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The Exhibitsmith, on book preservation

[In my opinion, when you have a question, the best place to look is in a book.  However, sometimes you’re lucky enough to have a beloved friend who’s a subject matter expert.  My dear friend Lindsey is a professional archivist, and she was good enough to agree to shed some light on ways we readers can preserve treasured old books.  I emailed her some questions, and she did the rest. Enjoy! — Jamie.]

Thanks, Jamie, for inviting me to be a guest blogger for Such a Book Nerd!

So, Miss Lindsey, tell us a little about your background. Have you had much experience working with books?

Well, I work in museums and archives, so I work with a variety of historic items: photographs, manuscript collections, decorative arts, personal accessories, textiles, and yes, books! Before moving to Iowa two+ years ago, I didn’t have too much experience working with old books, but now that I’m the archivist at Des Moines University, I work directly with over a thousand rare books, dating back to 1634. When I handle or read an old book, I can’t help but think about all the people who have read those same words over the centuries—it’s pretty humbling stuff.

I’m currently in possession of three antique books that I love and treasure. I’d like them to remain in good shape. What are your recommendations?

The first thing to think about is the environment in which you keep your books. Is it hot? Cold? Particularly dry or damp? Temperature and humidity are very important factors to consider. Many institutions with rare book collections monitor the temperature and humidity of their storage facilities very closely to make sure that the books aren’t constantly under stress from changing conditions.

Ideally, you should keep your books in a cool, dark, dry place. The Des Moines University Archives and Rare Book Room, for example, installed a separate HVAC system just for the historic collection; the storage room is always 65° and around 40% relative humidity.

Since you probably aren’t planning to take some drastic measures I recommend the following to ensure the life of your books (and photographs, papers and artifacts):

  • Don’t keep the books in sunlight (they’ll fade and the sun can damage the paper),
  • Don’t keep them somewhere with extreme temperature fluctuation (no garages, basements or attics – that’s an order!), and
  • Don’t store them by an outside wall, a radiator, water pipe or heat source.
  • Do keep them somewhere cool, dark and dry, like an interior closet
  • Do keep them somewhere with a consistent environment (no seasonal temperature/humidity changes)
  • Do store them in “archival” materials that let the book breathe and won’t further damage the pieces
  • If your book has images that have bled to the adjacent page, do interleave a small piece of acid-free, unbuffered tissue between the sheets.
  • Do feel free to read your books and show them to family and friends. Just because they’re in a box in the closet doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them, too!

When I teach preservation workshops, I usually suggest that my students move their historic photos and books to guest room closet or other interior room. As for protecting the actual book, different books may require different methods of preservation.

If the book is in good condition, you can stand it up right on a shelf. Unless the binding is cracked, the book should be stored upright. If the book is in good shape but you’d like to wrap it to protect it from dust or fingerprints, I suggest wrapping it in a sheet of acid-free, buffered tissue paper, or wrapped in melinex® (Mylar). (See vendor information below)

If the books aren’t in great shape, you may need to wrap the books in something with more structure. If the binding is broken or the cover is cracked, I suggest purchasing a books case such as Archival Products’ Four Flap Enclosure or one of Gaylord’s Boxes.

I typically purchase my archival supplies from Gaylord.com, although there are many other reputable dealers including University Products and Archival Products. These companies are committed to the preservation of historic materials—unlike the “archival” and “acid-free” products sold at many craft and scrapbook stores. (Did you know that there are no standards associated with advertising something as “archival” or “acid-free”? Don’t be fooled by inaccurate marketing!

I know you’re a museum nerd – Which museums do you think would hold special interest for book nerds like me?

I’m very, very embarrassed to say that I have never visited the Newberry Library (perhaps Exhibitsmith & Such a Book Nerd can take a field trip together?) but they have an amazing collection of rare books. The University of Chicago also has a top notch archives and rare book collection. Also, surprisingly, the Museum of Science and Industry has a great collection of tiny books that are associated with Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle. Most of the books are signed by celebrities (from Leonard Bernstein to the Queen of England) and are not on exhibit, but you can still see lots of tiny books on display in the castle’s tiny book shelves!

And, if you ever get to England, the British Library maintains a wonderful exhibit of books, maps, and manuscripts from the collection. It’s a book (and archive) lover’s dream.

