Monday, April 26, 2010

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Caring for Old Cocktail Books, Part 1: Water Damage

Keep a shotgun under the bar if you like, but a hundred-year-old cocktail guide has no place next to it. Bars and kitchens—right where they’d be most useful—are some of the very worst places to keep old bartending manuals—and cookbooks for that matter. The water, the ice, spilled drinks, and (let’s face it) the drunks put valuable books under constant threat of irrevocable damage. And those aren’t the only danger zones.

Fortunately, caring for them is not difficult.

Mixing drinks and book collecting are complementary pastimes, but not in the same place. I know: I’ve done both for more than twenty years.

In a former life, I was a museum curator and still advise historical organizations on managing collections, libraries, and archives. Since the 1980’s, I’ve assembled about a 2,000-volume food and drink library at home, so caring for books—and making sure they last at least my lifetime—is something I do daily.

Of the most pernicious threats to your liquor library, light and water are two of the biggest. You can have cocktails in the dark, but you can’t have them without water so, for now, we’ll look at the wet stuff.

My library spreads over almost every room of the house, but there are four places I’d never store valuable books:
  • The kitchen, bar, or back bar
  • Bathrooms
  • The attic
  • The basement
Their common problem? Humidity. Paper, like humans, does best with a certain amount of moisture. Too much or too little and your books, pamphlets, and other paper cocktail ephemera react badly. For paper objects like these, conservators recommend 45-60% relative humidity—the amount of gaseous water in air at a certain temperature, expressed as RH%. Humidity above this range invites bugs and microbes as well as plain old structural damage to your collection—warped covers and curled pages, the kind of hurt you can see just looking at a book from several feet away.

Although it isn’t practical to measure RH at home or in your bar, you can use common sense to avoid very wet and very dry zones.

Too wet: Do not store or even use valuable books if liquids—water, ice cubes, liquor, bitters, syrups, fruit juices, soap, etc—are nearby. This means kitchen counters, bar tops, back bars, any food or drink prep area, and anywhere even near a sink or hand washing station. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to pour yourself a beer and cry into because there will be a spill or a splash. Pages will stick together, bindings will swell, inks will run, or the books may just get so waterlogged that they have to be thrown out. And the kicker? You didn’t need a museum curator to tell you this: it’s common sense.

There are a few water threats, though, that may be less self-evident. Do not store books on, under, or near:
  • Windows and skylights
  • Air conditioners
  • Outside walls
  • Ice machines
  • Refrigeration units
Because each of these tends to be a different temperature than the air in the room, water is more likely to condense in these places—and it’s not always apparent. Slowly, quietly, small amounts of unseen water can do big damage to your books long before you realize it.

Likewise, never store books under or near roofs, sprinkler heads, pipes, hoses, soda guns, faucets, beer engines, or valves of any kind; they may leak. They may leak? Who are we kidding? If they can leak, they will. The only question is when.

Whenever possible, it’s best to keep the books at least six inches off the floor, preferably on metal bookcases. If there is a spill, the sprinkler system goes off, or the dishwasher overflows, your books will be safer. Wooden bookcases can draw standing water up their posts and into the shelving, but generally only for a few inches; that’s why you want the lowest level of books about six inches off the floor.

But even ambient water in the air can be damaging. Like a whiskey barrel, paper expands and contracts. Makes sense: they’re both made of trees. The espresso machine, a shower, dishwasher, stove, washing machine, drier, or a teakettle can change the surrounding humidity enough to cause structural damage to a book when its paper expands or contracts too quickly. The obvious results could be wrinkles, splayed covers, and twisted spines. Your cocktail books will look like characters in a Bukowski story. Simply do not store books in rooms prone to high humidity. In your home, this means the kitchen, the bathroom, and the basement are definite no-go zones.

Water damage could, on the other hand, be subtle. High humidity encourages mold and, some say, foxing, those reddish brown spots that appear throughout older books. There’s nothing to be done about it. Once foxed, always foxed. Keeping such books away from water and high humidity, as outlined above, should help prevent further foxing. Mold is another thing entirely.

Mold is the herpes of your library. Never—and I mean never—bring home a book that’s already got mold. In addition to its distinctive unpleasant musty smell, mold produces enzymes that break down paper and binding. It is a pernicious infection that will spread to other books through direct contact as well as during handling when mold spores are disturbed. Mold can be halted, cleaned, and even—sometimes—eradicated. But those are expensive procedures: it’s easier just to keep books away from high-humidity settings in the first place—and from already-infected books.

Finally, damp areas (think of rathskellers, basement tiki bars, and basements in general) tend to attract vermin. I know. I know. Not your basement. Other people’s. So this is for those other people. Such areas at first might just attract insects that thrive in damp environments, insects that feast on the paper, glue, and fibers in books. Silverfish, cockroaches, firebrats, bookworms—these are the enemies of your books. Bad enough that they eat the paper, spines, and bindings, but they also attract insectivore predators, including mice and rats. Think a bookworm is bad for your books? Try a mother rodent shredding all that lovely, warm, insulating 19th-century paper to build a nest for her precious, tiny, pink newborns.

Keeping your book storage area dry is no guarantee of a pest-free home, but it helps keep the rodents and insects at bay. More importantly, dry storage is vital to maintaining your books’ structural integrity and limiting their exposure to mold.

Another day we’ll take a look at light. Sunlight arguably has done wonders for George Hamilton, but it’ll destroy your old food and drinks books.



BonzoGal said...

More more more! Will you cover repair? I've got a couple of fab old cookbooks on which the covers are torn, falling off, etc.

Also, what about those plastic library book covers? Do you use those?

Unknown said...

You forgot to mention book scorpions in your list of vermin.I'm not entirely sure if they follow other vermin in (the way water moccasins follow frogs after a flood) but they were certainly a problem in Florida.
On the other hand they were entertaining to freeze in ice cubes - just like the fake ones you used to see - only problem was when the ice thawed so did the scorpions.

Shawn said...

I can think of another type of damage that went uncovered, but when the books are that far from the bathroom already I don't know how one would further protect them!