How to Dust and Clean Books

Dear Home Ec 101,

I love your blog (and book), but have a question I don’t think has been addressed. We live in a small duplex with 5 animals (three dogs and two cats). While I’m learning to keep stuff clean -mostly ;) – there is one recurring issue that I’ve been having. We have a guest bedroom that has been converted in a library of sorts, and if we leave books on the shelves for any real length of time, they get dusty. But not just your every day kind of dusty. They get this sticky film on the top edge of the book, along with the expected dust and fur. I don’t dust them religiously (perhaps I should), but it doesn’t seem to help when I do. I have to really rub along the top of the book with a washcloth to get the sticky film off, and some of them even get spots on them (that I’m afraid might be the beginning of mold). I do live in Florida, so it is super humid most of the time, if that matters.
Thanks!
Marian

Heather says:

Why thank you!

Physical books, like any collection have a cost outside of their initial investment, in that light I say, “Get a Kindle!” I jest, sort of, I really do understand the tactile joy of books.

I checked with the Library of Congress to see what helpful information they had on the care of book collections. In all honesty, there wasn’t much to help you. The humidity is a big part of the problem and with that many creatures, both the two and four legged kind, you have quite the menagerie of dust creators. Every bit of dander and fur that is shed has the potential to be part of your dust collection. This dust collection becomes airborne each time your HVAC unit kicks on and finds new and fun places to land.


I also live in the sticky south and you may find that buying a dehumidifier can not only make your home more comfortable -at a slightly higher thermostat setting- you’ll find that dust is slightly less of an issue. The airborne particles won’t be as sticky and will be easier to remove. You should also keep in mind that books, for the longest shelf life, heh, should be kept in a cool, dry environment, but I’m guessing a move to central California isn’t in the works? In that light, do the best you can with the climate you have.

The soft brush attachment of your vacuum can be quite useful when cleaning your home collection of books. Before getting started I want you to take the following into consideration: Are the books a temporary investment, meaning they will at some point be headed to that great big library in the sky or are they something you hope to pass down to the next generation? In the former, just regularly vacuum the tops of the books with your soft brush attachment in whatever willy-nilly direction you choose. If you want to preserve your books for later, ALWAYS dust from the spine of the book toward the opening of the book. This will help keep particles of dust and grime from falling down inside the binding of the book where it causes damage.

If you have that film of dust on the top of the books and the soft brush attachment is not enough to remove it, you may use a very slightly damp -see I used two descriptors there emphasizing how little dampness I mean, pay attention- cloth to dust the top of the books. This will require removing the books, one at a time and wiping, before returning it to the shelf.

Did you know it’s recommended to not have the spines of the book line up exactly with the edge of the shelf? It’s true. It’s recommended to have at least one inch of shelf space between the spine of the book and the outward edge of the shelf. This will give you, the homeowner, the ability to monitor for insect or other pest activity without having to pull the books from the shelves. Also, it’s important not to shove books against the back wall of a shelf, as that prevents air from circulating which can cause the perfect environment for mold and mildew growth, especially in places like Florida.

I know it seems like a big time investment, but just like owning five animals is a big time investment, the choice to own and care for any collection of property with significant value (personal or monetary) also has a cost. In this case, the cost is the time to keep your collection clean.

Additional reference: The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this post! I have the same problem (2 dogs, 3 kids, lots of wonderful books that have been passed down).

  2. Librarian here! :) Great answers; I’m mostly just going to reiterate what’s been said. Humidity and temperature fluctuations are the biggest book-killers. I would be very, VERY careful about using damp cloths to clean books– as in I probably wouldn’t do it unless I absolutely had to. The last thing you want to do is introduce more moisture to the pages and give mold a better chance; once mold starts, the book is likely a loss. Other than that, most books can take a lot, especially when they’re all shelved up next to other books. In the library, we use those yellow disposable commercial dusting cloths to wipe off the top of the book “block” (the block of pages) while the books are still on the shelves. In a home library, I would just use the vacuum attachment as Heather recommends. And resign myself to the fact that book collections just gather dust no matter what you do. :) We like to think of it as part of the charm…

  3. Best solution is to just keep buying more books! If you do that then you will have to constantly rearrange the ones you have to make room for the new ones and in doing so you will be dusting them off. The solution is simple – more books!! :)

  4. Charlene says:

    We’re BIG book owners and book lovers and we formerly (maybe 15 years ago) owned a bookstore. Another tip: at least once a month or so take every book off the shelf and hit it softly on the carpet or edge of the shelf or something. At lot of the dust will fly away (to be dusted off or vacuumed up). Then open the book top edge down and riffle the pages. That should get most of it off!

  5. Charlene says:

    We’re BIG book owners and book lovers and we formerly (maybe 15 years ago) owned a bookstore. Another tip: at least once a month or so take every book off the shelf and hit it softly on the carpet or edge of the shelf or something. At lot of the dust will fly away (to be dusted off or vacuumed up). Then open the book top edge down and riffle the pages. That should get most of it off!

  6. Charlene says:

    We’re BIG book owners and book lovers and we formerly (maybe 15 years ago) owned a bookstore. Another tip: at least once a month or so take every book off the shelf and hit it softly on the carpet or edge of the shelf or something. At lot of the dust will fly away (to be dusted off or vacuumed up). Then open the book top edge down and riffle the pages. That should get most of it off!

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