What made you start your own business? Have you found it rewarding?

I decided to start freelancing after moving to Iowa. When I moved, I had acquired my part-time job in the Des Moines University Archives and Rare Book Room, but I still had a lot of free time. My business is growing every week and I love every minute of it.

One of the great things about my line of work is that I get to learn something new every single day. Now that I’m floating from one organization to the next, the learning opportunities are even more varied and exciting as before. In fact, I recently started blogging about my unique on-the-job experiences.

Check it out: www.museumminute.wordpress.com.

If you have any preservation questions or are interested in having me speak about photo or book preservation for your club or organization, please email me at info@exhibitsmith.com or call (630) 220-0730. And, of course, please visit www.exhibitsmith.com for more information about me.

Thanks again to Jamie for this opportunity – now, off to preserve some books!

Lindsey

Guest Blogger Dan on “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” by David Sedaris

[Hey Readers! Today, I’m turning it over to my friend Dan!]

I have always enjoyed David Sedaris’ autobiographical essays and have read most of his books, so I was excited when Jamie gave me his new book for my birthday and said “I expect you to read this and blog about it!”

With Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, Sedaris veers from his normal format.  I hope that there isn’t much autobiographical material in this clever collection of irreverent fables that he describes as “A Modest Bestiary”.  There is a recurring theme of comeuppance for the selfish and self-absorbed, often to a quite violent and tragic end.

All of the characters take the form of animals: a gossipy baboon hairdresser, an uppity lab rat, and a tabloid reporter parrot among them.

The stories are all wonderful, but there are a couple stand-outs.  I was moved by the story of a bear who loses her mother and uses her orphan status as a means to garner attention from others, to an irritating fault.  When she finally learns her lesson by finding someone with a more tragic tale than her own, it doesn’t end well for her.

Among the funniest are one involving a stork who struggles with how to explain to her young child where babies come from and the final story about an owl, a gerbil, and a hippo’s musical rectum.  (If that final story’s description doesn’t persuade you to go right out and buy Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, then this is probably not the right Sedaris book for you!)

While Sedaris’ writing is in top form, this book would not be as entertaining without the brilliant illustrations of Ian Falconer.  Falconer is best known for writing and illustrating the Olivia series of children’s books, but his often gruesome drawings here are not for the wee ones!  They do, however, perfectly complement Sedaris’s stories.

If you’re looking for a quick, easy read that will make you laugh, pick up David Sedaris’ Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk today!!

[Thanks Dan!]

Guest blogger/BookNerdHusband Eric on “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” by Seth Grahame-Smith

When you plan to read a book titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you’re usually doing it with the full realization that there will be cheese, copious amounts of cheese. Combine the title with the fact that this book only hit my admittedly limited literary radar – I read at a near glacial speed – due to the fact that the author, Seth Grahame-Smith, wrote… or rather co-wrote (sorry about that, Ms. Austen) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I enjoyed immensely. Nothing dissuaded this anticipation of cheese as I began to read the introduction. Starting in the modern day, the introduction is actually a part of the story and culminates in a punchline, that being the author of the introduction, that lends the remainder of the book a level of verisimilitude. All good so far, now bring on the tongue-in-cheek historical references with thinly veiled wedges of Vampiric gore.

Then the book turns completely epistolary. This isn’t a tale told strictly from Mr. Lincoln’s point-of-view, but rather written by an author who has come into possession of the missing journals of our erstwhile President. It is presented as an historical account of the secret life of Abraham Lincoln, a moody depressive – a piece of historical accuracy; many believe that had he lived today Lincoln would have been diagnosed with clinical depression if not as a manic depressive. His vendetta against Vampire-kind is set up pretty early on and does not come as much of a surprise. What does come as a surprise is how seriously the subject is presented. The cheese, quite simply, is not there.

Abraham Lincoln is considered by many to be one of the most researched and documented human beings on the planet. Arguably one of the greatest United States Presidents, Abraham Lincoln’s life has been dissected to such a degree that you would think there was little space left to fit Vampires. However, Mr. Grahame-Smith does have one thing going in his favour. Sadly, Mr. Lincoln’s life was highlighted by a series of tragedies. As was common of the day-and-age in which he lived, there were many deaths around him. From his grandfather and namesake’s ambush and brutal murder 23 years before Lincoln was born, through the deaths of his older sister; his mother; his first recorded romantic interest, Ann Rutledge; and two of his four sons; all becomes fodder for the secret life Lincoln would lead.

