“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.