I’m sure I’m not alone in panicking at the sign of any bug near my bookshelves. “What if they get into my books?” is usually one of my first thoughts, after all the requisite cursing and gagging.
Unfortunately I’ve also had a couple infestations, which has spurred me to do lots of research about how to keep bugs away from my books. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Bugs That Like Books
Did you know that bookworms are an actual thing? The term doesn’t usually refer to any one particular insect, but there are lots of bugs that like books. They include beetles, book lice, moths, silverfish, termites, and cockroaches. These disgusting critters can be attracted to and feast on the glue in book bindings, any mold or mildew on the pages, or the paper itself.
Bed bugs, horrifyingly, prefer your blood over your books, so eating books isn’t a danger there. However, they have been known to hitch a ride on books or use them as a hiding spot, which is probably just as awful.
Now that you know which insects to look out for (and are sufficiently grossed out — sorry!), let’s talk about some preventive tips as well as tips for when you have an active infestation.
Get Your Books Off the Floor
Keep them on shelves so you can keep your floors clean and clear. Sure, most bugs can climb without a problem, but stacks on the floor make it too easy for them to access your beloved books.
Move Books Out of Your Bedroom (Or at the Very Least, Away From Your Bed)
You’ve probably seen those images of book headboards (here, for example). As Pinterest-worthy as they are, I cannot look at them without imagining bed bugs making a nice home there. Bed bugs in particular, like the name suggests, like to live in or near your bed, so avoid keeping books super close by.
Other bugs on the list, like cockroaches or silverfish, are attracted to moisture and so like to live in the bathroom or kitchen, but I’m guessing fewer people have any books in those areas. If yes, the same advice goes.
Keep Your Books in a Less Humid Area & Manage the Humidity Levels
Back to the issue of moisture, which can cause mold and mildew to build up: it also attracts bugs. For this reason, try to avoid keeping books in areas of your home that are prone to huge temperature and humidity fluctuations, like the basement or attic. If you can, opt for the main living area and use a fan, air conditioner, or dehumidifier, especially during the hotter months, to keep the temperature and humidity in check. (Although you should also be mindful of overdoing it because drying out books isn’t good for them either.)
Use Plastic, Not Cardboard, To Store Books
If you have books you’re keeping off your shelves and in storage for a bit, opt for plastic instead of cardboard, which can be an attractive home and food source for bugs like roaches.
Get Rid of Mold, Mildew, or Dampness on Books
If you notice books affected by mold or mildew (or they’re damp or dirty), make sure to clean the book well to keep it from turning into a problem. We have another handy post on how to clean books here.
Keep Your Food Away From Your Books
Food is another big bug magnet, particularly when left out in easy access. Don’t keep a lot of food in the area, or, if you have to have a couple snacks handy for during reading sessions, keep them in airtight containers and clean up well after enjoying.
Clean Your Bookshelves Regularly
Lots of dust makes an appealing home for bugs, so try to clean your shelves often, dusting both the books themselves and your shelves. The same goes for the rest of your home too. This was my least favourite piece of advice at first, but thanks to cleaning inspo on TikTok and audiobooks while cleaning, I’ve become a clean freak.
Inspect Your Books for Signs of Bug Activity
This one is extra gross. I’m sorry!
Keep an eye out for droppings on your shelves or yellowish or brownish spots along the tops of your books, particularly near the bindings, which could be signs of bugs like silverfish, cockroaches, or bed bugs. Silverfish can also leave dull, lighter-coloured areas on book covers or pages where they’ve eaten off the finish. Notched pages or holes in pages could also be a sign of silverfish, termites, or beetles.
When You Have an Infestation
Now, if you end up with a dreaded infestation, first, I’m sorry because it sucks and you don’t deserve it. Sometimes these things just happen, and it doesn’t mean you’re dirty or gross or any of those other terms we use to judge people for their housekeeping, which is hard even at the best of times.
Second, get professional assistance as soon as possible, because while I may be a *ahem* bookworm and converted clean freak, I am no expert.
From what I do know, generally the books themselves are not treated with a pesticide during an infestation. It’s usually the surrounding areas, like the baseboards behind your shelves, that are — and hopefully that’s enough.
If you do notice a problem with specific books, you can try putting them in a sealed plastic bag and freezing them to kill the bugs. However, make sure your freezer is cold enough (0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower) and you keep them in for long enough (at least four days for bed bugs). Exposing your books to extreme heat, like sticking them in the microwave or oven, is usually not preferred because it can cause more damage than freezing. But again, consult a professional.
With all that being said, however, it’s worth adding that it is actually okay to get rid of books too. Sometimes they’re not worth trying to salvage, especially when most books are replaceable and an infestation is already stressful enough. Sometimes you need to protect your home and your mental health more than your books. And that’s okay. You’re not a bad person for getting rid of books.