There’s also a level of cohesion between the novel and actual history when it comes to the topic of slavery. Historical documentation makes it very clear that Abraham Lincoln was in no way a single-minded champion of the abolishment of slavery for the purpose of establishing equal rights. His personal beliefs were clear on the matter, he wrote in a letter to his friend, Joshua Speed (who plays a prominent role in the novel):

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.”

However, the Emancipation Proclamation itself was a War Measure meant to cripple the economy of states comprising the Confederacy.  There are strong ties between the existence of Vampires in America and slavery, and it is Lincoln’s almost pathological hatred of Vampires that provides further support for his distaste of slavery while simultaneously relegating slavery to the background until its confrontation becomes necessary for victory.

The only real disappointment for me was the somewhat “Deus Ex Machina” nature of the Vampire Henry and his “Union”. It seemed somewhat lazy of Grahame-Smith to not provide Lincoln with more opportunities to control his destiny. There were so many moments in the novel that he could have easily shaped more of a hero out of Lincoln. Instead he depicted him as a tool of some greater, secret struggle Lincoln could never have hoped to have fought and won on his own.

Also, if you’re looking for a book with a bit of scare, this isn’t it. The scariest parts of the book fall somewhere between the vivid, sometimes gory dreams Lincoln has and the real-life recollections of the battlefield conditions of the Civil War. Overall Grahame-Smith did an admirable job of providing an imaginary historical account while retaining probability and Abraham Lincoln’s – probably wildly historically inaccurate – friendship with a certain literary contemporary is a well-played shot of brilliance. Your mileage may vary regarding the ending, you’ll either see it coming a mile away or it will catch you as a surprise. I quite enjoyed the ending, despite myself.

Guest Blogger Betsy discusses books on real hauntings

[Today’s blog comes to you from Betsy, of the wonderful blog A Rhinestone World.  In addition to being a giant book nerd, she’s also a fabulous actress, and will be appearing in Circle Theatre’s upcoming production of “Kiss Me, Kate.” Which you should see.  Because they’re a wonderful group.]

++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Houses Are Not Haunted, We Are Haunted” – Dean Koontz

PEE-WEE: Large Marge sent me.
MAN IN DINER: Did you say Large Marge?
PEE-WEE: She just dropped me off.
MAN IN DINER: That’s impossible. She’s… It was ten years ago on a night just like tonight. Why, tonight’s the anniversary. Worst accident I ever seen.
PEE-WEE: But that means the Large Marge I was riding with was…
ALL: Her ghost!
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

I still have to watch the Large Marge scene through my hands.  Scout’s honor.

Still, real life can be more horrifying than any fiction.  A cat threw up on us in the middle of the night and our coffee pot exploded all over the kitchen soaking through both my rehearsal and audition bags. I also discovered I probably left a library book in a cab. This is all before we realized it was Monday.  While coffee-stained character shoes may not be everyone’s worst nightmare, it stills sends a shiver up my spine.  And that’s not even mentioning the hairball.

Terrifying.

I am a strong soul, however, and both myself and my intrepid husband weathered the horrid start to a work week.  That is because it could be worse. Our apartment could be located over a recently disturbed Indian burial ground, for example.  Maybe the tortured soul of a sullied woman reaches out to us from another dimension.  Or perhaps an unthinkable atrocity occurred in the old building, only to relive the terror each night as the clock hits 12.  While I shudder to think about having the cat incident repeat itself, I breathe easier knowing the source.

