Cleaning a Rare Book Collection

The favorite place for the family to gather in the winter is the library; It’s cozy and warm. There’s an 8 ft Victorian fireplace, plush club chairs and a sense that the freezing world outside has calmed, just for a bit. The family takes meals there this time of year and lingers after dinner for cigars and brandy while enjoying a movie or music. It’s a well-loved space, and it’s dirty.

On the surface, everything’s in place and it looks clean, but it’s not. The smoke from the fire and cigars has left a residue on the walls and the books. I’m sure no one else notices, but I see it. As soon as they head off to boat, we’re cleaning this room tip to stern.

As this library houses a collection of rare books and first editions, I sought out the guidance of Bern Marcowitz, co-author of The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New: A Simple Repair Manual for Book Lovers. Bern offers his thoughts and favorite supplies in this post as part of a series of book care articles that can be found at his website


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 any more 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.

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.

Kimberly Varney

On Location: Atlanta

To date in 2014, Atlanta has seen an estimated $5.1 billion in economic impact from film and television production- and Georgia is paying attention. Georgia

Kimberly Varney

Road Trip!

As most of you know, high profile estate management is 24/7/365 job. My most recent contract project included complete renovations of a 33,000 sqft

error: Content is protected