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The terrible combination of books and light

Light does enormous damage to rare books (especially dust bright, colourful jackets). Should we just accept this, or try to do something about it?

One of the greatest joys of collecting books is the visual satisfaction that a shelf brimming full of cherished tomes brings.


But therein also lies one of a book collections’ greatest fears – inevitable damage and degradation that even low-level light exposure brings.


Such are collectors' concerns about daylight/artificial light, that many now resort to hiding their prized books away from all forms of illumination entirely.

But one surely has to ask whether this (literally), creates a very dark future indeed for book collecting, if we can’t enjoy and display our books.


Beware the bright lights

The particular problem for books is ultraviolet (UV) light, and the damage and specifically color fading (or photodegradation), it causes.

At either end of the visible light spectrum (which runs from about 740 nanometers to 380 nm), is UV and infrared (IR) radiation. Both are invisible to the naked eye, but UV radiation, in particular, provides energy that fuels chemical reactions which yellow and weaken materials.

IR meanwhile will cause the surface of objects to heat up, also energizing molecules and weakening the bonds holding them together.

It’s specifically when books are exposed to wavelengths that are short (such as those from the ultraviolet end of the spectrum), that vibration of the molecules increases, which encourages them to expand, then cleave, and bond again, which leads to the deterioration of plant and animal fibers.


But as well as speeding up the deterioration of the structure of paper, it's this re-bonding that also changes the way visible light interacts with it, causing changes in the wavelength of light reflected back. It's this that causes a perception of a different color. As light hits and reflects off these changed molecules, the speed of the wavelength (and thus the color the eye perceives in relation to the dye), is also changed. And so photo-chemical deterioration occurs – and it's a process that is completely irreversible.


Bond books aren’t forever


While light impacts all rare books, anyone who owns a collection of Ian Fleming first editions will know about this problem more than most.


Revered dust jacket designer, Richard Chopping, produced nine of the 14 jackets adorning the James Bond series. But while his Trompe L’Oeil style is famed, it is also responsible for creating jackets with predominantly yellow covers and spines (usually showing a wood-grain effect, see below). And it is yellow, alongside red, that is most susceptible to light damage.

Slight science lesson, if I may...

White light is made up of three primary colours: red, green and blue. These correspond to the longest third, the middle third and the shortest wavelength third of the visible range of radiation that our eyes detect.


Red, blue and green are known as the additive primaries because they add up to white light. Cyan, magenta and yellow (the opposites of red, green and blue), are called the subtractive primaries because each subtracts one of the additive primaries from white light. In printing it is cyan, magenta and yellow dyes are most commonly used to form image colours.

So... let’s assume we’re looking at a copy of For Your Eyes Only (left) – a book notorious for the red fading to orange or even yellow due to light exposure.


The red of the spine’s lettering will be made up of cyan, magenta and yellow dyes (but mostly a mixture of yellow and magenta dyes). When light falls onto it, it is the yellow dye that absorbs all the blue light, while the magenta absorbs all of the green light, making red the only light reflected back to your eye.


When we see the red colour fading however (that is other hues begin to be reflected back), this is because the yellow or the magenta or both are themselves fading and failing to fully absorb the blue and green light. Magenta and yellow dyes fade faster than the cyan.

We see yellow only when our green and red sensors are stimulated. This means that yellow is the sensation we see when blue is absent from what would otherwise be white light. Yellow, orange, and red are the colors most susceptible to fading.


The impact of sun fade


Photodegradation causes paper to become brittle and fragile due to the weakening, bleaching, and yellowing of paper.


But more than this, the breakdown in chemical bonds that cause colour fading will dramatically change the look of a


As can be seen, strong vibrant reds turn to oranges, then yellows, and at that point can even disappear altogether. And this dramatically alters the value of a book too.

A ‘yellow-spine’ For Your Eyes Only – still a rare book, with a first impression print run of just 21,700 – is worth substantially less (probably by a factor of a quarter or more), than one with a strong, red spine.

Examples of these books are now numerically very rare indeed.

Other Fleming titles will suffer similar fates.

Most copies of Moonraker now sport severe spine browning – firstly through colour burning and then paper yellowing – due to over-exposure to light. Examples with vibrant yellow and orange flames are now few and far between.

