Common Book Problems – And How to Solve Them!

How can I remove the musty smell from old books? While you can probably not completely remove the smell, there are ways to minimize it. On way is to create a deodorizing chamber. Take two garbage cans, one large and one smaller. The smaller must be able to contain the book(s) to be deodorized, the larger must be able to contain the smaller with some room about the sides. The book to be deodorized should be placed in the smaller can, which is then placed inside the larger can. Placed odor-absorbing materials (such as baking soda, cedar chips, coffee grounds, charcoal briquettes(without lighter fluid), or kitty litter), in the bottom of the larger can. The lid should be placed on the larger can only and the whole should be left alone for some time (days, at least). Monitor the set-up periodically by sniffing the book(s).

A second option is the use of MicroChamber products. These remove by-products of deterioration and pollutants, such as the smell from mold and mildew. They are like pieces of paper, which can be placed between the pages of the book. Place a sheet of the fine, 100% cotton interleaving tissue between the front board and the endpaper, every 50 pages throughout the volume, and again between the back board and the endpaper. Close the book and set it aside until the odor is reduced.

Our basement flooded and the pages of my high school yearbook are stuck together, what can I do? Unfortunately, not much. Yearbooks, pamphlets, magazines, and art books are often composed from glossy coated paper. If this paper becomes wet and then begins to dry, the coating on one page sticks to the coating on the next. It can’t be reversed. For institutions which suffer water damage to books, freezing within 6 hours, followed by vacuum freeze drying, can be successful in saving this type of material. The vacuum freeze drying is carried out by a commercial service such as AFD.

If the pages are only partially stuck together, you can try to gently separate the pages with a micro spatula. Going slowly and carefully may salvage some of the pages. There will be some loss in the areas where the pages were stuck.

Rain came in the window and my book was soaked. Anyway to make it readable again? Although it will never look as good as it once did, it can be made readable again. Using blotter paper or paper towels, blot as much water from the book as possible. DO NOT rub either the cover or the wet pages. Stand the book on its tail and fan open the pages. You don’t want a direct heat source for drying, but a warm dry one. If possible dry the book in this position in the sunlight or with the use of a fan. The more quickly the book dries the less the pages will ripple. If cover is warped, you can place the book between two press boards and place in a book press for several days (or under several heavy books!).

I opened one of my books and saw a tiny bug crawling in it, what should I do? They are most likely booklice (also known as psocids) or silverfish. Booklice are extremely small, about 1-2mm long. Silverfish are larger(up to 12.5mm) and over time can eat holes in paper. Often they show up when humidity is a problem in a storage area. If it a book or two, place them in an airtight plastic bag and put them in your freezer a couple of days. That will kill the insects. If more books are involved but only a few insects are seen, reduce the humidity in the space and vacuum the materials well. If you still see insects after a few days, or if the problem is widespread, you will have to resort to killing them. While non-chemical measures are preferable to chemical treatments, “bug bombing” the room will take care of the infestation. Just remember to address the cause of the insects – temperature and humidity problems. Keep them both low. It is best to contact a preservation professional to discuss appropriate options is valuable books are involved.

We have some old wooden bookcases. Are they safe and appropriate for valuable book storage? From the perspective of preservation, valuable books should be stored on metal shelving, as wood shelving can give off damaging pollutants. To make the wood shelving a “safe” as possible, seal all the wood with a moisture-borne polyurethane. Avoid oil-based paints and stains because of the oil and latex because of its inability to completely adhere. Shelves can be lined with glass, Plexiglas, or an inert metallic laminate material to prevent materials from coming into direct contact with the wood. If the bookcases are closed wooden cabinets or shelving which are not usually accessed, they should be aired out several times per year to minimize the buildup of damaging fumes.

I have some old leather books whose bindings are dried and cracked, should I put leather dressing on them? No. The use of leather dressings (neatsfoot oil, lanolin, etc.) is no longer recommended by conservators and preservationists. They tend to have undesirable effects such as discoloration, staining, and stickiness; wicking of oil into adjoining materials; and increased danger of mold growth on treated materials; among other problems. If flaking or cracked leather covers are a problem, they can be wrapped in paper or polyester jackets. This will keep the fragments and dirt from flaking off further and onto hands and other books. Leather dressing can be appropriate for some objects, but advice should be sought from a conservator before using it.

