Friday, December 18, 2009

Grandma's Shakespeare - a minor disaster and a question about antiquarian preservation

We're doing some major moving of shelves, which involves books, books, everywhere. Bags of books are being donated, things shifted and shoved to make way for the treadmill we bought as a Christmas gift to our fat selves (in the hopes that 2010 will be the year we shrink down to size and get healthy). In the process, my husband decided to get into the file cabinet and dig around. I'd completely forgotten that at some point I put the tiny volumes of Shakespeare that I inherited from my paternal grandmother inside one of those file drawers to keep them out of the light and, hopefully, preserve them a bit.

I found four of them on the floor when I walked into the room with the file cabinet, today. One was splayed open across a wrought-iron mirror, another was face-down and open, the remaining two fortunately landed flat. I was so shocked to find them on the floor that I actually gasped aloud. I picked them up, closed them and then asked my husband which file drawers he'd messed around in. He'd been in three out of four -- and couldn't remember which three. That meant I had to go digging for the rest of the books but I finally located them all. Some are in better condition than others.

This one seems to be preserved the best:

Isn't it beautiful? My grandmother gave me those books about a decade before she died because I mentioned that I recalled reading Romeo and Juliet on the high, 4-poster bed as a child and how much that had meant to me. So, they're very special. I have no idea how old they are because I took this photo and then realized I probably shouldn't be handling the books without gloves. There were already a couple little bits of leather on the floor. I closed it and put them in what I hope is a safe place.

The inscription says Mida Vesta Summers from "Uncle" - Christmas 1922. My grandmother was born in November of 1900 and would have therefore been 22 when she received the books. She was married a couple years later and was apparently a bit of a socialite. "Uncle" could have been a family friend; it's impossible to say, since she's long gone and so is my father.

I'm going to do a little research to see if I can find out how to better protect these little gems. I know absolutely nothing about the preservation of antiquarian books. Do you? If so, please share!


  1. I know nothing about preserving books. What treasures those are!

  2. Kathy,

    They are treasures, all right. I had a bit of a fit when I found them scattered. I've been reading up. Humidity is bad (um, you can't get more humid than Mississippi, except in a rainforest). I'm looking for an archival, acid-free box.

  3. You might try talking to someone with experience dealing with archives and rare books. My library's Archivist never seems to mind when someone asks him questions about preserving their books or photographs. There's probably someone in your area who'd be able to give you advice and maybe point you to a good place to get any supplies you might need.

  4. Library Girl,

    That's a great idea. The state archives are in downtown Jackson. When I was in a writing group that met in Jackson, we had someone from the archives come to speak to us. I know from that talk that they don't let anyone enter the viewing room without special gloves. No pencils or pens are allowed, but I'm obviously not going to write in my Grandma's books! :) What I'm seeing online is that humidity is bad and oiling the leather is bad. We're in a really humid climate, so I think the best I can do is to find something to protect them in and maybe stick them in the safe deposit box because the bank has better climate control than our house. But, I may give them a call.

  5. I don't know anything about preserving the books, but these are just exquisite! As Kathy said, what treasures ... in so many ways.

  6. I'm with Library Girl; check with the library, or, if there's a university in your area, check with them.

    What an amazing collection and such a wonderful story, too.

    I'll wish you luck in your research.


  7. You can buy little Mylar bags to seal them in that are UV resistant and some that have an airtight seal. But you can't display them that way. :(

  8. The problem is not the AGE of the books, but the LEATHER. You could also ask at an independent bookstore, especially one that sells "rare, used, and out-of-print" books. I worked for one of those a few years back, but I don't have any expertise in preserving old books.

  9. I know nothing about book preservation, and I don't have any gems like that in my house. Actually, my mom had some old books, but unfortunately they were damaged by a flood in her house and had to be tossed. (Well, I would have tried to save them, but I was several states away and not part of the recovery effort!)

    I hope you'll let us know what you learn about saving these treasures!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  10. All I know is what Bookfool said- humidity is bad. What a beautiful little collection. I have one rather old book, of some poetry an ancestor of mine wrote, but it's just shelved with my other books. I wonder if I should have it protected in some way (the publication date- by a now-extinct publishing house) is something like 1910.

  11. Wow, those are tiny! What a lovely heirloom to have. I don't know anything about book preservation, either - but I bet there's a book about it!

  12. Melissa,

    They certainly are treasures - and not even so much because they're old as much as for the memory that goes with them.


    There's no university in our area, but the state archives aren't that far away, so I'll probably give them a call after the holidays. Thank you!


    I've never displayed them because I thought I should keep them out of the sunlight, so that's not a problem. I just love knowing I have them. I'll look up UV-protective bags, then, thanks!


    We don't have any antiquarian book shops, even in Jackson, as far as I know -- but I did read exactly what you said, last night. It's not the age but the quality of leather, according to one site I visited. They said quality went down at the turn of the last century so you can have a 20-year-old Bible that's in tatters while a 14th-century leather tome might look nearly new. Isn't that wild?


    That's so sad about your mother's books. We've been flooded and the level of destruction is truly astounding. I doubt they could have been saved if they got really wet. I'm going to continue looking at options, but it looks like the most important things are to keep leather books dry, not to oil the leather, keep them out of sunlight and dramatic changes of temperature (no basements or attics). So, I'm just looking for something to protect them, like an archival (acid-free) box or bag.


    I read that it's okay to put an old book on the shelves as long as you don't squeeze it in too tightly between other books, but you might want to get a UV-protective sleeve if it's being exposed to light -- just to be on the safe side. Very cool that you still have that volume of poetry!!

  13. Lesley,

    They are tiny, yep. Cute little things. I think that was one of the reasons I was drawn to them, as a child. I've found some great info online, so I think I know what to do, now! :)

  14. These are so cool!! I had no idea how small they were until I saw the photo with your hand. What a treasure to own.

  15. Les,

    My hand looks abnormally humongous, but they are tiny little books. I think that's one reason I fell in love with them as a child. They're very precious to me. I figured my book blogging buddies would understand! Hubby absolutely doesn't comprehend why I was so upset that he knocked them onto the floor and didn't even notice he'd done so, much less understand why I was distraught about it. sigh

  16. What a fantastic gift you were given! They look wonderful..I love old books like that.

  17. Kris,

    Aren't they wonderful? I love old books, too. :)

  18. I know nothing about old books except that I love them. Envious.

  19. Those books are wonderful! Something to truly treasure.

  20. Carrie!!!!!

    I am so, so happy to "see" you!!! Yes, those little books are truly a treasure. I'm truly blessed to have inherited them.

  21. What an absolutely breathtaking collection! They are so tiny and cute, plus beautiful. I don't know a thing about preserving books. It is all I can do to keep my cat from chewing on the covers of mine. But I wanted to say how lovely I thought they were!

  22. Thanks, Rebecca!

    My cat used to scratch things to pieces but I've kept Grandma's Shakespeare away from kitties, thank godness. :) After the new year, I'm going to order an acid-free box to keep them in.


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