The Printed Book

by Harry G. Aldis, M.A. Cambridge at the University Press 1916

Handling and Mishandling of Books Part 1

Of the risks of destruction to which books are exposed, that of fire is the most formidable, whether it be by violence, as in the case of the Strassburg library in 1870, and the deliberate burning, by the same brutish hands, of the University Library of Louvain so recently as 1914, or by the more civilized though not less destructive agency of accidental conflagration. Of the latter there are many instances, from the wholesale destruction of books in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the irreparable damage to the Cottonian manuscripts in 1731, down to the partial destruction of the Turin library in 1904 and the burning of the New York State Library at Albany in 1911.

But books are difficult material to make a thorough end of by fire. Church and state authorities discovered this when they endeavored to destroy heretical books by means of public bonfires, and, says John Hill Burton, 'in the end it was found easier and cheaper to burn the heretics themselves than their books. However, the destruction which fire fails to accomplish may readily be completed by its twin enemy water, for it is by no means an unknown experience that greater damage has been done to books by the water with which the flames have been attacked than by the fire itself.

Water, in the more rarefied and insidious form of damp has been, probably, an even greater agency in the ruin of books. In an acute form damp will in time bring a volume to such a point of decay that it crumbles away in powder; in a lesser degree mildew may ruin the binding and irremediably stain the leaves; while even a slight amount of dampness will favor the ravages of bookworms. These pests, more evident in their tracks than in their persons, are not often found except among books which are subjected to a somewhat humid atmosphere and are seldom disturbed. They are the larvae of a small beetle belonging to the genus Anobium, and have the appearance of a whitish maggot about five-sixteenths of an inch in length, with a dark brown head. In their silent progress some bore holes in all directions through the volume, while others confine their industry to the wooden boards of the covers which they gnaw to powder. They shew a discriminating taste in paper, for their attentions are conferred mainly upon books of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; they seldom risk their digestions by attacks on the modern stuff which does duty for paper. When they are discovered to be in possession their activity may be discouraged by opening the book freely so as to disturb them in their tunnels. The book should then be treated with benzine or formalin, and shut up in a box for a few days before being aired off and returned to the shelf.