Going, going gone - red-to-yellow fading


On books like The Spy Who Loved Me, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice and Octopussy & The Living Daylights, the impact of light causes the usually defined yellow wood grain to ‘blur’ and soften on the spines, creating a dusty look. It then tends to brown significantly. On these, and particularly on You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS), the spine often darkens considerably.

OHMSS also red lettering along the spine that is prone to fading, while (because of light typically hitting the spine),, it is now also very rare to find examples where the ‘white page corner' overlapping onto the spine stays white. Below is a rare example where the jacket is exceptionally clean, with the 'white paper corner' to spine still white:

What are collectors supposed to do?


The only sure-fire way to protect books from light damage is obviously to keep them away from light altogether – which is not a solution many collectors like.


So what options do collector have?


To begin with it’s worth exploring few myths:


Myth 1: Low level, non-direct light is OK: 

Alas, this is just not the case. All light causes damage, even low-level light. Low light, even if not direct will still age a book, but it will just take a bit longer.


Myth 2: LED light bulbs are just as harmful as normal lights: This is not the case. LED lights do emit a small amount of UV radiation, but it is mostly UVA rays – and these have the longest wavelengths. By comparison Incandescent bulbs, produce light emit a significant amount of UV radiation and well as heat.


Lux and lumens


When it comes to working out how much light you want your books to be exposed to, it all comes down to learning about your lux and lumens.


Lux is a unit used to measure the intensity of light hitting a surface. Lumens, meanwhile measure the brightness of the light source.


If you put a 400 lumen bulb in a 10m2 room, the average light intensity is 40 lux. Put that same bulb into a room twice as large -  20m2 of surface area –  and the lux level will correspondingly drop to 20 lux (assuming there is no daylight impacting things).


A level of 50 lux is equivalent to the lighting level in a home living room in the evening. (For comparison, standard office lighting is around 400 lux and direct sunlight measures 30,000 lux).


Museums will often monitor and record lux levels to determine how long they should expose items in the open for, before putting them out of sight for a while.


For example, an object lit for 10 hours a day at 50 lux for 100 days would be deemed to have had a light dosage of 50,000 lx h.


It is generally assumed light-sensitive materials (such as paper), should only have an annual exposure of 50,000 lx h, regardless of whether they will be displayed annually or not.


If you’re really serious/worried about light, then light meters can be bought that measure the level of visible light in lux. As a guide, when a meter is placed close to the object, facing the light it is being exposed to, the reading should not exceed 50 lux.

Even more specialist UV meters can be bought that measure the UV proportion of ultra violet in visible light. This is measured in microwatts per lumen (µW/l). This reading should ideally not exceed 75µW/l.


Other practical options for collectors:


Options collectors might want to look into include:

  • Covering windows and skylights with UV blocking film: It can be bought either clear or slightly tinted, and manufacturers claim it can filter out up to 97-99% of UV light. Tinted film offers better protection against colour fade.

  • Housing behind protective glass: Books can be displayed behind UV blocking glass or Plexiglas.

  • Housing in protective boxes: Acrylic can be manufactured to be OP3 UV resistant, boxes made from this will provide 98% UV resistance.

  • Using jacket protectors: Dust protectors aren’t ever specifically advertised as being UV resistant, but proper archival dust-jacket protectors will have some/limited built-in UV protection and will provide at least a basic level of sunlight protection to dust jackets.


If you’re an extremely serious collector – seeking out only the finest examples of rare titles – then you’ll already know light is your enemy, and that for any book you buy you’ll want to keep looking the way you bought it.

If you’re more relaxed – perhaps with less good condition books to start with – you might have an entirely different view: that books are supposed to show signs of age, and not supposed to look perfect, and having some wear adds to its character.

If light cannot be eliminated entirely, the ultimate question is how much light are you willing to let your collection get exposed to.


Much of this will probably depend on whether you feel displaying your books is part and parcel of owning them, or whether you are content to know you have them, and are willing to keep them out of sight.


It’s a tricky question, but remember this once colour fade has occurred, it’s permanent.


One other thing too: fade is also gradual. Unless you assiduously photograph your books, and compare how they look from year to year, it's likely you won't even notice it's happening – until its too late that is.


Let us know your thoughts!


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