Monday, August 3, 2020

Text block sag and what you can do about it

With another news-starved week of releases in the rearview mirror, let's fill the void by talking about something else related to books and collecting. The Civil War literature has its share of behemoths, and I'm certainly not alone in wanting to keep the most valuable books in the collection in the best shape possible. So many things make this difficult (among them the fact that few shippers make an effort to properly package a book anymore), but the hindering factor under discussion here will be text (a.k.a. page or book) block sag. That is when the gravitational weight of a shelved book's pages collectively pull downward on the binding, eventually forming the infamous smile-shaped droop to the text block's lower-corner, the edge of which then drags on the shelf bottom leading to unwanted applications of grime and wear. Just how much the block visibly pulls away from the spine head (forming a kind of tunnel between the spine face and text block backing) can be random. Anyone who stores their books in the classic upright position will come across this annoyance. Though some presumably vulnerable titles seem to miraculously escape the phenomenon, essentially every very thick book with modern binding will get it to some degree. Beyond being unsightly, the deformation, when severe, can certainly have a negative affect on a book's value and overall binding stability.

So what can you do about it?

(Option 1): Do nothing. If the affected book doesn't have much value or you never plan on selling it, you can just let it happen gracefully and worry about more important things.

(Option 2): Store your thickest books spine-down. This is a big no-no. Though it might seem like a reasonable preventative measure, the consensus among experts on modern binding techniques is that spine-down storage places undue pressure on all the wrong places.

(Option 3): Store books upright but very tightly pressed together. Theoretically, these horizontal forces will counteract, at least to some degree, the downward force created by the text block. This is another big no-no. Shelving books in this manner will over time result in damaging wear and can even cause harmful sticking between adjacent covers. Also, if books shelved this way have different heights, the covers will warp each other over time.

(Option 4): Flip the spines over occasionally, with the idea that the 'counter-sag' effect will tend to bring things well enough into realignment. I came to this solution independently for my mid-sized saggers. Though not ideal, from what I've read it seems to be an acceptable practice among bibliophiles. I find that it works pretty good on most offenders.

(Option 5): Fashion custom-sized support blocks. This is one in the category of too extreme for most, but I've read that some rare book collectors will make rectangular blocks (covered with acid-free material, of course) precisely measured to fit between front and back boards and slid underneath the text block to carry its weight.

(Option 6): Stack these kinds of books horizontally. This is the ideal solution; but, if you own a very large collection and have limited storage capacity, it's entirely impractical in terms of how much space it uses. Depending on the weight, you are limited to two or three additional books in the stack. That's a lot of wasted square footage.

So what do I do? For the most valuable big doorstoppers I try to find some place for horizontal storage. For the rest, I do a combination of #4 and reasonably (not too) tight shelving. If you have any advice on the topic or just think I'm insane to even care about such things, feel free to comment below.

8 comments:

  1. I am like you. My bigger heavier books I store horizontally, and almost all the rest are very tightly packed (can't even get a piece of paper between them).

    Anyone who doesn't have enough room to handle his books, however he deems best, needs to move to a bigger place, or as I threaten to do sell of his wife's shoe and purse collection for more room. Well, on second thought....

    Nice article, Drew.

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    1. Ted: I highly endorse horizontal. Of course, in my case that means a few rest securely on the floor. For example, my Smith books on Stones River and Shiloh.

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  2. Not insane. The book that always comes to mind first is A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia. I have only had the book a little while and have already noticed the spine wearing you described. I have thought about shelving it horizontally and then continuing the collection over it vertically but it is a pain to get to then. All in all these are nice high class problems to have. Cur Thomasco

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    1. Yes, that is a good example. I have my doubts that the binding on that one can stand up to heavy use. One of those that gives you the feeling the spine is precarious the moment you first open it.

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  3. Drew:

    I use Mylar dust jackets for my Civil War books, which prevents the wear and sticking problems you mention in Option 3. Also great for preventing incidental damage while reading and handling, e.g. falling asleep in my easy chair while reading! Modest cost.
    I would never have the discipline to keep up with Option 4 consistently.

    John Sinclair

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    1. I selectively do the mylar thing, too. When I read a new book, I always remove the jacket and put it back on after I finish it.

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  4. I used to put Mylar on all my books. It was an enjoyable task. I have some left and may start again, but now I have about 1,500 to go... I won't live long enough.

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    1. There's an art to it that I don't find fun at all!

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