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How can I preserve my older, or more delicate, RPG books? My collection includes some older books (from the 1970s-1980s), some of which are in less than stellar condition. They may be paperbacks, have loose bindings, etc.

I would like to preserve them for future enjoyment, but also keep them accessible. My contractor is salivating at the thought of building an expensive, climate-controlled room with each book individually held in a display case. However, that would make the books inaccessible and difficult to enjoy.1

I don't need a way to safeguard the entire collection, just a curated subset of the most valuable or at-risk items.


1 My partner insists there are other reasons not to construct this room. Those concerns are outside the scope of this question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I love your footnote :-). \$\endgroup\$ Mar 21 at 6:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MaxD yes, they do. The expected usage of RPG books is quite different to, say, a novel. You'd be going through them a lot to reference different sections. Math books might not need be referenced that often or you could extract from them the small sections you need. For an RPG book, you might need to reference 100 pages (e.g., encompassing races, classes, combat rules) multiple times a session. Also, RPG books are usually shared around the table, so you might have one that, say, five people need to look up stuff during a play session. AFAIK, that's not how mathematicians use their books. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Mar 22 at 10:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ I’m voting to close this question because this is not RPG specific and is better asked on a different stack in my opinion. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Mar 22 at 20:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri what you call "Generic" is the actual experience from someone working with 100-year-old sources on paper that had at the time of printing worse quality than many RPG books. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Mar 22 at 23:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ The on-topicness of this question is being discussed on meta: Is this question about the preservation of books on topic? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 23 at 20:34

5 Answers 5

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There is a Wikipedia article on the conservation of books that recommends storage methods and materials

  • storage in a cool, dry, clean, and stable location
  • clear polyester (Mylar) film sleeves (comic books are often stored this way to protect them)
  • protective archival-quality boxes, made of acid-free and lignin-free materials, which should not be overfilled
  • books may be interleaved with acid/lignin-free paper
  • average-size books should be shelved vertically, side-by-side so they can support each other.
  • shelves should stand away from exterior walls and should not be overpacked
  • powder-coated steel shelving, chrome-plated steel shelving or anodized aluminum shelving. Wood shelving is a more economical option but the wood must be sealed to prevent the emission of acids and volatiles. The most recommended coating is moisture-borne polyurethane.

As Trish points out in their excellent, complementary answer if you do not use archival boxes, you make sure that the books are not exposed to UV light that will bleach them out.

Especially if you want to regularly access them, vertical standing storage in polyester bags in a metal shelf against an interior wall in a dry, dark room where you keep the heating down or have AC seems a practical way to go about it.

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As Groody suggested, there's a lot you can do to make the room good, but there are two more steps you can do for handling that can aid in preserving them.

UV light is the enemy

UV light, like from a window or an incandescent lamp, is the enemy of pulp paper. If you ever put a cheap newspaper into the sun for a few weeks, you'll notice that the paper got quite stiffer and after a few months the paper color will change. This is the paper chemistry working, accelerated by the sunlight and warmth. So, we should reduce that exposure to the minimum.

Because of this aging from UV light, you should replace the lighting with LED, which does not produce UV light and also is more friendly for the environment, as such bulbs draw less power.

Further, you should store the books in a way that is protected from sunlight - for example by just using a windowless room (like the basement) for your gaming den, placing the shelf on a wall that doesn't get hit by daylight or by using a cabinet door that prevents daylight to fall onto the books.

The best preservation is not to handle them (carelessly)

The sad part is, that whenever you handle a book, you harm it. So the first part of preservation is to limit access to it.

  • Wear gloves
  • Digitize

Wear gloves

I have had the honor to get access to files from about 1900 in a couple of archives. Some of these papers started to yellow and were in various active states of very slow decay, despite being stored in a dry and lightless cellar on proper shelving. Most of those I was still allowed to handle with bare hands, but there was one volume of old newspapers that had suffered from some additional damage over the last century. For this volume, I was handed a pair of white gloves to prevent fingerprints from accelerating the aging of the paper.

A book of collected weekly newsletters from that time was in an even worse condition and I was denied access to this at all unless I could make a very good case to even see it. Instead, I was given a digital copy of the contents by the librarian. This brings us to the other handling damage reduction method:

Digitizing helps to access without handling

When you have a rare book, you could digitize it to have the information available while not having to remove the book from its storage. This could either be done yourself using a scanner or camera and shooting lots of photos with a tripod will make a rather huge file. It is generally better to use a special camera machine (Some libraries have these, or you might hire a professional digitizing service) to create a digital copy of the work. The biggest hiccup is, that many services and machines do not run an OCR on the resulting picture and this generates picture PDFs. These are not searchable, making them sometimes clunky, and the quality can vary in the same PDF.

Also, remember to stay within the law: you may only create copies for some purposes, for example archiving, but not others, like distributing. Check your copyright laws.

