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domingo, 26 de septiembre 2021
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Non-Human Book Devourers

By: Natalia Piedrahita Tamayo- Journalist

Besides the reader and the characters in the stories, books are also inhabited by bugs that can hide in their pages. Temperature, cleanliness and shelf materials are some of the factors that have to do with the appearance of this microfauna that can affect and even consume books.

Stains, erosion and loss of support produced by microorganisms and humidity factors. Courtesy of Archive of the National Library of Colombia. 

Every book is a refuge and a possibility to travel in space and time, although not only humans benefit from this habitability. Other animals, fungi and bacteria can take up residence in book pages, inks and covers until they deteriorate or damage them.

One of the most regular "residents" of stored paper is Lepisma saccharina, better known to librarians and collectors as "silverfish". It is a 10-millimeter-long, fast-moving, scaly creature that loves to feed on cellulose and starch, two essential components of paper. This insect can become a pest to pages if not treated in time.

Consuelo Edilma Montoya Tamayo, assistant at Universidad de Antioquia’s Carlos Gaviria Díaz Library, is one of the guardians of heritage collections. Fifteen years in charge of the shelves have given her the expertise to take care of new texts and old manuscripts.

"Books, on average, with precautions and cleanliness, can last 100 years depending on the love and care they are treated with. They should not be left near food, or glasses with water or coffee. Their location and storage must also be strategically considered since, if they are continuously exposed to factors such as light and humidity, as well as some plants, they can be affected quickly and fatally," commented the librarian.

Besides the silverfish, there are inhabitants such as Anobium paniceum —a 1.5-millimeter beetle— moths, weevils and termites, other small but voracious bibliophages.

Another "invisible enemy" is black mold, a fungus that spreads in books stored where there is a lot of humidity. For example, in municipalities such as Puerto Berrío or Caucasia, where UdeA has campuses and libraries, it is common to see this fungus.

Extending the Life of Texts

There are strategies to reduce the effects of these tiny literary devourers. To prevent the black mold that has appeared in other regions, Montoya Tamayo recommended putting plastic lids with baking soda behind the shelves. Baking soda helps absorb humidity. The librarian added a home remedy that is widely used in collections: a mixture of alcohol and camphor. "In small amounts on areas affected by fungi and bacteria, it can stop their progress.”

If they are to last, books must be protected from dust, animals and bacteria. The shelves are also essential: metal furniture is the most recommended, especially for heritage or antique books, since they are easier to clean and do not suffer from diseases such as termites, which are natural in unpreserved wood.

Moreover, each volume has specific storage conditions. Sandra Angulo Méndez, coordinator of the National Library's Conservation Group, explained that observing the characteristics of a book is fundamental when determining how it should be stored.

"Size should be analyzed so that books are not cramped on their shelves. If they do not have enough space, the pages and covers may decay. Also, loose pages and books with thinner covers can be separated from hardcover books calculating the vertical or horizontal arrangement of the files to prevent the former from tearing when they are removed from their shelves."

She indicated that books, especially old ones, should not be grabbed from the top because the spine or binding may come loose. How long a book lasts is not so much a matter of years but of the conditions in which it is kept, the materials —quality of the paper and fibers— and the methods of manufacture.

"Paper is like humans. It decays until it dies, but with proper care, the incidence of adverse effects on them is postponed," said Angulo Méndez. They are like a house. They are home to imaginary, and some living, beings.

To Take Care of Your Books

  • Avoid exposing your books to sunlight, which can quickly deteriorate ink and paper. Water and humidity are also a source of fungi and mold.

  • At least once a month, dust the external surfaces —cover, back cover, spine and page edges— with a dry cloth, feather duster or brush.

  • Dust jackets are a good option to protect covers and spines.

  • Avoid putting stickers and plastic on pages, as pages can be damaged by these materials.

  • Before cleaning your books, you must be protected with gloves that cover your whole arm, a mask and a gown to protect your clothes.


The Universidad de Antioquia Library System has nineteen branches in Medellín and Antioquia. The Carlos Gaviria Díaz Library's heritage collection includes the oldest documents, such as the manuscript Codicis Sacratissimi Impertat ivs Ivstinian (1612), a copy made of cereal leaves with a ram skin cover, with which Emperor Justinian established the codes of the Byzantine church.


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