DJs in the Library — Dust Jackets that is, Not the Music Makers

Today the dust jacket’s original purpose has become secondary as shown by this entry in ODLIS, the Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science: “The removable paper wrapper on the outside of a hardcover book usually printed in color and given a glossy finish to market the work to retail customers and protect it from wear and tear”.

A Very Short History

How did dust jackets (dust wrappers, book jackets, cover jackets and dust covers) develop and how long have they been used?

Increased book production during the 19th century and the advent of book cloth that could be decorated easily led to the development of book jackets that protected books during shipment.

The earliest European dust jacket was used in London in 1832 on The Keepsake, published by Longman. Around the turn of the century French publishers discovered the marketing power of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters; fortunately, many of his dust jackets are preserved in the Ludwig Charell collection.

The earliest dust jacket in the United States is probably on The Bryant Festival at “The Century,” published by Appleton in 1896.

Dust Jacket Design

Used mainly as a marketing tool, the dust jacket is expensive to design and produce. Coordination between designer, author, illustrator, editor, the writer of the copy and the “blurb”, the marketing team, and finally the printer, who may not be the publisher, is a long and circuitous route to a powerful product that is often separated from the book and carelessly discarded. Dust jackets are costly for the publisher to produce. But they are the most direct advertisement medium for distribution and sale of books; bookstores and vendors frequently base their orders on the examination of advance jackets.

The DJ in the Library

To keep or discard? Public and school libraries tend to keep dust jackets to enhance circulation, especially in children’s collections. In a year-long study of the browsing collection at University of South Carolina Libraries reported in the March 2005 issue of Associates, Tinker Massey found that jacketed books transferred to the stacks circulated more than non-jacketed books.

Money, staff, time and space constraints cause many libraries to eliminate dust jackets. Considered breeding grounds for mold and harborers of insects by preservation staff, they are frowned upon for the additional handling and space requirements they need. Henry Petroski in The Book on the Bookshelf states that dust jackets take up approximately 2.5% of shelf space and more if protective sleeves are used.

Dust jackets are important because the flaps and back cover often carry obscure facts about the book’s creation, helpful to bibliographers, researchers and catalogers.

In the case of minor writers, they often provide access points to biographical facts not covered elsewhere, the author’s photograph, past or future works, dates and series details. Dust jackets carry identification of illustrations, the illustrator, the designer of the jacket and the translator, often omitted from the book itself. The intended audience or suggested reading level, explanatory comments, a brief summary or abstract – all provide additional clues.

Maintenance and Preservation

Retention of dust jackets means a maintenance commitment. Additional protective plastic sleeves add expense and handling, but serve several important purposes. Protective sleeves keep a collection neat and clean, and reduce the need for expensive headcap repairs. Damaged protective sleeves are replaced — severely damaged dust jackets are usually discarded. Dust jacket repair on circulating collections calls for the same materials and procedures as the repair of books. Maintenance recommendations for book jackets in circulating collections:

  • Remove dust jackets from the book and turn inside-out for cleaning and repair.
  • Remove accumulated dirt with a soft natural bristle brush.
  • Reinforce frayed edges with invisible archival mending tape or a strip of suitable acid-free Japanese tissue paper.
  • Replace torn off pieces with a small piece of tape or, if there is enough shear, apply a dab of PVA.
  • Clean dust jackets on shiny paper and protective sleeves with diluted rubbing alcohol, rinse and wipe dry thoroughly with a soft cloth.
  • Interleaf with buffered acid-free paper.
  • Schedule regular inspection to prevent mold and silverfish infestations.

Various types of protective sleeves are available from library supply catalogs, or can be provided at the time of book purchase by book vendors. Mylar jackets, Colibri jackets, and laminated dust jackets are among the main services.

Some of the current trends by publishers to jazz up dust jackets are making it difficult for them to be laminated and protected. Die-cut holes in the jacket, maps or posters on the reverse side of the jacket, foldouts, glitter or extra slick coatings can all make jackets difficult to protect with lamination. Some publishers, for cost or other reasons, are no longer producing dust jackets so that perhaps only about 50% of the books purchased by a school library today have a dust jacket that can be laminated.


Libraries make considered decisions about the materials they collect, including the humble dust jacket. Cost, handling, space needs, repair and need for protective covers argue against keeping them. Additional access points, biographical information, publication information and graphic design elements argue for their retention. Considered indispensable items by collectors of fine and rare books, forgers capitalize on this by producing fakes and facsimiles. Children delight in their visual promise of what’s in the book, readers remove them because they are slippery and unwieldy. They are tossed aside or treasured. They are simple, yet complex objects and form integral parts of books – now being preserved mainly in our public libraries and by discerning private book collectors.

An edited version of an article originally appearing in Archival Product News, v. 14, #1, 2007.