When it comes to Horror in literature, some people love vampires.  Others enjoy a nasty serial killer.  Perhaps a monster or even an evil stepmother is another man’s cup of tea.  I am a fan of ghosts.  They are scary, yes, but they are also romantic, in a way.  They have a sense of history, and they seem somehow, the most plausible which makes them, to me, the most scary.  Local folklore all over the world is packed with the spiritual:  thanks to Cabrini Green’s notorious Candy Man, and the likes of Bloody Mary, mirrors have always given me pause.  Literature abounds with eerie apparitions:  Wilde’s Sir Simon De Canterville, Irving’s Headless Horsemen, Dicken’s ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost, … Shakespeare, in particular, has a treasure trove of occultish figures.  The theatre in general has a love affair with ghosts, both on and off the page.  I will never forget rehearsing a show at a tiny black box theatre in the Roger’s Park neighborhood here in Chicago.  The theatre has lingering elements of it’s former life as (I assume) an apartment.  Once I shouted from the bathroom, “HEY!  Why are all these chairs stacked up in the shower?”  “To keep the ghost out,” a cast member casually replied.  I’m sure my Don Knotts-style skedaddle was pretty fun to watch.  I don’t know why a ghost would haunt a shower stall, but I wasn’t about to find out.  A toilet was good enough for Moaning Myrtle.  Let’s leave it at that.

But the fictional ghosts of literature and pulp fiction are not the first thing I reach for.  What I dig is a “true haunting.”  Looking up a picture of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall by myself in a dark apartment is enough to paralyze me with fear. Or at least make me incapable of going down to the basement to do laundry by myself.  In that same spirit, no pun intended, do I immerse myself in books about “true hauntings.”

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson is the most famous of “real-life” haunting accounts.  But it is not alone.  Over the years, I’ve become a somewhat accidental connoisseur of true hauntings.  I should say my belief in ghosts is dubious in daylight.  I believe there are things we don’t understand, and people I consider wizened and practical have shared some rather interesting occurrences with me that I find fascinating.  Yet, I’ve never really experienced a ghostly encounter myself.  So I approach most true haunting books in a Capote-esque “non-fiction novel” sense.  I believe something happened to these people, I just don’t know if I believe their explanation for it.  Still, if it’s late at night and I’m alone reading it, I find them delightfully terrifying.  The words “This is a true story” add an excellent punch to the scariness whether it is actually true or not.

What’s most interesting to me is that after reading many of these accounts, it’s The Amityville Horror that is one of the least believable.  Still, a smashing good time all around.  If you’re into that sort of thing, don’t avoid it.

True Haunting accounts typically involve a recent divorce, a bad marriage, a nasty teenager, construction or remodeling, or a relocation.  I tend to take the bad marriage/recent divorce or remarriage stories with the biggest grain of salt.  With all the empathy I can muster, sometimes it might be easier saying you are plagued by evil spirits from the beyond rather than admit your chosen spouse is an asshole.  A lot of these stories come out of the 60’s and 70’s.  Women’s roles were changing in the home, there was some civil unrest.  The ones I take a little more seriously are happy families who move into a new-to-them home.  Happy families don’t need the distraction of ghostly shenanigans, and frankly, may suffer social consequences by admitting to them in the first place.  It adds a nice smack of authenticity.

The second True Haunting book I read was called Echoes of a Haunting by Clara M. Miller. I was a student at Archbold Middle School.  I was reading Echoes of a Haunting at about 7:30 in the morning waiting for the first bell to ring.  A friend of mine walked up to me and said, “Hi Betsy,” and I said, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  The most benign greeting had sent me crawling the ropes.  Fascinating, in that otherwise I had been rope-incapable.  So, my 12-year-old self gives Echoes beyond 5 stars.  Frankly I remember nothing but being terrified.  I don’t remember a single plot point.

But here’s the thing, 9 times out of 10, these books aren’t dealing with ghosts.  They are dealing with demons.  And I don’t believe in demons.  At least not the ghoulish creatures of folklore.  Deep dark mental illness?  You betcha.  Still, terrifying in it’s own right.  That which we call a rose…or whatever, you know?  And indeed Echoes is really about a possession.

Moving along to high school, the third True Haunting book I read was called The Haunted: One Family’s Nightmare by Robert Curran.  I was reading it at Thanksgiving, and even with our living room packed full of my family in the afternoon, I was still as jumpy as could be.

A lot of these stories have made their way onto episodes of the Discovery Channel series A Haunting, or into the investigatory hands of the TAPS team in the series Ghost Hunters.  Some are frankly ridiculous.  Still entertaining as all get out.