However, Digitizing can also be as simple as acquiring a file-sized optimized and almost always OCR-treated version of the book from a reputable reseller. You wouldn't realize at first, but services like DriveThruRPG have, by offering PDF versions of the old books, kept old games from which the books are near-extinct quite alive and accessible.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for digitizing (ie buy a pdf). This is likely the most cost effective way to keep the information accessible while not further degrading the older physical books. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 21 at 13:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ "These are not searchable, making them sometimes clunky" - to be fair, neither are books, so the output is still less clunky than a physics book :) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 29 at 8:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is digitizing risky to the book? I can't imagine how they do it without removing the pages from their binding. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 31 at 2:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @indigochild it is not: They generally ue some sort of cradle to hold the book, like this machine used in the internet archive: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digitization#/media/… \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Mar 31 at 5:58
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I'll add a controversial answer, which started taking hold in our play group over the last years as we were all getting jobs that payed a decent salary...

We simply bought a second copy of our most treasured and/or most used books. That second copy gets stowed away for long-term safekeeping (see Groody's answer for all the right packaging materials, etc.), while the original is used in regular sessions and might further degrade over time.

Even though teenage me would probably cringe and curse us for it, nowadays it turned out that shelling out some bucks for another set of used books on Ebay or Amazon was the easier solution than trying to somehow make our existing editions truly wear-resistant. And our playgroup soon found out that we don't overly like working on digital copies...

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sadly, the ship to get a print copy of many old books has sailed: Trying to get a copy of Shadowrun 1st edition is nigh impossible and Gun Haven 1-4 for SR4 are priced at over 150$ a piece. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Mar 21 at 16:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Trish, an alternative might be to buy an electronic edition and print it out for day-to-day use, while preserving your original hardcopy. \$\endgroup\$
    – The Photon
    Mar 22 at 1:43
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Buy Used Copies, Digital Copies or Reprints

This is what I did for most of mine. I found that for most of my older books, I could buy cheap, used, maybe even beat-up copies on Ebay or comic book stores that were generally useable. This allowed me to not use my very old pristine, possibly valuable books (like the original Deities and Demigods). You can still do the other preservation techniques on your originals (mylar, etc,) but now you can avoid/minimize doing the one thing that damages them the most: actually using them (finger sweat, bending the back, etc.)

I know it sounds crazy at first, but it was actually cheaper (and more reliable) than all of the other preservation options I had at the time. And you may be thinking that you won't be able to find many or your rarest books, and that may be partially true, but beat-up copies of even rare books are actually cheaper (and more available) than most people realize. Just be patient.


Based on a comment below, I want to make clear that this includes both the possibilities of Digital versions and hardcopy reprints. If your goal is to be able to read and use the original material, with out damaging the collectability of your original copy, this meets both goals in full.

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    \$\begingroup\$ NOTE: this answer may seem the same as @fgysin's but it's actually the converse: Instead of buying new clean copies and preserving them, I am recommending buying beat-up copies to preserve your originals. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 22 at 12:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ While you can buy used copies, that still gives the problem of getting such: I have not seen a single SR1 core rulebook for sale in more than a decade. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Mar 22 at 12:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Trish Thus why I said that it may be partially true that you cannot find all of your books. However, SR1, like many other old books is also available both in Digital format and as a reprint, which both fit my answer above: preview.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/78877/… \$\endgroup\$ Mar 22 at 14:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ For what the question is, this is by far the most appropriate answer in terms of site topicality. \$\endgroup\$
    – TylerH
    Mar 24 at 16:47
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I would send the books to a digitizing service. Now I have PDFs that are 100% accessible.

The originals get packed away.

I have been ask why specifically RPG books. Because they have value to the OP, and because every time he touches the pages he will get finger oils and etc one it. They pages will eventually degrade, and become unreadable.

The only safe way is to stop using them, and the only way to do that is to have digital copies which DON'T degrade each time you use them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Other users have already suggested that solution, but have not addressed digitizing services - would you mind to go into more detail why you recommend them specifically for rpg books? \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Mar 23 at 19:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Digitizing services don't create OCR accessible texts all the time: I have newspaper PDF scans from 1918 that are 100% accurate but 0% searchable - they are pictures appended to one another in PDF format. A good RPG PDF is OCR treated and searchable - which is not a service all services offer and not possible for all fonts. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Mar 24 at 19:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Trish True and this is a NICE feature and all, but actually books have no built-in search function either so your not losing or gaining anything. \$\endgroup\$
    – cybernard
    Mar 24 at 19:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @cybernard "accessible PDF" does mean searchable OCR treated PDF, which a screen viewer can display in braile. you mean "accessible by a person with eysight as a PDF" \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Mar 24 at 19:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ In my experience transcribing books for Project Gutenberg, scanning is not the hardest and most time consuming part. It depends on what your standards are, but scanning is a matter of flipping pages. Getting the words right required every page to be gone over by two or three people, and even one manual read-through takes more time than the scanning. OCR alone may get simple prose marginally, but tables even now fairly reliably get trashed by OCR and would require manual intervention for any level of accessibility. \$\endgroup\$
    – prosfilaes
    Mar 25 at 17:21

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