If you read our 2012 article on cleaning up old books, then you already understand the struggle. If your books were old then they are very old now. Now more than ever you need to know how to clean books. That’s why it’s time for us to take another look at the care of ancient books and follow the best modern conservation tips.
1. Take stock
The key to any successful mission is preparation. You will need a plan of attack if you are to keep your old book enjoyable. This means not only identifying the book’s more serious problems, but also making sure you aren’t going to hurt it.
List everything you want to do with the book before you start. Then, one by one, test the cleaning products you want to use on small, unimportant pieces of the cover, jacket, pages, etc. You are looking for a bad reaction. If your book is allergic to citrus cleanser, for example, you’ll know how to avoid it.
2. Get the dirt first
Dirt is the fruit at hand when it comes to cleaning the books. For this step you will need a soft vacuum cleaner (!!) and a soft brush or an unused soft toothbrush. Consider putting a clean rag over the vacuum hose to weaken it. A soft cloth can replace the brush to some extent, as long as it is not scented. However, when you need to clean the dirt between the pages, you’ll be happy to have long hairs.
Flip the book onto its back. If it has a dust jacket, take it off. Use the vacuum cleaner to remove any dust that has accumulated on the binding or cover. Once done, brush the dirt on and between the pages.
Document cleaning pads are a good option for removing stuck-on dirt from a book. Gently squeeze them on the affected area to release some of their powder. Then rub thoroughly.
3. Fight dirt, mildew and stains
Mold and mildew
The familiar and beloved “smell of old books” is mostly mold, which is terrible for your books. If your library of old volumes feels like a library of new volumes, then you are doing your cleaning job right. Otherwise, it’s time to kill some microorganisms.
Put on a dust mask. Both mold and mildew are unhealthy. Use a cool cloth or brush to remove mildew if you can see it. When this is not possible, moisten a clean cloth very lightly with denatured alcohol and use it on the covers, making sure to dry them well afterwards. It’s also a good idea to do a spot test before you apply.
To treat moldy or moldy pages, place a sheet of waxed paper under the infected page before treating it. Remember, mold is both alive and contagious. Eliminate the infection only after protecting the rest of the book and gently dab the mold stains with small amounts of denatured alcohol or hydrogen peroxide.
After cleaning up the mold, place the book in a container sealed with baking soda or activated charcoal for a few hours. (Don’t let these substances get into the book itself.) This should absorb the rest of the musty smell.
Keeping your library clean is a great way to prevent mold from becoming a problem. If you’re serious about the war on late blight, check out Biblio’s stuff article.
That’s the word. There is groove, there is feeling, but it cannot stay in your book. Put a paper towel between the fatty pages. Close the book and put weight on it. The paper towel will absorb the grease within hours or days. Repeat if necessary.
Grime is anything gross that you can feel when you run your finger over it. Food residue is among the worst in this category, but not the only culprit by far. Fortunately, a freezer will make it easier to remove this dirt from the page with a razor. Leave the book in the cold for a few hours.
Document cleaning pads are also a good first step in removing stains. The second is vulcanized rubber erasers, often referred to as dry cleaning sponges. Rub a small piece of the sponge over the stain you want to remove, discarding the piece of sponge when it is no longer effective.
Absorbene is bibliophiles’ best friend. It’s a kind of pink putty that picks up an incredible amount of smudges and dirt when you apply it to a page. Here is a demonstration of how to use it.
Finally, if all else fails, try using Brodex Citrus All-Purpose Cleaner. Make sure to check this out first!
4. Manage humidity
First of all, don’t panic if your book is wet. Also, do not try to wipe the pages clean, as you may stain or tear them. Dry the book before it blends any mold, dirt, or stains.
If you need to prepare to clean your wet book, place it in a sealed bag and place it in the freezer first. This should prevent or slow the growth of mold while you organize yourself. When you’re ready, let the book thaw before you start working on it.
Install a fan in another part of the room. The airflow will help your distressed paper friend dry faster, but uneven drying can cause the book to warp. Air should not be blowing directly on the book.
If your book is wet, you will need to put something absorbent between each page. Paper towels are ideal because they are thin and easy to use; you may need to change them every ten or fifteen minutes at first. Once the book is not soaked, sprinkle cornstarch between the pages and seal it in an airtight container. Leave it on for an hour or two, then remove it and brush off the cornstarch. Repeat until the book is dry.
5. Work carefully with special covers
Art gum is your best choice for cleaning fabric covers. You can also use Absorbene, as well as document cleaning swabs as described above. Some resources suggest using a clean cloth with a little fabric softener, but try to avoid exposing your book to chemicals that you are not 100% sure about. If really, really remember that you need to dampen the cloth, use almost no water and dry the book thoroughly afterwards.
Leather is a hit in the dark. Different leathers react to the same cleaners differently, so check on the spot as if the life of your book depends on it. That said, sometimes saddle soap is a good option, and some archivists like petroleum-based cleansers. Always use as little as possible. Never clean suede with anything other than a dry cloth.
If you think you have a vellum book on your hands, the tool you need is a phone. Just call an expert. Vellum is not leather and does not react like leather. He hates humidity, he hates light, he hates most cleaning products, and he’s probably not going to cooperate with anything you do. here is how to prevent bad things from happening to vellum, which is by far the best way to take care of it.
There is 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 blanket.
Never use Windex on paper covers! People will tell you to do it. I tell you not to do it. Do not do it. Rely once again on our old friend, the Document Cleaning Pad. Treat flat paper and covers as you would treat pages. Absorben can also be helpful.
6. Clean fragile edges
After vacuuming, a toothbrush can help you clean the delicate edges of the pages. (Remember to cover this vacuum tube with a rag to weaken the suction!)
Obviously, you shouldn’t be using a toothbrush that’s already been in your mouth on a book. Not only is a used toothbrush full of germs, if it’s tough enough to clean your teeth, it’s probably too hard for brittle paper. Get the softest brush possible. Makeup brushes can also be useful for this purpose.
7. Eliminate all bugs
If you have a chest freezer, you can chill the bugs to death. Some, like bedbugs, are extremely resistant, which can take weeks. However, it may be best to use pesticides, as you may not be sure how the book will react to insect bombardment.
That said, if the bugs are to be bombarded, try to determine how the book will react before exposing the entire volume to toxic smoke. If all seems to be going well, place the book upright in a closed container so that its pages are unfolded. Next, the bug bomb that sealed off the space. Fan the book well afterwards, then clean it thoroughly to remove dead insects and insect eggs. To disinfect, mix one part bleach with five parts water and do spot check, spot check, spot check before wiping off the dirt. As always, use as little as possible.
You can also physically eliminate bed bugs and their nits. You will need tweezers, a magnifying glass, and a lot of patience. However, it’s probably best to mist your delicate book with unknown harmful chemicals.
8. How to clean the books that are Very old: Prevention
Your best guarantee for keeping old books in good condition is prevention. Keep them from getting wet and vacuum them up carefully and dust them weekly. Perform preventive maintenance. The more you get to know your book, the better you’ll know what works for it.
Consider having it scanned by a professional if you want to continue using it. This way you don’t have to place wear and tear on the real thing.
What other tips do you have for cleaning books?