How To

The Beginner’s Guide to Cleaning Your Books

While the last post we did about caring for books focused on storing them properly and keeping them clean, what do you do if your volumes are already dirty? And what about leather-bound books? Here are a few general suggestions for cleaning the books in your library:

Visible dirt and dust isn’t just grody (technical term), it can degrade the paper and binding of the book and attract insects. Start by taking off the dust jacket and holding the book upside down (to prevent dirt from dropping into the pages). Use the soft-bristle attachment of a vacuum hose to remove the dust from the top edge of the book, which is now facing down. For more delicate pages, remove loose dirt with a soft, lint-free cloth, like a cut-up old t-shirt, or a very soft paintbrush. You can use those static cling cloths they sell at the grocery store, but make sure it’s not scented or dyed. If there is dirt in hard-to-reach spots on the book (like in a recess in a decorative cover), use a NEW, SOFT-BRISTLED toothbrush to get it out.

For smudges or light stains on the pages, use an artgum eraser. Always rub the smudge with the eraser in one direction. They’re extra-crumbly, and you can get rid of the crumbles with a vacuum hose or blow them away with an air cannister (like the kind you use to clean computer keyboards). For smudges on a dust jacket, AbeBooks recommends applying a dab of petroleum jelly to a clean cloth and rubbing it into the smudge, then removing it with a document cleaning pad (a cloth folded into a pad that’s full of eraser dust). A document cleaning pad is also the tool you would use to clean a paper/matte dust jacket- do NOT use Windex on a dust jacket.

Absorene Book and Paper Cleaner
Absorene is a magical putty straight from the hands of the bookish angels. I’m only sort of kidding. It comes in a tub and has the consistency of slightly dry play-doh. You remove a small amount and warm it with your hands, then rub the ball in one direction on the pages of the book, or over a cloth bound cover. Its slight magic comes from its ability to remove film left by cigarette smoke, along with some of the smell. It will also remove surface dust, dirt, and smudges. If you’re using Absorene on a board cover and it isn’t working as well as you would like, try Clean Cover Gel, a petroleum-based gel used for cleaning and restoring board covers. Use a lint-free cloth, and only a small amount of the gel.

Oil Stains
The best way to remove greasy stains from book pages is time and weight. Place a paper towel between each greasy page, then put a book weight on top of the book. Wait a few days, remove the paper towels, and repeat until as much of the grease or oil is gone as possible. If the stain is the result of food spilled on the book, remove that first. If it’s sticky or mushy and hard to clean, stick the book in the freezer for 24 hours and then remove the food with a steel knife (this also works with gum).

Absorene should get rid of smoke smells and film, but if the book smells unpleasantly musty you can put it in a container with some unscented kitty litter or baking soda. Don’t let the substance touch the book. Close the container and leave it for up to two weeks, depending on the strength of the musty smell.

Leather Bindings
If you have leather bound books, dust them like you would any other book. If they’re still dirty, the Alabama Department of Archives and History recommends using a small amount of saddle soap and a clean, lint-free cloth to clean the leather. While some people oil their leather books to keep the oil from drying out, most conservators don’t do this anymore (the New York Public Library stopped oiling leather books in the 1960s, for example) because there is no evidence that it prolongs the life of the book and it can lead to staining of the pages and blotchiness of the leather. The oils from your hands that are transferred to the books when you handle them should be sufficient to keep the leather moisturized.

These are the basic steps for cleaning your books, and you should do so at least once a year- more often if the books are in a damp area, or a high-traffic area where there is a lot of dust and human/pet activity. The next post in this series will take on how to perform minor repairs to your books.

More Resources:
AbeBooks: Tips on Book Care
Absorene demonstration
Brodart Care of Books

Book Riot Live is coming! Join us for a two-day event full of books, authors, and an all around good time. It’s the convention for book lovers that we’ve always wanted to attend. So we are doing it ourselves. Use offer code RIOT to save $20 on registration.