Book Collecting Guide

How to remove library markings from books

At a book sale in support of your local library, you discover a title you really want, one you’ve longed to find for years, one you may have given up hope of ever owning. Now it’s in sight, now in your grasp, and the price is right, a dollar or two going to a good cause.

But you’re not happy. In fact, you may be disappointed. You’ve found something you want, and it’s in bad shape. Its tattered dusk jacket bears the volume’s former shelf address as expressed by Dewey, its quota of library stamps and pockets and other stigmata attest to years of circulation, its dingy look and grimy feel suggest not so much as a single meaningful cleaning since the day it was cataloged. There may be evidence of many readers, from fingerprints to dog-ears to marginal notes.

This has happened to us so many times that we’ve outgrown every reaction but the urge to rush the book to the cashier and then back to what we think of as our M*A*S*H unit, our medicine chest for ailing books. Is there a dealer or collector out there who can’t recall, and weep and recriminate as the story unfolds, a book that wasn’t bought because it was in poor condition, often because it was ex-library, with all that term entails? The remedy for the human condition is simple: see the book, buy the book, especially at library sale prices. Remedies for the former library book’s condition are more varied, but not much more complicated.

We’ve described a host of products and methods for cleaning, restoring, and repairing books in this column, and they apply to library discards. To contend with what has been applied to books that have lived in libraries — from prominent tags on the spine to endpaper pockets and electronic “marcs” on removable adhesive strips — you may need additional help. What kind, and how much, depends on how you value the rescued book, and for what purpose.

We’ll assume that any book is valuable enough to save. A book with monetary value — even libraries discard them now and then — may deserve a trip to a professional, whose assessment can make the difference between salvaging a library book and truly saving it. Most of the books that check out of the library forever and whose value may be lasting but anything but monetary can still contribute to our lives as readers and our livelihoods as dealers. But first, we need to decide how much we want to alter them.

Ex-library markings can detract from the appearance of books, but with the proper tools and techniques you can help your favorite ex-libs look and feel better.

One can make a case for preserving library markings. If we support libraries, must we necessarily eradicate all trace of them from books they discard? As the computer age changes how library books are managed, old-fashioned pockets may become a relic, and they can be handy for holding your bookmark while you read or for housing notes. Library stamps and other markings, often including perforations, are meant to be permanent, and usually are.

At the very least, library rescues need basic cleaning. Many of these books have had hard lives, so while the need for cleaning may be obvious, so should be the need for extra care. Never forget that the more effective the cleaner, the more abrasive it can be, and the wearier the book, the more it must be spared abrasive cleaning methods. Start with the usual soft cloth, then move on as needed to the Artgum eraser and other famous brand names in the field.

If you’re determined to remove a library pocket, you can try such products as un-du Label and Tape Remover (available here), followed by a minute or two of low heat from a hairdryer. The multipurpose Document Cleaning Pad (available here) can help in removing residue.

Rehabilitate enough library books, and you’ll become intimately acquainted with rubber cement. To cope with its removal, try a long-lasting crepe rubber eraser called Pik-Up (available here), which works on many other adhesives, too.

Dust jackets, often encased in heavy-duty plastic covers complete with library labels or other markings, can be refreshed with a cleaning, mending if needed, and a new clear plastic jacket cover (available in the Bibliophiles’ Shop). We’ve found many library dust jackets badly creased and wrinkled, and have probably smoothed and ironed more jackets from library sales than from any other source.

When a dust jacket is absent and boards show accumulated dirt and wear, gently wiping superficial soil is just the beginning. Chances are that colors and detail can be restored by using something like Clean Cover Gel and a little elbow grease. Badly worn covers may benefit from the addition of a clear plastic cover, for protection from dirt and ultraviolet rays.

Perhaps the best favor we can all do for library books is to offer them help before they land on the sales table. If you’re reading this column, you may be an advocate for book care. Ask your local library if a donation of your time and book-care skills is needed. You’ll be well paid with satisfaction, and the library can always offer you a discard book or two for more TLC at home.

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  1. Jean Cenac

    Many thanks for all the cleaning tips. Sellers at thrift stores or yard sales put book prices on end papers in heavy pencil. Art gum eraser helps but does not take away the residual graphite. What do you recommend for removal?

  2. Brian Norton

    Hi, thanks for your details about cleaning ex-library books. I was wondering if there is anything that can be done about removing INK from the inside of books?

    Kind Regards

  3. Perien

    Does anyone know if there’s a way to get books that have been stored in a humid place and smell of mold to lose that smell?

  4. Kajaks


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  5. Rebecca

    I know this thread is super old, but I actually received an old library book by accident. It had the stamp with the library name on all three of the page edges.

    If you’re just worried about getting the ink off, I used the tiniest bit of bleach on the end of a q-tip. However BE CAREFUL, it did discolor the pages (like bleach tends to do to most things). It almost looks like I tried to paint the edges white, haha but the stamps are gone and I’m happy, so I can’t complain.

    ***If you’#8217;re going to use bleach — just like any other time you use it — test on an inconspicuous area first and let it dry before deciding. ***

  6. Jeff Kneller

    How do you remove ink markings from book pages?

  7. barbara

    is there a place to replace pages in a book and the pages are good in another ,but the backs are without backs is about 150 yrs.

  8. Mrs. Annette O. Bigler

    I thought I stored my antique leather bound books well. I wrapped them in acid free tissue paper. placed them in a wicker box which I rapped in plastic and stored them in a plastic storage pod in my garage. When I opened the box it seem that all I did did not save the books. Opening the box I found the books, wet with mildew and mold on the edges. I felt like crying. WHAT DO I DO? I can not afford a much needed restore. WHAT DO I DO?

  9. Amber

    Good news, Mrs. Annette Bigler! We have a blog post dedicated to that exact issue — next time, don’t wrap them in plastic wrap, as that likely held in the moisture:

  10. Sandy

    I found some excess glue on page edges of an expensive book some time after purchase. I removed it with alcohel sterile wipes used by doctors for pre-injection — but alas, it has left a blue tinge where it has been used! Any ideas to fix this?