How to Clean Books

pile of books with glasses

Kari Shea / Unsplash

Even if you have embraced audio or ebooks, most of us still have some hardback or paperback books in our home. Unfortunately, one downside of owning physical books is that they can collect dust and become soiled and damaged. Whether you use your books for stylish displays or reading material, knowing how to properly care for them will keep them in tip-top shape for years to come.

How Often to Clean Books

One of the biggest damaging factors for books is dust. As it accumulates, it will eventually cause damage to paper and covers because of harmful acidic elements.

Books should be dusted weekly with a good duster, soft paintbrush, or gentle vacuuming. While you are dusting, you can inspect the book for problems like mildew that should be tackled immediately.

If a book has become damaged by excessive water or smoke, it should be cleaned as quickly as possible.

What You Need

Supplies*

  • Cornstarch
  • Saddle soap
  • Baking soda or activated charcoal
  • Waxed paper

Tools*

  • Vulcanized rubber sponge (soot sponge)
  • Protective mask and clothing
  • Paper towels
  • Art gum eraser
  • Duster, paintbrush or vacuum
  • Sealable plastic bags and containers

* You may not need all of these supplies if your books are not severely damaged.

How to Remove Dust, Grease, and Grime From Books

  1. Contain the Dust

    Since dust is the enemy, it's important to contain the dust while you're working. Choose a good electrostatic duster like microfiber or lambswool or a vacuum that will trap the dust and keep it from being scattered about. To prevent a vacuum from damaging fragile books, place a piece of cheesecloth over the hose nozzle to lessen the suction.

    To thoroughly clean a book, dust and then remove the dust jacket to get rid of dust on the bindings or cover. Flip the book on its spine and remove dust and dirt between the pages.

    Don't forget to dust the bookcase, shelf, or table where you are storing your books.

  2. Remove Smudges From Books

    For smudges from dirty hands or stray pencil marks, use an art gum eraser to gently rub away the soil. For heavier soil, archivists use a product called Absorene, a putty-like substance that removes dirt from paper.

  3. Remove Grease Stains

    If you see grease stains on the cover or pages of the book, sprinkle with cornstarch. Top the cornstarch with a plain, white paper towel and close the book. Weight it down with other books and wait 24 hours. The cornstarch and paper towel will absorb the oil. Dust or vacuum away the cornstarch. If a stain remains, repeat the steps.

  4. Check for Insect Damage

    If you see insect activity from silverfish or other critters, immediately check your entire collection. The affected books should be placed in a sealable plastic bag and stored in the freezer for at least 24 hours to kill the insects. The entire area should be vacuumed well and treated with a chemical or organic pesticide.

  5. How to Clean Paper Cover Books and Leather-Bound Books

For cloth and paper covers, use the same cleaning techniques for smudges, grease, and dirt.

For leather-bound books, if the cover is heavily soiled mix a solution of saddle soap and water following product directions. Dip a soft cloth in the solution and wring out most of the moisture. Use the damp cloth to wipe down the leather binding. Finish by buffing with a soft, dry cloth.

Tips

It is much easier to protect books from damage than to clean and repair them. Follow a few rules with your most treasured books:

  • If possible, store books in a closed cabinet to prevent excessive dust accumulation.
  • Keep the temperature around 65 degrees and humidity at 40 percent.
  • Maintain regular pest control anywhere books are stored.
  • Store away from direct sunlight.
  • Shelve books upright with the dust jackets on the books. Do not store at an angle which can break the spine.
  • If you prefer to stack books, always place the largest books on the bottom to prevent curling and warping of the covers.
  • Remove all bookmarks and inserts before storing. They can leave discolorations and marks.
  • If you are moving and must store books for an extended time, stack them in the box upright or flat to prevent spine damage just as you would on a shelf.

How to Clean Smoke and Moisture Damaged Books

  1. Remove Smoke and Soot

    When books are stored in a room with a fireplace or if there is a small fire, the books can be damaged by smoke and soot. After dusting completely, use a vulcanized rubber sponge, sold as a soot sponge, to remove the soot. Slice the sponge into thin wafers to expose as much cleaning surface as possible.

    Working from the center of each page toward the edges, gently wipe the surface that is soot-stained with a dry sponge. The soot will be transferred from the page to the sponge. Keep moving to a clean area of the sponge as soot is absorbed. When the sponge has no clean surface area, throw it away and grab a fresh slice.

    If the book has a smoky odor, place it in a sealable plastic container with at least one cup of baking soda or activated charcoal. Seal the container and allow it to remain for at least one week. Check the book and repeat the steps as needed. Fresh air, away from direct sunlight will also dissipate the smoky odor.

  2. Reverse Moisture Damage

    If the book feels damp but has no mildew, fan the pages and sprinkle heavily with cornstarch then place in a well-ventilated spot to dry. Do not place in direct sunlight or near a high-heat source. Use a circulating fan to move the air more quickly.

  3. Remove Mildew

If mildew has already taken hold in a book, isolate the mildewed book in a sealable plastic bag to prevent contamination of other items. Add dry blotters or cornstarch to help dry the book. Excessively wet mildew cannot be removed without smearing.

When the book is dry (it usually takes at least a week), it's ready to be cleaned. Prepare the cleaning space by placing some waxed paper or plain newsprint under the book. This will help catch any mildew spores and prevent them from spreading. This paper will be thrown away.

You should wear a protective mask to prevent inhaling the spores. Disposable gloves and long-sleeved clothing is also a good idea. Mold spores spread easily and can cause problems with your health and belongings.

Again, use a dry vulcanized rubber sponge (soot sponge) to clean away the spotty mildew spores. As the mildew is transferred to the sponge, move to a clean area or a new piece of sponge.

Start at the center of the page and move out to the edges. It is a very slow process that will not remove all of the stains but it will remove the spores and prevent further damage.

Dispose of the sponges, gloves, and wax paper in a sealed plastic bag and take it directly to an outdoor garbage bin.