Common paper pests and how to deal with them

The leaf of a book which has suffered damage from pests.

Books and archives can sometimes show signs of damage by pests such as holes or chewed pages. This damage may be historic, but it is important to understand common pests in order to prevent further damage to your precious collection.

Is your archive at risk from paper pests?

Common paper pests include:

  • Beetles*
  • Silverfish
  • Booklice
  • Rodents
  • Birds and bats

*Anobiid beetles, which attack books, are often referred to as ‘bookworms’, this is a generic term and does not apply to any particular species.

All pests require food, warmth and harbourage to survive and each species has its own particular preferences in relation to food, temperature and humidity. For example: wood weevils (another type of beetle) prefer high levels of moisture and are usually found in damp books.

Infestations can be controlled and treated, but the aim of an archivist, or anybody responsible for a collection, should be to prevent pests from becoming established and causing damage. Prevention is always better than cure.

Addressing paper pest damage whilst preparing for digitisation

The British Library conservation team cares for the physical collection (of over 150 million items), dating from 3000 BCE to the present day. Our collections comprise many types of materials including paper, parchment, photographs, leather, papyrus, wood, textiles, ceramics and even metals.

Our expert conservators work to preserve our collection items for future generations to enjoy. They do this by carrying out non-destructive scientific analysis and using a range of preventive techniques, treating damaged items, and assessing and preparing items for digitisation.

The Conservation and Digitisation Services teams working closely together to digitise collections in order to preserve these precious and fragile items for future generations to enjoy. Damage from pests can often be severe and require careful handling during use. By digitising these items, we can make them more accessible while reducing the risk of further damage.

Pests as historical clues

While insects can be seen as pests, their presence can sometimes give us clues about the history and use of an object. Recently the Imaging Team digitised Thomas Moffett’s 1634 entomological volume Theatre of Insects.

In addition to the woodcut illustrations within the volume, the British Library copy had insect specimens deliberately inserted into the volume. Some of these have remained in place but over time some have detached and were loose beside the gutter.

The conservator and photographer worked together to carefully record evidence of this as well as to digitise the volume itself.

Find out more

Download our guide to managing pests in paper-based collections.

Find out more about the work of the Conservation Department.

Find out more about our digitisation services.

Get in touch about digitising your own collection: