrils and ribbons caressing my neck. The house was Georgian, with Adam’s ceilings and Chippendale furniture, and it had a gallery. But most importantly for our purposes, it also had an extensive library, which the NADFAS group were slowly working their way through, checking and cataloguing the condition of the books, shelf by shelf, with careful cleaning and dust removal. We brought books from the library up a stone staircase, probably originally for servants to use, to our upstairs abode, which overlooked the gravelled front entrance frowned upon by the Palladian style portico. There was a gentility in manners throughout, like a cloak of behaviour required to be worn, and I found myself wearing it. Most of all, we women had to defer to the male head of the group, who clearly had the final say on any decisions made where the books were concerned, and who had taken on the responsibility of being the one doing the cataloguing. It was all very demure, polite, and bizarre – and an experience, which I will never forget!

What did I learn about book conservation on that one surreal summer afternoon you may ask? Well I’ve forgotten most of it now, but the take home points are that you should keep your books behind glass, in cool conditions. Central heating and dust are the biggest threats….they attract mites and all manner of nasties.

If you are interested , here is a little guide to environmental conditions for antiquarian books from wiki:

Environmental conditions

Extremes of temperature or relative humidity are damaging from either end of the spectrum (low or high). High heat and low relative humidity can cause paper to become brittle and leather book bindings to crack. High temperatures and high relative humidity accelerates mould growth, foxing, staining, blooming, disintegration, and ‘red rot’ in leather bindings. Fluctuations in temperatures and humidity may also cause cockling: a wrinkling or puckering preventing the surface from laying flat. Precise environmental levels for optimal preservation will depend on whether the collection is for use, storage, or a combination: in general, a cool environment (below 70 degrees Fahrenheit) and relatively dry air (between 30-50% relative humidity) is recommended.[

Air quality must also be taken into consideration. Dust tends to absorb moisture, providing a suitable environment to attract mould growth and insects.[Dust can also become acidic when combined with skin oils and the surface of paper.

All kinds of light (sunlight, artificial light, spotlights) can be harmful. Light can result in fading, darkening, bleaching, and cellulose breakdown. Some inks and other pigments will fade if exposed to light, especially ultraviolet (UV) light present in normal daylight and from fluorescent bulbs. Any exposure to light can cause damage, as the effects are cumulative and cannot be reversed. Minimal or no exposure to light is ideal.

So there you go!

And when I got home that afternoon, I realised, shock horror, there was little hope for any of our books, exposed to copious amounts of dust as they are, and I certainly didn’t have the inclination to don my duster coat, get my vacuum out, and flick my lint-free cloth over the tops of our books in our very own home of today.

And wow to these patterns!

(top pic pixabay, the rest mine)












About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: lynnefisher.wordpress.com Art: lynnehenderson.co.uk Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnefisherheadtoheadhearttoheart/ Artists page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnehendersonartist/
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8 Responses to On Antiquarian Books

  1. galenpearl says:

    Wow, you have been on a roll lately with a whole string of fascinating posts. I have a bookcase full of old books like this. I haven’t paid them much attention, I admit, but now I’m more curious about their origins, and how to care for them. It’s hard here in the summer without air conditioning. Everything in the house gets pretty warm on hot days. But I’m going to check out some things a bit more and try to take better care of them. You lead an interesting life, both externally and internally!

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thanks, Galen – pleased it’s sparked off an interest in your own old books! Yes, heat seems to be a problem – drying out of binding etc I have a heavy old copy of The Pilgrims Progress where family births and deaths were recorded in it like a family bible. So I’m the new custodian of that! Half the time I don’t know what my weekly post is going to be about, but something usually presents itself!


  2. Lovely descriptions Lynne. I’m almost glad I don’t have anything too valuable on my bookshelf. I did manage to knock the ‘headband’ (had to look the word up!) at the the top of spine off the only semi valuable book we have when I tried to vacuum it. Your piece also reminded me of when I was a little girl and there was no paper in our house for writing or drawing so my mother tore all the fly papers out of her old books for me to use.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Wow, Sylvia! I think your childhood memory belongs in the post! That group of book conservation people would have been truly horrified of course. Yes, they are so fragile, a ‘headband’ fell off mine when i was looking inside them the other day – just pasted on and the glue had dried out. Some are just beyond repair and I don’t know if the good condition ones are even valuable in monetary terms – but they are so valuable in other more important ways :>)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this little trip into a gentle and charming sub-world.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rachel says:

    Old books like that and the handwriting within them are like treasure to me.
    There’s a charity shop in our town that sells all the rejects from the other branches and books there are £1 for five. My lovely book by Plato was one and so only cost me 20p.
    I often wonder what it is about antique books that makes them so much nicer than modern ones. I also wonder how many people have owned or read them and what their stories are. There’s more to a book than the story within them.
    My books are going to have to make do with no glass on the bookcases for a while. Sadly, some will have to be content in the pile on the floor.
    A lovely piece of writing, as always. Thank you xx

    Liked by 2 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank you, Rachel. Lovely to know you collect such books, and what a great shop you have close by! – I agree they have a mystery of ownership and there is a compulsion to revere them – and why not indeed? They are a thing of the past and of beauty. I have read some of mine, though the science ones look mind-blowing! But there is one on learning and teaching children which is fascinating. Looking back, I think I’ve always enjoyed exploring them and my mother has quite a few in her bookcase which are familiar to me from childhood. The idea of throwing them out is impossible to contemplate! Cheers, Rachel


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