There are grease-like marks in my book! Absorbing the marks by interleaving the book with paper towels and closing the book. If that doesn’t work, you can sprinkle the contents of a dry cleaning pad on the marks. Using your finger tips, very gently and lightly rub the pad dust over the page in a circular manner (DO NOT RUB WITH FINGERS IF PAGES ARE BRITTLE!). Let it sit for awhile, then brush dust away (Always brush away from the gutter of the book to the edge). If the marks are from a pencil, erase them using a gum or plastic eraser. Stroke with the eraser in a forward motion towards the page edge. Brush away eraser dust and dirt very lightly with a soft brush.

A page in my favorite book is torn. Can I just tape it together? Yes and No… Scotch tape is not appropriate for a book you want to keep. You will need archival document repair tape. To repair, first determine the correct position for the two sides of the tear to overlap. All paper has a grain and you will be able to tell how the repair would “sit”. If the tear is long and changes direction, mend only one direction at a time. Use only as much tape as is necessary to cover the tear. This is a quick repair but often the tape does not adhere well. You may need to use a warm tacking iron covered by a light blotter paper to set the repair tape. Other book repairs can be found at A Simple Book Repair Manual.

How do I clean the page edges of my books? Try a Document Cleaning Pad available from Lineco Archival Products. It’s like a bag of eraser crumbs and works wonders.

How do I clean vellum binding? Use milk and cotton wool. Moisten the cotton wool in the milk and rub the vellum gently but firmly.

How do I remove a label? For a homemade remedy, use a mixture of flour and water. Just mix enough flour into the water to keep it from flowing when it is poured onto a surface. Then use a small paint brush to generously coat the paper that is being removed. Usually, within 15-20 mins, the water soluble glue will soften and the unwanted paper can be peeled off.(Practice on a cheap book your first attempt!).

Or, in a well-ventilated place, spray it with lighter fluid (Ronsonal), wait five seconds, gently rub with a cloth or cotton ball (or cotton flat, which I find works best). I’ve used this technique literally hundreds of times without a problem: the excess fluid evaporates in a few minutes and leaves no residue.

How do I remove a label from a dust jacket? Apply a hot iron for a moment to heat the label. This loosens the glue and often the label can be removed very cleanly. To supplement the iron, try using cigarette lighter fluid (naphta), which helps get rid of any sticky residue. Mineral spirits will also work. You can also try to remove a sticker with an X-acto knife (broad, rounded blade), getting gently under it with the blade until peeling up, then peel slooooowly off with fingers. To loosen a really stubborn sticker, oak it with a q-tip saturated with spirits, wait a minute, then remove. I clean up any residual stickiness with a paper towel wetted in mineral spirits.

My child wrote in crayon… any hope? Unlike ink, which penetrates the paper, crayon marks are at the surface.Try very fine steel wool (0000 grade). Gentle rubbing will usually remove, or minimize, the crayon marks without causing harm to the paper. (As with any cleaning method, practice on a book you don’t care about.)

Mold is growing on my book! R.L. Shep in his “Cleaning and Repairing Books… a Practical Home Manual” mentions using hydrogen peroxide, carefully applied to the area with an eyedropper; lemon juice applied the same, and placed in the sun for a “short time only”; denatured alcohol, applied with a soft rag or cotton swap; thymol in a solution of alcohol. As with all “blot up any excess”. If mildew is between the pages of the book, he suggest diatomaceous earth, sprinkled between the pages and brushed or vacuumed out several days later. If the book is spotted from a previous “infestation”, using lemon juice or a weak solution of peroxide, applied in small amounts with an eyedropper and wiped off quickly, followed by a good coat of “Renaissance Wax” (available from McCune, Inc., San Francisco) or some other good wax.

Even if you think it could be removed with a stiff brush, DO NOT remove it that way, as that will almost certainly damage the surrounding cloth. Instead, take a sharp-pointed, scalpel-type blade and/or a pair of tweezers, and a high-powered magnifying glass and work carefully at scraping/prising away the gunk without damaging the cloth itself. Some moderately light brushing towards the end may help to get rid of traces. If the stains can not be removed in this way, water is probably the next thing to try. Use wet tissue to dampen the whole surface of the board (otherwise damp stain marks are likely to appear). Then draw a blunt edge (like a bone folder) smoothly across the board. Don’t use anything sharp or you risk damaging the cloth. Don’t rub the damp board with tissue or cloth or anything, as this will probably remove the dye in the cloth. Depending on the type of dye used, you are likely to lose some of the color anyway, but do it carefully and the loss will be negligible and pretty much unnoticeable. Work very carefully round the title/gilt stamping or similar, drawing the bone folder away from such areas towards the edge of the board.