I’ve sifted through many a true tome and here are my thoughts on some other titles:

1.  Night Stalks the Mansion by Harold Cameron and Constance Westbie.  Night Stalks the Mansion reads like your veteran grandfather (who doesn’t buy into any of that ghost bullshit) is telling you the tale.  And he’s reluctant.  But he can’t come up with a better explanation.  Harold Cameron, with the help of writer Constance Westbie, tells of his time spent with his family in an old unincorporated Philadelphia mansion.  Originally published in 1978, you might have to roll your eyes at Mr. Cameron’s occasional jabs at women being silly about things, but somehow his mild misogyny makes you think this dude really felt he had to tell somebody what happened.  Even if it means risking his reputation and bein’ silly like a lady.

2.  The Bell Witch by Brett Monahan.  Don’t let the title fool you.  The Bell Witch is a ghost (and also served as inspiration for The Blair Witch Project.)  Mr. Monohan (a horror fiction author, it must be noted) actually takes what could be an uproarious historical account and makes it, well, kind of boring.  The thing about The Bell Witch is this: most assuredly, SOMETHING happened in Robertson County, Tennessee in 1818.  Most accounts characterize it as a particularly vocal poltergeist.  I think that it was a singularly ingenious local citizen who was having a high old time scaring the bejabbers out of the Robertson County hoy polloy.  In one particularly boisterous episode the “Bell Witch” loudly calls the patriarch of the house an asshole.  Frankly, it’s pretty funny.  The Bell Witch, historically, occurs just before Spiritualism hit it’s hey day in the U.S.  (a subject, if approached from the right angle, that is also pretty amusing.  In 1847, for example, the Fox Sisters had thousands convinced they were communicating with the spirits by a series of knocks that they would interpret for onlookers.  Eventually, they admitted they were just really good at crackin’ their toe knuckles.  True story.)   So read The Bell Witch not to be scared, but to witness a good old American practical joke from almost 200 years ago.

3.  Grave’s End by Elaine Mercado.  Ms. Mercardo is a Long Islander.  So much so, that the book sort of reads like she’s telling you a gossipy story over coffee in her kitchen.  (It’s hard not to read in dialect.)  Except it’s not gossip.  It’s about her.  And also, her kitchen is a pretty terrifying place to be.  Her story fits the aforementioned “bad marriage”/remodel blame game I mentioned.  Still, it’s a quick read and nicely spooky.

4.  Haunted America by Michael Norman and Beth Scott.  The authors go state by state and relate one or two purportedly true stories from each locale.  I’ve enjoyed reading the stories and then following up on the Internet to check out pictures and other people’s accounts.  A goosebumpy good time.  Also check their other title, Haunted Heartland.

Now for some titles I have yet to read, but feel inclined to let you know exist:
1.  The Uninvited:  The True Story of the Union Screaming House by Steven LaChance
2.  Ghosts of the McBride House: A True Haunting by Cecelia Black
3.  House of Spirits and Whispers:  The True Story of a Haunted House by Annie Wilder
4.  The Ghosts on 87th Lane: A True Story by M.L. Woelm
5.  Haunted:  The Incredible True Story of a Canadian Family’s Experience Living in a Haunted House (hell of a subtitle, no?) by Dorah L. Williams
6.  The Myrtle’s Plantation:  The True Story of America’s Most Haunted House by Frances Kermeen
7.  You Can’t See Me, But I’m Here:  A Haunting in Centrahoma by Jason Taylor
8.  The Wall:  A Horrifying True Story of a Haunting by Amelia Cotter

Of course nothing beats a late night “well I heard” session with your family and best friends and their ghost stories. My sisters and I have accompanied each other even to the bathroom after being scared witless by accounts of real ghosts.  It’s that personal touch that (in the words of the play King Phycus) “gives one the heebie jeebs.” 

I will leave you with this:  it’s often your friend who seems the least likely to believe in anything remotely supernatural that has the best and most terrifying stories of them all.  “For,” in the words of the masterful ghost story teller Charles Dickens, “who can wonder that man should feel a vague belief in tales of disembodied spirits wandering through those places which they once dearly affected, when he himself, scarcely less separated from his old world than they, is for ever lingering upon past emotions and bygone times, and hovering, the ghost of his former self, about the places and people that warmed his heart of old?” 

That’s ol’ Chuck’s way of saying, “Go ahead and stack some chairs in your shower.”