Littera Scripta

Cleaning Books

First, a word of warning. Some things should not be attempted on a valuable book - at least not by amateurs. If you are clumsy or fumble fingered, don't do ANY of this. Any procedure involving chemicals or fumigation materials has the potential to do damage to your book (not to mention what they could do to you... use good ventilation!). Even materials which conservators have considered safe have later been shown to cause damage over long periods of time. But sometimes, especially when the book is unusable in it's current condition, you may choose to take that risk. It's a judgement call.

Paper and Matte Finished Dust Jackets For a matte surface dust jacket and pages which are dirty, try a dry cleaning pad. These are available at art supply stores. They are a small cloth bag filled with eraser dust. You twist the bag a bit to loosen some dust, and then rub that around gently on the surface of the jacket with your clean fingers. If that doesn't work, then use the pad itself to rub the surface. This should remove any dust and grime which isn't actually ground in. Dry cleaning pads should be safe, so long as you don't cause any mechanical damage with rough handling.

Erasers will sometimes clean dirt that a dry cleaning pad won't. Make sure to always move the eraser out towards the edge of the page. If you try to erase with an inward motion the page will likely rip. My favorite is a white vinyl eraser. It doesn't tend to lift the surface of the paper as much as a pink eraser will.

Glossy Dust Jackets Use Windex, or some other glass cleaner. Spray a bit on a soft clean cloth just enough to dampen, and wipe carefully. Do not spray directly on the jacket!

Cloth Binding Use Absorene, which is sometimes available from art supply stores, but if not, try Gaylord Bros. Library Supply or Amazon . It looks and acts quite a bit like Play Doh. You can roll it across the surface for a light cleaning, or rub it across the surface like an eraser for heavier dirt. Absorene should be perfectly safe.

Another safe and useful product for cloth bindings is called Groom-Stick, and is also available from Gaylord. It's soft, malleable rubber, very sticky. When you roll it across the surface it picks up everything. Be careful that it's not picking up ink and gilt from decorations as well though.

I have heard that there are vulcanized rubber sponges normally used for cleaning up after fires which work very well for cleaning the binding. They are safe, as there are no chemicals involved. However, I haven't tried these yet myself, so can't vouch for them personally.

Dust Dust on the top edge of the pages can be removed with a vaccuum cleaner using the soft brush attachment. First turn the book upside down so the dust won't sift between the pages, then remove the dust jacket before vaccuuming. A duster can also be used, but make sure that you hold the book tightly shut while dusting, or you will force the dust down into the pages.

Oil or Grease Stains To minimize oil or grease stains to pages, place absorbent paper towels between the pages, close book, and place under even weight (other books?). Leave it like this for several days. Sometimes it'll help, and sometimes it won't.

Adhesives can sometimes be removed. Price stickers on glossy dust jackets should come off with a careful application (use a Q-Tip) of Goo Gone or lighter fluid, and the very cautious use of a thin flat knife like a palette knife or very thin butter knife. Do not use an extremely sharp knife as it's too easy to slice off the glossy surface of the paper. This falls into the category of stuff that shouldn't be done to a rare or valuable book.

Bookplates Do not use Goo Gone or lighter fluid to attempt to remove a bookplate. It won't work. Bookplates usually have a water soluble paste rather than glue. Only water will remove a bookplate, and it's a very tricky procedure. Personally, I just leave bookplates where they are, but if you are determined to try, then take some kind of absorbent paper, preferably blotting paper, and cut it down to slightly smaller than the bookplate. Dampen it (not wet!), and place carefully over the bookplate without letting it touch the page. Now place a sheet of wax paper over the whole page, close the book, and place a weight on it to keep it tightly shut. Leave it alone for a minimum of half an hour before you even look. You should be able to very carefully lift the bookplate up from the edges bit by bit. I say should, but it won't always work. Sometimes it will take much longer than half an hour. And DON'T do this on a valuable book!

Some things can never be removed, and it's best not to try: ink, water stains with any sort of colour, and anything wet which has been absorbed by the paper and is now dry.

Musty Odour Another frequent problem is the musty odour that old books sometimes get. It's actually mold, and it's caused by storing books in a humid environment. The first cure of course, is to rescue the book from the humidity. If stored in a dry environment, the musty smell usually fades somewhat. Keep in mind though, that if you add a musty book to your library you are introducing mold and could pass it on to other books.

If the book is quite damp, you could try this procedure to help dry it out.Get some calcium chloride from a hardware store or farm supply outlet (it's that stuff that's used in place of salt for de-icing walks and driveways). Bake about a cup of it at 250 Farenheit in your oven for 1 hour. Now place this in a sealed container (like an ice cream pail) along with, but not touching the book. Leave for 2 or 3 days.

Once you have the book completely dry, you should try to get the book clean. Roll Absorene over the entire exterior of the boards, the inside of the dust jacket, and both front and back endpapers. Often the coated stock of illustrations in the book will grow mold as well, so make sure to clean those as well.

For mild odour, try standing the book up with pages fanned open in front of a small fan. Spray plain Lysol from behind the fan so that the spray is scattered into the pages. Again, this one is not for valuable books.

I have heard an amazing number of possible solutions to the problem, and I won't vouch for a single one. So far as I can tell, most of the time nothing will completely remove the odour of must. Also, there is really no telling which of these is actually safe. Most involve placing the book and the substance together in a closed container - but not touching - for 12 hours to 3 weeks:

  • unscented kitty litter (seems pretty safe)
  • coffee
  • cloves
  • white vinegar
  • woodruff
  • lysol
  • baking soda
  • charcoal
  • cedar chips/shavings

Several conservators have suggested that deacidification treatment has the side-effect of eliminating musty odours, which suggests that acidity encourages mold growth. But this is a very expensive treatment, and can only be done by professionals.

Cigarette smoke odour can be treated in a similar manner, although drying won't usually be necessary. Make sure to clean the binding really well though, as the smoke leaves an oily film. Absorene should help.


 


Related Articles


Identifying First Editions

Cleaning Books


Recommended Books

Jane Greenfield. The Care of Fine Books

Estelle Ellis. At Home With Books: How Booklovers Live With and Care for Their Libraries

Bernard C. Middleton. A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique

Laura S. Young. Bookbinding & Conservation by Hand : A Working Guide

Aldren A. Watson. Hand Bookbinding : A Manual of Instruction

Arthur William Lewis. Basic Bookbinding

Jane Greenfield. ABC of Bookbinding : A Unique Glossary With over 700 Illustrations for Collectors & Librarians


Web Links

A Simple Book Repair Manual

Conservation Online - All kinds of information on this site!

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Copyright © 2000 by Deanna Ramsay