How To Clean Books: Remove Stains, Mold, and Dirt From Old Books

If you read our 2012 piece about cleaning old books, then you already understand the struggle. If your books were old then, they’re super old now. You need to know how to clean books more than ever. That’s why it’s time for us to take another look at antique book care and follow up with the hottest modern preservation tips.

How To Clean Books

1. Take Stock

The key to any successful mission is prep. You’re going to need a plan of attack if you want to keep your old book nice. That means identifying not only the book’s most serious issues, but making sure that you’re not going to hurt it.

List everything you want to do to the book before you start. Then, one at a time, test any cleaning supplies that you want to use on small, unimportant pieces of the cover, dust jacket, pages, etc. You’re looking for a bad reaction. If your book is allergic to citrus cleaner, for example, then you’ll know to avoid that.

2. Get The Dirt First

Dirt is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to how to clean books. For this step, you’ll need a gentle (!!) vacuum and a soft paintbrush or unused soft toothbrush. Consider putting a clean cloth over the vacuum hose to weaken it. Soft cloth can replace the brush to an extent, as long as it’s not scented. However, when you need to clean dirt from between pages, you’ll be glad for long bristles.

Flip the book onto its spine. If it’s got a dust jacket, take that off. Use the vacuum to pull out any dust that’s built up on the binding or cover. Once that’s done, brush away dirt on and in between the pages.

Document cleaning pads are a good option for getting caked dirt off a book. Gently squeeze them over the afflicted area to release some of their powder. Then, carefully scrub.

3. Tackle Grime, Mold, And Stains

Mold and Mildew

The familiar and beloved “old book smell” is mostly mildew, which is terrible for your books. If your library of old volumes smells like a library of new volumes, then you’re doing your cleaning job well. If not, it’s time to kill some microorganisms.

Don a dust mask. Mold and mildew are both bad for your health. Use a fresh cloth or brush to remove mildew if you can see it. When that’s not possible, dampen a clean cloth very lightly with denatured alcohol and use it on covers, making sure to dry them thoroughly afterward. It’s also a good idea to spot-test before applying.

To treat mildewed or moldy pages, place a sheet of wax paper under the infected page before you treat it. Remember, mold and mildew are both alive and contagious. Brush away the infection only after protecting the rest of the book and gently swab moldy spots with tiny amounts of denatured alcohol or hydrogen peroxide.

After you’ve cleaned away the mold, put the book in a sealed container with baking soda or activated charcoal for a few hours. (Don’t let these substances get on the book itself.) That should absorb the last of the musty scent.

Keeping your library clean is a great way to prevent mold and mildew from becoming a problem. If you’re serious about the war on mildew, check out Biblio’s article on the stuff.

Grease

It’s the word. It’s got groove, it’s got feeling, but it can’t stay in your book. Put a paper towel between greasy pages. Close the book and put weight on top of it. The paper towel will absorb the grease within hours or days. Repeat as necessary.

Grime

Grime is any gross stuff that you can feel when you run your finger over it. Food residue is some of the worst of this category, but not the only culprit by far. Luckily, a stint in the freezer will make it easier to pop that gunk off the page with a razor. Leave the book in the cold for a few hours.

Stains

Document cleaning pads are a good first step for stain removal too. Vulcanized rubber dirt erasers, often called dry cleaning sponges, are the second. Rub a small piece of the sponge over the stain you want to remove, discarding the sponge bit when it’s no longer effective.

Absorbene is a book person’s best friend. It’s a kind of pink putty that picks up an amazing amount of stains and dirt when you apply it to a page. Here’s a demonstration of how to use it.

Finally, if all else fails, try using the citrus-based Brodex Multipurpose Cleaner. Make sure you spot-check this first!

4. Deal with Dampness

First, don’t panic if your book is wet. Don’t try to wipe the pages, either, because you could smudge or tear them. Dry the book before you mitigate the mold, dirt, or stains.

