Book Collecting Guide

Cleaning Books

Our first question when we handle new acquisitions is always, Does it need cleaning? The usual answer is yes. Then we must decide how much cleaning is appropriate and choose the method that will be most effective and safe.

Each of us has a personal definition of dirt. For general book purposes, dirt is whatever doesn’t belong on a book; it’s foreign matter. Dirt obscures beauty. Dirt is not necessarily a passive substance. Dirt and its components can be abrasive, not just unsightly.

Cleaning old books and their aging paper can present a conundrum. There are many ways to clean books and ephemera, but the more effective the cleaner, the more abrasive it may be, and the greater the risk that cleaning will cause damage. Weigh the need for cleaning against the stability of the book and what it’s made of; always test, especially when colors or fabrics are involved.

The patina of age, the well-handled quality of a much-loved old book that has passed through many hands, isn’t what we’re out to destroy anymore than we would alter the appearance of a fine piece of antique furniture; we want to preserve, not update it. The goal of cleaning old books ought not to be to wipe out all traces of their past, but to guarantee their future.

cleaning a book

A good rule of thumb is this: Surface dirt can always be safely removed, if it’s removed by the least-abrasive means possible. And it should be removed. Depending on its constituents, dirt can cause or promote potentially irreparable deterioration in paper and other book parts.

Here are some of the cleaners we consider indispensable.

  • A soft cloth:
    There’s nothing like a much-laundered tea towel or T-shirt cut up into small cloths. The ideal fabric is lint-free (so it imparts nothing you need to remove later) and light-colored (so you can see what you’re removing, which can be useful as you rate the book’s condition and decide what additional care it needs). If you prefer a commercial product, try one of the electrostatic cloths, such as Swiffer (steer clear of any cloth with scent or other added substances). The electrostatic cloths not only remove surface accumulations, but hold them; using these products make it easier to control where the dirt goes when it leaves the book’s surface. The soft cloth is the only surefire method of cleaning gold leaf. If a gentle wiping with a soft cloth doesn’t do the trick, take your gold leaf to a professional.
  • A small toothbrush:
    Use this to ease dirt from such delicate areas as spines, edges, stamping and embossing. Dedicate a new, soft toothbrush for the task — with the softest bristles you can find. Keep your used toothbrushes, if you must, for scrubbing grout. The toothbrush that touches books must bear no residue, and we doubt that even repeated washing and meticulous drying renders a used toothbrush clean.
  • Artgum eraser:
    The classic eradicator is soft and crumbly, an all-purpose necessity. It works wonders on simple smudges and many more serious blemishes. Always work in one direction only.
  • Absorene Dirt Eraser:
    Resembling a small, dry sponge, this is useful on paper of virtually every type and for countless clean-up tasks. Its size and pliability make it easy to use.
  • Document Cleaning Pad:
    This porous cloth sack, which fits comfortably in the hand, contains pulverized eraser that can work small cleaning miracles. It’s long-lasting, and, like the items above, so inexpensive that it’s no bargain to be without one.
  • Absorene Book Cleaner:
    More than dirt and debris respond to this soft and pliable putty. It also removes from paper the residue of smoke and that awful filmy filth that can make a book unpleasant to hold or an unsavory place to poke your nose.
  • Clean Cover Gel:
    One of our longtime favorites is well-known for getting maximum dirt from old boards. We call it our “Cinderella glop” and wouldn’t be without it. We like the way it revives old books, restoring appearance and feel; we’ve seen it reveal art and type that soil and neglect had made invisible.

In our opinion, the product has just gotten better, because it’s no longer sold only in quart containers. A quart of Clean Cover Gel goes a long way, especially when you’re learning to use it properly. It’s a good example of less is more. We learned the hard way. Because Clean Cover Gel is pleasant to use — dare we say fun? — we used too much at first, creating a lather when a sheer coating was all that was required. The new, smaller container is good training: Brodart now sells it in 4-ounce plastic jars for $2.95. We consider this a must for dealers in old books.

We’ll discuss the cleaning of leather in a future column. In the meantime, we’d like to hear from you: What are your favorite book cleaning products and methods?

Archived comments

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  1. Lloyd Dustmann

    We have ou sons wedding album which is about 25 years old and the cover has become very sticky. Is there some way to clean this off?
    If not, the pictures are all 5 X 5 inches, can we purchase a similar album somewhere. The album contains 17 pages and 34 pictures.

    • admin

      Naptha (lighter fluid) is a terrific low-impact way to remove all kinds of stickiness. Just apply a little and rub lightly with a soft cloth. Good luck!

  2. Doug Shaw

    I have a first edition Thomas Hardy novel which is in structurally very good condition but many of the pages have brownish, blotchy stains — can these be cleaned, removed or protected from further deterioration?

  3. Audrey

    My cat spilled pine tar-based leg wax on a first-edition. It hit cover and pages. Can it be cleaned off?