I live with a Renaissance historian professor and we own a small collection of materials dated from about 1450 to the mid 1800s. Until very recently everything we owned pre-dated wood pulp paper, which was introduced in 1843, but we now have one item published after that. We also have some modern examples of old book technologies; modern papyrus, a reproduction of a Roman-style wax tablet, a reproduction of a codex without a spine showing how the quires are stitched together. We often bring parts of the collection to science fiction conventions and give a panel on rare books and printing history— a sort of show and tell where we hand a book or manuscript page around the room to let people get a closer look and find out how the books are put together and what they smell or feel like.
People often are hesitant to handle a book which is about five hundred years old, but the books in our collection are actually pretty sturdy despite having been chosen because they were in terrible condition. (Books in terrible condition allows you to show students exciting things like book worm trails or how the spine is put together because it is falling off.) The lifetime of leather and of rag-paper is longer than the lifetime of the books that we own, so unless a page has been chewed on by a book worm, the page is fine. I worked on a brittle books preservation project for my first full-time library job and the oldest materials in our project which was for books published between 1800 and 1950, weren’t actually all that brittle; anything published before the introduction of wood pulp paper were much more likely to be in good condition then the ones published more than a hundred years later. When I worked at the special collections library at Texas A&M, the most brittle items in the collection were probably the science fiction magazines from the 1970s which were printed on highly acidic paper and were so fragile that we weren’t able to digitize them because the process would destroy the magazines completely (and possibly also be destroyed before we could take pictures since if a page shatters when you turn it, you’re not going to get a shot of the back. My take-away lesson from these projects and from working with our own collection is that you want to have clean hands when handling the materials to minimize damage from the natural oils in your hands (or residue from food, hand lotion, or whatever else you’ve been touching) and you don’t want to wear gloves, because if you are trying to turn fragile pages, the last thing you want is to reduce your dexterity.
I’ve spent about half of my library career working on preservation projects or with special collections materials. All libraries have emergency preparedness plans for what to do if there’s a fire, or water in the building from flooding due to rain or a pipe bursting, or other unforeseen disasters. But you hear about it more when you work in preservation or with rare books because your job is making sure your materials are okay so people can continue to use them.
I have twice had to enact emergency procedures at home to save books. Once was about ten years ago when I lived in a condominium on the basement level and we got a lot of rain. I spent an afternoon bailing out the area at the bottom of the steps leading down to the door of the foyer because the drain couldn’t handle the amount of water that it was getting and would have risen high enough to go over the lintel. The day after that, water started seeping through the floor of a friends unit and we spent all day removing books and papers off of it, freezing anything that was soaked and interleaving the pages of others with paper towels to help them dry.
A few weeks ago, one of the units in our building had a fire and we evacuated the building. Our traveling collection had recently acquired new preservation quality boxes, making it easy to grab them and head outside. Which we did without needing to discuss or think about it because fire plus old books is bad and our insurance policy can more easily replace our large collection of modern books than the antique and rare ones. So that went pretty well and we sustained very little damage to our collection, including ones which were left in the apartment because, luckily, the fire didn’t spread far. We only sustained water damage in one room, where we kept comics in comic book boxes and plastic bags. We removed everything as soon as we were allowed to return and some of the boxes got wet but the comics themselves were fine.
We also accidentally dropped one of the rare books down the elevator shaft after we were let back in the building because the elevator was crowded and one of the boxes was knocked over.
The book was recovered and other than being a little dusty, sustained no damage. And now we have a new story to tell people when they are worried about damaging a five hundred year old book.
We plan to have a more formalized emergency plan (which includes remembering to grab more rare items not part of the traveling collection. Also my phone, which I failed to bring with me in the evacuation because it was charging, leaving me out of contact with the rest of my housemates who were told to go elsewhere.) for the hopefully non-existent future emergencies. In the meantime, we are dealing with after-care to remove the smoke smell from the books with ozone treatment and air scrubbers, and since renovations in the unit with the fire is going to kick up more ash and smoke smell, more ozone or other treatment may be necessary in the future.