Every year brings new interior design trends, and one of the now-viral buzzwords taking over TikTok these days is referred to as “bookshelf wealth.” It highlights carefully curated shelves—including books, art, plants and other items—to reflect a person’s interests and character. These bookshelves are lived-in, not for show, and they contain beloved books. The “wealth” of the trend is that it means something.

This article isn’t a guide to #bookshelfwealth. But the trend got us thinking: If our culture values authentic home libraries and meaningful books, how do we protect them? We insure precious jewelry. We preserve valuable art. But what about books?

If you’re going to go to the trouble of curating a significant and expressive home library, how do you care for it?

To answer these questions, we spoke to two local experts on book preservation. Dallas Bell is the owner of Burrowing Owl Books, which stocks carefully considered new and used books within two locations in Amarillo and Canyon. Warren Stricker is an archivist and director of the Research Center at Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, where he cares for some of the most precious books and documents in the history of this region.

Here are their suggestions for taking care of books.

Keep books upright on your shelves. Books are built for vertical placement rather than stacking, says Bell. “It’s important to stand them on shelves straight up and down, using bookends, as well,” she says. “This will keep the integrity of the paper and bookbinding and everything.” When books are stored horizontally for a long time, the weight of the paper can cause the spine to sag or become misshapen. “Gravity does what it’s supposed to do,” she says.

The Library of Congress recommends shelving books of similar size together. This allows each book to offer maximum support to its neighbors. But for especially heavy volumes that won’t fit properly on a shelf, flat storage might be necessary. “A lot of the time, it’s best to store [large books] flat rather than upright due to the weight of the text between covers and the stress on the binding,” Stricker adds.

Choose a stable environment. No TikTok-er is posting #bookshelfwealth videos from a dusty garage, and there’s a reason for that. Avoid extremes, Bell says. Storage in attics, garages and basements will expose books to wild fluctuations in temperature and humidity. “Garages make them exceptionally dirty,” she adds. For books, “the ideal temperature is something you and I are comfortable in.”

Cool and dry conditions are best, Stricker says. “The dry part is not hard in this part of the country,” he adds. In fact, sometimes it can be a little too dry in the Panhandle. “What I worry about most is extreme lack of humidity. It does make books and glue brittle,” Bell says. 

Exterior walls aren’t usually the best choices for home libraries due to fluctuating temperatures. Also consider proximity to heating and air-conditioning vents.

Avoid high-intensity light. Ultraviolet and bright sunlight can cause paper to deteriorate faster than normal. That means home libraries should be out of the sun and, preferably, away from fluorescent light. “You can put UV filtering on windows, but it’s easier to just make sure outside sunlight isn’t going directly on your items,” says Stricker at PPHM. At Burrowing Owl, most books are intentionally kept away from bright sunlight. “In front of windows, the light can cause fading of colors,” Bell says.

Both the bookshop and museum have been working to replace fluorescent lights with more protective LED lighting. 

Keep books clean. When customers bring used but undamaged, high-quality books to Burrowing Owl to trade, Bell and her team give them a thorough cleaning. “These are books people are wanting to look brand-new,” Bell says. “Adhesive damages books. We remove all stickers that we can with gentle products that can take off adhesive. We will wipe them down with a soft cloth.” Never use water, she says. “Even for a leather book cover, don’t use leather oil or dressing. Just use a soft towel.” 

Make sure to wipe down both the cover and the edges.

Protect the pages. Both Bell and Stricker are aghast at readers who dog-ear book pages rather than using a bookmark. It’s obvious: folding pages damages the paper. “Caring for items is just using good common sense,” Stricker says.

Rubber bands, paperclips and sticky notes also cause damage. Bell points out that even low-tack Post-It notes have an amount of acid in them that can discolor or damage paper over time. “Whatever you have on hand, all of that is better than anything adhesive.”

Un-shelf properly. With hardcover books, it’s tempting to hook a finger onto the top of a spine in order to tilt a book out from a shelf. Over the years, however, that repetitive motion can cause the spine to detach. Instead, push back the two books on either side of the book you’re after, then grasp and pull the central book off the shelf. This is especially important with older, more fragile books.

Consider the type of shelving. At PPHM, historical documents and bound books are largely stored on metal shelving. “Wood shelving is obviously commonly used in homes and libraries, but generally it’s not the best material for shelving because of the acidity of the wood or chemicals used in finishing,” Stricker says. “These can give off gases over time that can be harmful to a book.”

Of course, he realizes metal shelving isn’t the most attractive option for a home bookcase—and, for what it’s worth, most homeowners aren’t storing artifacts like Col. Charles Goodnight’s 19th-century account ledger.

Use a phase box. The museum places particularly valuable or fragile books into a protective enclosure called a phase box. These are usually made from acid-free cardboard and protect the book from dust and other pollutants. “It’s a method of storage developed over time,” Stricker says. “They form an enclosure for the book, can hold a loose cover in place and protect it from light.” While these are most often used by libraries and archivists, it’s not uncommon to use them for collections at home.

Stricker has been caring professionally for books and documents for more than three decades. Bell has been buying used books at garage and estate sales from here to Nevada. Both love the idea of carefully curated home libraries, but also recognize it can become overwhelming. “You have to manage your books and not let them manage you,” Bell says. “It’s a constant labor of love.” 

Books We Love

Brick & Elm co-founders Michele McAffrey and Jason Boyett are both avid readers and book collectors. Here are a few that sit prominently on their shelves:

Michele McAffrey

  • The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe series (C.S. Lewis): I have had my boxed set of the series since elementary school. I’ve read it multiple times, always recalling the comforting sound of my sixth grade English teacher’s voice as she read it to us. I imagined Turkish delight had to be the very best treat ever—until I tasted it as an adult (it’s gross!).
  • East of Eden (John Steinbeck): I read a borrowed copy of the classic in my young twenties, until my husband purchased a gorgeous leather edition for me. I still think about Steinbeck’s biblical parallels, particularly humanbeings’ struggles with jealousy and guilt.
  • Tales of the City (Armistead Maupin): My good friend Chip Chandler introduced me to Maupin. Once you meet the cast of characters, you’ll grow to love them, and you’ll miss them when you’ve finished the novel. I found myself wondering how everyone was doing afterwards, even knowing it was fiction. I loved it that much.
  • Fates and Furies (Lauren Groff): This book isn’t for everyone. It explores the 24-year relationship and marriage of Lotto and Mathilde, and the exquisite lines “more than the highlights, the bright events, it was in the small and the daily where she’d found life. These silent intimacies made their marriage” resonated with me. Marriage and intimacy are built on the simple things we share with our spouse. I think of it often.

Jason Boyett

  • A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving): My wife and I both read this novel in the mid-1990s, early in our marriage, and were so moved by the story that we named our son Owen.
  • Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry): I first read it in high school. I’ve read it three times since, including once during a travel season in Europe. I’ll likely read it again. And again.
  • A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (Norman Maclean): “I am haunted by waters.” Ours is a fly-fishing family, and my dad and I talked about the fly-fishing Maclean family all the time.
  • Stories of Your Life and Others (Ted Chiang): This novella inspired the film Arrival, and its reflection on life and death and language is one I think of on a regular basis.
  • The Passage Trilogy (Justin Cronin): At the height of Twilight mania, this series by a Texas writer completely redefined the vampire genre with a sprawling, provocative post-apocalyptic epic.
  • Wisdom Hunter (Randall Arthur): A mostly obscure bit of religious fiction I read as a college student, and it ended up being personally transformative. I’m still on the surprising journey this book launched.