Basically, you’re teasing the dirt out of the fabric; don’t dump it on top of the title, etc., just work it towards the edges of the board, where it can be wiped gently off. You may be able to remove much of the the stain this way but the stain (or parts of it) may simply mix in with the water and the dye on the cloth. Even so, the resulting gunk, when distributed smoothly across the boards with a bone folder or similar, will be an improvement! Don’t use chemicals. They may improve the immediate appearance of the book, but within a year or two their corrosive effects will begin to become apparent.

Killing off the spores. The spores (if they are such) are probably best killed off by sunshine, which apparently works just as well (or even better) behind glass as in the open air. Leave it on the windowsill on a sunny day for an hour or so. Ideally, if you are going to dampen the board to clean it, do it on a sunny day and put the book in the sun to dry. Don’t do any of the above on anything that’s really valuable; leave it in the hands of a professional.

How do I get rid of foxing? Simple answer… you don’t. This needs to be done by a professional conservator. The only thing you might try is to take a slice of white bread and remove the crust. Spread a newspaper to catch the crumbs. Remember white bread is made with bleached flour and is moist. Gently rub the bread on the page in a circular motion and it will soon crumble, ball up, and if you’re lucky, start to darken. The light abrasion applied will not harm the paper, the bleach will help whiten and the moist bread will remove some soiling and lighten stains. Don’t expect perfection but look for improvement.

It looks like the leather binding on one of my books is rotting – what to do? First of all, you need immediate climate control. Get the humidity and temperature down and keep them there. Weird book rot (in spots and not all over) may indeed be a literal “bug”. Carefully daubed the open rotted place and edges with Lysol on a q-tip and see if that stops the spread. If your leather is overall dry and powdery, nothing will really help.

Can I fix a cocked or slanted spine?

1. Put book on flat surface.

2. Open to 2nd page and run finger along left inside edge near spine from top of book to bottom.

3. Open to last page – 2 and run finger along right inside edge near spine from top of book to bottom (as above).

4. Repeat from front of book page 4.

5. Repeat from back of book page [last – 4]

6. Repeat pattern until you meet in the middle.

Or simply turn the book upside down and “read” it backwards. Paperbacks can be microwaved gently to warm the glue inside the spine. This process will usually correct off kilter or rolled spines.

Suggested: 30 seconds on low setting.

Should I remove rusted staples from a pamphlet? Under most circumstances, any piece will retain more of its value if left as close to original as possible. Trying to replace the staples could possibly lead to accidental damage. On the other hand, since the staples threaten the integrity and longevity of the main part of the original some would say they should be removed if possible. As the paper expands and contracts over the years due to humidity and temperature it works against the inflexible staples and tears itself. The rust itself can be corrosive. So, try to remove the staples carefully and either leave the pamphlet unstitched or possibly restitch it with soft thread.

The pages in my book are deteriorating! Nearly all books between about 1870 and almost the present time used acidic paper. After about 100 years, most of them are so brittle they will disintegrate the first time you read them. One treatment that will extend paper life is Bookkeeper or Wei T’o de acidification sprays. This will not restore the strength of your brittle paper — it will just slow down the deterioration. Some ink, especially some colored ink, will get smeary — test this before you treat a whole book.

Low temperatures and humidity are a big help. 20 or 30% humidity is fairly good, and consistency of both temperature and humidity is much more important than the exact numbers. Just remember that every time your book warms up in an environment where there’s also increasing moisture, it’s as though you were dipping it into a dilute acid bath.

How do I stop binding glue from becoming brittle? There’s not too much you can do. Most glues are either hydroscopic or thermoplastic, but you are taking a risk to use water or heat around a book. Taking the book to a binder and having it reglued is the best bet.

I’m moving. How do I pack my books? Flat with edges out, so the books are spine to spine in the box. Stuff any space with crumpled bubble wrap or the like so the books don’t rattle around. If you hear anything when you shake the box, open it up and redo. A box dropped on a corner can cause a lot of damage to the books inside. If at all possible, do not store the boxes on a cement floor (ie garage) for any extended period of time. Cement has a lot of moisture which can be drawn up into the dry cardboard box and dry paper books. Water destroys books faster than fire.

Should I rebind an old book? Unless there’s something really wrong with the original binding, you could significantly lower the value by rebinding. Also, do not bind it with string or rubber bands. This will cause the pages to warp or crimp and will leave marks. Temporarily, you can use white cotton twill tape. The best way is to put the book into an archival box. These can be custom made to the exact size (ideal) or you can use a retail one which is a close match in size.