Considerations in Maintaining the Library of the Past

By Pat Nelson for the Colorado Preservation Alliance

Last Update: June 2003

As we think and plan for the library of the future, we must also consider what importance we place on the library of the past. General preservation priorities include:

  • Selection of materials for permanent retention
  • Use of non-destructive materials in processing
  • Compliance with binding standards
  • Proper storage and handling
  • Repair of damaged materials to extend useful life
  • Optimum environmental conditions
  • Security for rare/unique materials
  • Preservation education for staff and library clients

Some of the problems involved and possible solutions are presented below. The least costly approach to preserving our collections focuses on prevention and protection.


Paperbacks are purchased because they are cheaper. Most paperbacks are laminated to reinforce the cover but many of these do not survive even moderate use. The economy of this approach is questionable. Purchase hard cover whenever possible and bind soft covers that are intended for permanent retention.

Certain formats, e.g. spiral bindings, looseleafs, programmed instruction, do not survive for more than a few years because they deteriorate, are stolen or defaced. Often they cannot be bound due to a narrow gutter margin. Consider carefully purchase of these materials. They add little of long-term value to the collection.


Use a binder who follows the specified binding practices of the Library Binding Institute. Routine binding of journals is the accepted long-term treatment.

Publisher’s bindings are often of poor quality. They may exceed recommended thickness making them vulnerable to damage if they are dropped or mistreated. Volumes that exceed 2 inches in thickness should be split and rebound. Another option is to buy a paperback edition to bind. Standard texts or bestsellers may receive such heavy use that they do not survive to become part of the permanent collection. Volumes meant for permanent retention should be library bound before circulation.


Processing should use archival quality/acid-free materials for materials of permanent value. Book plates, pockets and inks should be non-damaging.


Photocopy machines should be bookedge copiers whenever possible. Even then, patrons cause damage to volumes when they try to get 2 pages for the price of one by flattening the spine and ignoring the bookedge. Education is needed to impress on clients the damage done by photocopy abuse. A poster above the copiers can show safe copy practices. When improper copying is observed, staff should speak up. There is no complete solution other than removing self-service copiers.

Minor Mending and Repair

These activities can prevent more costly damage resulting in withdrawal from the collection of irreplaceable volumes. A routine mending procedure can save the library money.

Disaster Plans

They need to be continually updated. Staff skills need to be periodically refreshed and supplies monitored and replaced as needed.

Special Collections

They may have special needs including security, format updating for materials that are outliving their equipment, and separate environmental controls.

Education and Training

Even the staff may forget and pull a book from the shelf by the headcap or read in the bathtub. Education is an ongoing job. New staff (particularly pages) should be required to attend a session on handling of books and other materials. Refresher sessions should be available to all staff. Clients can be educated through the use of posters, displays, bookmarks, and publicity encouraging conservation practices.

While all of these solutions require either money or time, they first require a philosophical commitment from the governing body of a repository. Are we creating a collection that will have permanent value or warehousing books for only the present? Most libraries contain both archival and ephemeral materials; without preservation there will be no permanent collection.