“What is that?” someone asks, pointing to the corner of one of the books open for display.
“This? Oh, it’s a book snake. Most useful object in the library!” I reply.
This conversation happens once in nearly every book display I do. People are fascinated by these little objects that are so ubiquitous in a special collection reading room that many of us hardly notice them.
Book snakes are designed to help hold open books, freeing up a researcher’s hands to take notes, take a picture, or hold a magnifying glass.
They come in three basic weights. The lightest looks like a shoelace, but you’ll feel the difference as soon as you pick one up: they’re actual metal beads encased in a soft cotton sleeve.
The mid-weight book snakes are of similar construction, just a heavier gauge bead.
And finally, the heaviest type of book snake is constructed more like a beanbag (and yes, they do occasionally spring a leak).
When we use the book snakes for their intended purpose (to hold a book open) we try to use the lightest weight possible that will get the job done. This puts the least amount of stress on the book and, as with so many things in this world, less stress = less damage, longer life.
There are a few ways you can drape the snakes over books, depending on whether one or both sides need help staying open, how much weight is needed to accomplish the task, and whether or not you care about part of the page being obscured.
Of course, pages in a book aren’t the only thing that book snakes can hold down. Dealing with scrolls or folded pages (particularly those made of parchment) becomes a lot easier when you have some weights on the corners.
Cables draped over the edge of a table or desk become a lot less annoying when you can make sure they won’t fall!
Many of you are probably now asking “where can I get some of those??” because, hello! Most useful object ever.
While you could buy some from an archival supplier like Hollinger or University Products, they tend to be fairly expensive. So I’ll let you in on a little secret: find yourself a fabric/sewing supply store and ask for “drapery string weights” or “drapery sausage bead weights“. They’re effectively the same thing and tend to be a lot less expensive.
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Abbie, love the post and the pix!
One question that comes up from time to time is how to clean snakes. Or even whether to–I’m not aware of institutions that undertake snake cleaning on even a sporadic basis. Ideas, experiences from the field?
Deborah J. Leslie — May 21, 2019
That’s a fantastic question. Interestingly, I’ve never seen anyone discuss useful cleaning methods for them (and they definitely need it sometimes!). I imagine that with the string/beaded weights, if you could remove the outer cotton shell, that could get washed; and similarly, the bean bag style ones could probably get emptied and cleaned. But in both cases you’d definitely want to remove the metal that gives it weight before going anywhere near water!
If any conservators out there have better ideas for the cleaning of these things, I’d love to hear it!
Abbie Weinberg — May 21, 2019
Your suggestion to use these to hold your power cords on the reading room table makes so much sense that I’m slapping my forehead that I didn’t think of that before. Thank you so much!
Abe Nemon — May 22, 2019
Would cleaning the book snakes really be worth the effort, though? I was recently talking to a librarian about a similar problem they had with the bean bags they use in their children’s section. They considered cleaning the covers of those bean bags, but that would have been awkward and time-consuming to do, and factoring in the actual cleaning costs, plus the librarians’ time (time spent removing and cleaning and replacing bean bag covers is time they can’t use to do the other things they’re meant to be doing, so this is also a cost factor) plus the fact that the bags were several years old and had lived a long and happy life, they arrived at the conclusion that cleaning the old bean bags would have made little economic sense, so they ended up buying new ones.
As you say, book snakes are relatively pricey to buy (though still a lot less expensive than a child-sized bean bag!), but each *individual* book snake can probably go through a few years of use until it becomes so grubby that readers and librarians are actively revulsed by it, or until it becomes a worry that it might end up transferring grime onto books it’s meant to help protect. So I always assumed that by the time a book snake reaches that point of its life, libraries just quietly remove it from circulation and swap it for a new one. After all, unless all book snakes in a library happened to die at the same time (as the result of a surprise visit from St Patrick, perhaps) the cost of replacing them ought to be manageable, no?
Of course the easiest solution to the cleaning problem would be simply to get book snakes made out of non-corrosive materials, like stone beads, so you wouldn’t need to remove the weights in order to wash them!
Elisabeth Chaghafi — May 22, 2019
Excellent question, Elisabeth! And I suspect this is exactly why I’ve never really seen any discussion of how to clean them—it is definitely more cost- and labor-effective to simply replace them (even at the higher archival pricing!) than to try to figure out how to safely and effectively clean them. Also, I absolutely adore the image of St Patrick chasing out all of the book snakes!!! Hmmmm…..
Abbie Weinberg — May 22, 2019
What if you made a little pillowcase for the beanbags? Or a teeny tiny duvet cover. (ha!!) It could have snaps or a drawstring if you’re fancy, or just the envelope style pillowcase if you’re simple, like me. It would make it easy to wash the outer covering without having to worry about the inner materials getting wet or having to re-pour and sew the thing every time you want to wash it.
Caroline Ziegler — July 6, 2022
That’s one of the things we’re currently considering! Since we’re closed for renovations, our conservation department is taking this opportunity to re-imagine our book supports and weights, and that “pillowcase” idea is definitely one they’re looking into. After we re-open, we’ll post an update about our new supports and weights.
Abbie Weinberg — July 6, 2022
When curtains are washed, you don’t take off the curtain weights (and some light curtains are “built” with them) : the metal is lead, not iron nor copper. You will not get much corrosion if you hand wash carrefully the “curtain snakes”. 🙂
Eodhel — June 25, 2019
I just know that it was called snake 😀
yeah the book snake is help the reader so they didn’t lost their page of reading…
Siti Nur Amalia — August 15, 2019