Your treasured volumes can last a lifetime once you know how to clean bookshelves and books to keep them free of dust, bugs, mildew, and stains.
At some point in every booklover’s life, pulling a favorite volume off the shelf leaves a bare spot surrounded by a thick layer of dust. Or worse yet, an insect or foul odor escapes when they open a book.
Dust, pests, and mildew are all signs that you need to give your bookshelves a deep-cleaning and follow the steps below to clean your books, too.
How To Clean Bookshelves
1. Remove everything. Don’t bother sorting at this point; just clear the shelves.
2. Clean the bookcase. Pull the unit away from the wall. Wipe it with a dry cloth to remove dust then use a damp, soapy cloth to get rid of any grime or smudges.
3. Treat scratches. Bookshelves that get a lot of use develop scratches over time. Wipe fabricated surfaces with a damp microfiber cloth then use a Magic Eraser to remove other scuffs or marks. Fix scratches in wood shelves using a scratch repair product or even a similar-colored Crayon. (Related: How to Fix Scratches in Wood.)
4. Check the bottom. If you have hard flooring, your bookshelves and other furniture should have felt pads on the bottom, so it’s easy to move without scratching your floor. Those pads collect a lot of dust and pet hair over time. So, while the shelf is empty, tip it and wipe away any accumulated debris — including spiderwebs.
5. Vacuum. Before putting the shelf back in its regular spot, vacuum the floor where it usually sits. You might want to dust the wall and baseboard behind it, too.
6. Re-shelve your books. If you’ve cleaned your books recently, go ahead and put them back on the shelves in your preferred order. Otherwise, take the time now to follow the steps below that explain how to clean books.
How to Clean Books
Between the pages of a book is a lovely place to be — even if you’re an insect, mildew spore, or dust. Any serious book collector has found one or all of those things, and sometimes greasy fingerprints or other stains, too.
NOTE: If the books are valuable or very old, take them to a professional book restorer.
You will need:
- Several lint-free white cloths
- Nylon sock or cheesecloth
- Vacuum cleaner
- Rubber band
- Soft-bristled paintbrush
- Sheet or old towel
- Spread the sheet or old towel on the floor where you’ll be working to catch any dust, dead insects, or other things that fall out of your books.
- Remove the dust jacket, if any, and set it aside.
- Slip the nylon sock or a double layer of cheesecloth over the vacuum cleaner’s hose, then use the rubber band to secure it in place.
- With the book closed, vacuum the book’s cover and the edges of the pages to remove dust.
- Holding the book with one hand, spine up, fan the pages slowly to release any dust and insects. Repeat this a couple of times.
- Turn the book upright and fan the pages again. This time, look at the pages to see if any have stains or mildew. If you find either, follow the instructions in the relevant sections below.
- Wipe the outside of the cover with a very lightly damp, lint-free white cloth. Look at the fabric after wiping — if you see dirt, rinse the cloth and wring it out, then wipe the book again until the rag comes away clean. (Do not saturate the book cover!)
- Repeat the step above with the book’s dust jacket. Let both the cover and dust jacket dry completely before reassembling.
Cleaning Mold or Mildew in Books
Mold and mildew can cause respiratory issues even in people who don’t have allergies or asthma. If you’ve discovered either in your books, wear a dust mask for protection.
You will need:
- Wax paper
- Paper towels
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Baking soda
- Air-tight container large enough to hold the book(s)
- Place a sheet of wax paper behind the page to protect the rest of the book.
- Lightly dampen a paper towel with hydrogen peroxide and wipe the affected page to kill mold or mildew spores.
- Leave the book open to the treated page until it dries.
- Repeat for each affected page.
- To remove mold or mildew smells from your book, sprinkle a cup of baking soda in the bottom of the large container. Place a paper towel over the baking soda, then put the book on top of it. Close the box tightly and wait a week for the baking soda to eliminate the odor. Dust the book before putting it back on the shelf.
Cleaning Greasy Stains on Books
You will need:
- Dry-cleaning sponge (paper or cloth covers)
- Saddle soap (leather covers)
- Lint-free white cloths
- Wax paper
- Baking soda
- To remove greasy stains from paper or cloth covers, use the dry cleaning sponge. Do not get the sponge damp. Using light and overlapping strokes, work from the top of the cover to the bottom. Follow directions on the sponge’s label to clean it after use.
- To remove greasy stains from leather covers, lightly dampen a lint-free cloth in warm water with a little saddle soap added. Spot test inside the book cover first — if you see changes, do not continue! Otherwise, lightly wipe the leather cover with the soapy cloth to remove grime.
- To remove greasy stains on book pages, place a piece of wax paper behind the affected page. Sprinkle enough baking soda to cover the greasy mark and put another sheet of wax paper over this. Close the book and put a weight on it (other books work fine), then wait overnight for the baking soda to absorb the grease.
How to Keep Books in Excellent Condition
Store unshelved books in a dry location. Humidity leads to bugs and mildew, so don’t store books in a basement or attic. While that “old book smell” is charming, it can also be a health hazard.
Avoid direct light. Direct sunlight fades book covers and can destroy leather bindings. Position your bookshelves away from windows or install sheer curtains to filter light.
Give them space. Storing books too tightly together warps their covers, which causes broken spines and loose pages. You should be able to easily slip at least one finger between books on the shelf.
Take them off the shelves properly. Grabbing books by the top of the spine (head cap) eventually causes damage. Instead, gently push neighboring books aside and grasp the middle of a book’s spine to remove it. If you’ve given your books enough space, this is easy to do.
Read and love them. Books are like secret gardens for our minds, containing places and times to which we can travel without ever leaving the comfort of home. An unread book is a lonely book!
Rehome them properly. Sites like BookMooch let you swap books with others for just the cost of shipping. Or cultivate your karma with BookCrossing, where you register books then leave them in public locations for others to find. When someone stumbles on your book, they mark it as found, and can pass it along after they’ve read it.