Biblio Blog: Between the Covers

Between the Covers

The covers of the book that is.

Welcome back to The Gerry and Anna Maier Special Collections Reading Room at the St. Mary’s University Library! While the books in this room cannot be taken home they can be accessed in Library. The tactility of holding and paging through a unique rare book is a rewarding exploratory experience. To ensure that our collections remain special, a customized approach is taken to accomplish this balance of access and protection.

This blog will demystify select elements of the rare book world by sharing the distinct terminology and preservation practices that are employed to ensure access and enjoyment while seeking to satisfy curiosity.

Thinking inside the box

Due to their fragile and unique nature Special Collections require particular environmental controls, handling, and storage that differ in nature from regular circulating and reference use books at the library. All the tools and supplies used to house Special Collections must be acid-free (archival quality) and chemically inert. This includes special supplies, tools, and boxes to house and protect books and other objects.

Environmental Controls

Not too hot and not too cold. The best way to protect a collection is by maintaining a stable and constant temperature and a relative humidity that does not fluctuate. Adequate ventilation and protection from harsh lighting and pestilence offer further protection.

Use and Handling

Basic handling procedures are required to protect the item along with special pillows, book cradles, and snake weights that are used to protect the binding of the book from being forced while in use or on display.

Baudot de Juilly, and Juvenel de Carlencas. Relation Historique et Galante De L’invasion De L’Espagne Par Les Maures. A. Moetjens, 1699. Source: Special Collections, St. Mary’s University Library.


There are many types of customized boxes that form protective enclosures for rare books. This aids in the protection of the book from further damage and in some cases from contaminating other collection items in close proximity.  Leather “red rot”, foxing, mould, and acidic paper are detrimental to rare books and must be mitigated by the application of preservation techniques.

Example of custom made phase box to protect a fragile book from 1699.

Baudot de Juilly, and Juvenel de Carlencas. Relation Historique et Galante De L’invasion De L’Espagne Par Les Maures. A. Moetjens, 1699. Source: Special Collections, St. Mary’s University Library.


It is very important to have acid-free books, tools, and supplies in Special Collections. In particular, acid paper in books can destroy an entire collection. Traditionally paper was made from the pulp of unbleached cotton or linen rags that stand the test of time to this day. Modern paper made from wood pulp does not. Thus, a 500 year old printed book will remain in fine condition, whereas a modern book that is a mere 50 years old may be so brittle that it will crumble in one’s hands.

Leather binding – Red rot

This does not sound very appetizing! Red rot is the term used to describe leather binding that has deteriorated into a red powder due to a chemical breakdown of the leather. The best way to protect a book in this condition is to wrap it in acid-free paper and box it.

Are Those Brown Spots On Old Books Freckles?

The brown spots sometimes seen on rare books are known as foxing because they are the reddish-brown colour of a fox’s hair. The name may derive from the colour of the stains, or the rust from the chemical ferric oxide that may be involved in the deterioration process.

Hidden Treasures – Beyond the pages

Rare books can include unique physical features that may not be expected inside the book. Ephemera and maps are two examples of hidden treasures.


At times librarians or researchers find small objects such as print photographs, book marks, music song sheets, even love letters inside rare books that may shed some light on the previous owner and the date of imprint. This is also known as provenance in the antiquarian book trade and cultural institutions.

Ephemera, various. Source: Special Collections, St. Mary’s University Library.


In the days before Google Maps books often included mid to large scale fold out maps that would be attached inside the book, tipped in, or placed in special pockets at the back of the book.

: Fortescue, J. W. A History of the British Army. Vol.1. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1910. Print. Source: Special Collections, St. Mary’s University Library.

This active preservation of Special Collections items ensures their longevity and legacy for current and future generations at St. Mary’s University Library to enjoy.

Blog Post Written By: Catherine Carlyle, Library Services Specialist

Catherine joined the StMU Library team in April 2018. Prior to joining StMU she managed physical and electronic collections for libraries and cultural institutions in Canada and England. Notably, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, and Harrow Libraries, London, England. Her interests lie in living cultural heritage, preservation of collections, and art history.


Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). Web.

Reitz, Joan M., and Western Connecticut State University. Libraries. ODLIS: Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science. WCSU Libraries, Danbury, Conn., 1996.

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