Book Care

How to Protect Books from Light

Tips for reducing your book collection’s exposure to the harmful effects of UV light and radiation.

When young, barely in a fine first edition, one of us wanted to become a doctor. It didn’t happen, and friends have often remarked that, as a result, many lives may have been saved. Becoming a book dealer, however, put the helping instinct to good use. We both like to think that we’ve saved the lives of many books. For what can damage a human being can often harm a book.

Let’s take ultraviolet. In small doses, it’s good for people, and several minutes of it many help restore damp or mildewed books. But prolonged exposure is harmful for books and humans. UV acts like bleach, fading (“sunning”) paper and leather in books, even as it transforms our skin over the years into mottled parchment.

Ultraviolet can also contribute to macular degeneration, an eye problem that can cause the loss of sight. That’s one reason opticians and ophthalmologists recommend sunglasses with lenses of the kind of plastic that blocks UV rays.

Something similar happens to books. For our books, with or without dust jackets, sunglasses are replaced by clear plastic covers. You probably know that these jackets are a form of insurance; they protect books from moisture, tears, sticky fingers. But they also absorb some UV rays, and that is why we call them “sunglasses” for our books.

So plastic helps save our eyes, and shields our books from sunning and deterioration. Why not? Our books, our dog, ourselves — we’re all organic. We all contain that carbon molecule that differentiates us from stone and steel. We are organically “one” with our books.

Obviously we should not store books where the sun shines brightly, but there are other sources of UV light, such as fluorescent bulbs. They emit small amounts of UV rays, which may or may not harm us, but we recommend taking no chances where our books are concerned.

We use Brodart’s UV Fluorescent Light Filter, an archival polyester sheet that protects books, fabrics, photos, and eyesight from ultraviolet’s effects. Think of it as “sunglasses for your lighting.” It has an easy, snap-on design that fits any fluorescent tube, can be cut to fit any bulb length, and blocks about 98 percent of UV rays.

Let’s move on to the abrasive brew called dust, which can dull your books and damage your lungs.

For light dusting, there is an array of products. For books that are just routinely dusty, the custom is to wipe, gently and in one direction, with an old soft cloth. Depending on how much and what kind of dirt has accumulated on them, books may need the help of a dirt eraser, a document cleaning pad, or an application of a professional-grade product such as Absorene Book Cleaner.

When cleaning raises dust — it’s got to go somewhere! — work where there is good air circulation. Or use a small, portable vacuum cleaner that exerts just enough power to gather loose dust without touching the book and risking damage to delicate covers or pages. Available in battery-powered and plug-in styles, these devices have many other uses, such as cleaning bookshelves and computer keyboards.

But if you choose to wipe, wipe away from your face, wipe outside when possible or near a window, and try not to inhale the dust. You might wear one of those disposal masks worn by pedestrians and cyclists in polluted cities.

So keep your books — and yourself — healthy!


  • Great tips guys. I just bought a 32 year old art book (not yet antique, but its old) and your tips will help me protect it. Sad thing is: I really want to have it laying on my coffee table since it’s so stunning, but thats also the place that sees full sunshine at leat 3 hours a day.

    • Paul, maybe if you only set it out when you know that you’ll have appreciative company, you can mitigate all of that sun exposure! Enjoy your book, and thanks for sharing with us!

  • Dam this was a very helpful and interesting article. Help me figure out that my circular fluorescent lamp was messing up my eyes and making them fatigued. Also that the same light will be harmful to my books as well. It’s a shame that I couldn’t find any UV Fluorescent Light Filter for my circular fluorescent lamp.

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