If you need to make preparations for the cleaning of your wet book, put that book in a sealed bag and stick it in the freezer first. That should prevent or slow mold growth while you get organized. When you’re ready, let the book thaw before you start working on it.

Set up a fan in another part of the room. Airflow will help your afflicted paper friend dry out faster, but uneven drying can cause the book to warp. Air shouldn’t be blowing right on the book.

If your book is dripping wet, you’ll need to put something absorbent between each page. Paper towels are ideal because they’re thin and easy to work with; you may need to change them every ten or fifteen minutes at first. Once the book is not sopping, sprinkle cornstarch between the pages and seal it in an airtight container. Leave it for an hour or two, then remove it and brush the cornstarch out. Repeat until the book is dry.

5. Work Carefully With Special Covers

Cloth

Art gum is your best choice for cleaning cloth covers. You can use Absorbene, too, as well as document cleaning pads as described above. Some resources suggest using a clean cloth with a little fabric softener, but try to avoid exposing your book to chemicals you’re not 100% sure about. If you really, really think you need to get the cloth moist, use almost no water and dry the book thoroughly afterward.

Leather

Leather is a shot in the dark. Different leathers react differently to the same cleaners, so spot-check like your book’s life depends on it. That said, saddle soap is sometimes a good option, and some archivists like petroleum-based cleaners. Always use as little as possible. Never clean suede with anything but a dry cloth.

If you think you’ve got a vellum book on your hands, the tool you need is a telephone. Just call an expert. Vellum is not leather and doesn’t react like leather. It hates humidity, it hates light, it hates most cleaning products, and it’s probably not going to cooperate with anything you do. Here’s how to prevent bad things from happening to vellum, which is by far the best way to care for it.

There’s also a degenerative problem that old leather can experience called red rot. You’ll know that’s what you’re dealing with when your venerable leather binding crumbles between your fingers. Cellugel can stabilize a rotten leather cover.

Paper

Never use Windex on paper covers! People will tell you to do this. I am telling you not to. Don’t do it. Fall back once again upon our old friend, the document cleaning pad. Treat paper and matte covers much as you would treat pages. Absorbene can be helpful too.

6. Clean Fragile edges

After vacuuming, a toothbrush can help you clean delicate page edges. (Remember, cover that vacuum tube with cloth to weaken the suction!)

Obviously, you shouldn’t use a toothbrush that’s ever been in your mouth on a book. Not only is a used toothbrush full of germs, but if it’s tough enough to clean your teeth, then it’s probably too harsh for brittle paper. Get the softest brush possible. Makeup brushes can also be good for this purpose.

7. Get Out Any Bugs

If you have a chest freezer, you can chill bugs to death. Some, like bedbugs, are extremely hardy, so this could take weeks. However, it might be preferable to using pesticide since you may not know how the book will react to being bug bombed.

That said, if the bugs must be bombed, try to ascertain how the book will react before you expose the whole volume to toxic smoke. If all appears to be well, stand the book upright in a closed container so that its pages are fanned out. Then, bug-bomb that sealed space. Air the book out well afterward, then clean thoroughly to remove dead insects and insect eggs. To sanitize, mix one part bleach with five parts water and spot check, spot check, spot check before you wipe away filth. As always, use as little as possible.

You can also physically remove bed bugs and their nits. You’ll need tweezers, a magnifying glass, and plenty of patience. However, it’s probably preferable to fogging your delicate book with unknown noxious chemicals.

8. How To Clean Books That Are Very OLD: Prevention

Your best guarantee for keeping ancient books in good shape is prevention. Keep them from getting humid and carefully vacuum and dust them every week. Perform preventative maintenance. The more you get to know your book, the better you’ll know what works for it.

Consider having it professionally digitized if you want to keep using it. That way, you don’t have to place wear and tear on the real thing.

What other tips do you have for how to clean books?

We have 10 copies of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles to give away to Book Riot readers! Go here to enter for a chance to win, or just click the image below. Good luck!
Book Riot has Avada Kedavra-ed the comments section, so please come chat with us on Twitter or Instagram!