How To Clean Bookshelves And Books

Your treasured volumes can last a lifetime once you know how to clean bookshelves and keep your books free of mildew, bugs, dust, and stains.

Decorative objects and books arranged on clean bookshelves behind desk in modern home office

It’s happened to every book lover: you pull a favorite volume off the shelf and find a bare spot surrounded by a thick layer of dust. Or, worse, discover bugs, mold, and mildew have crept into your collection. Dust, pests, and mildew are all signs that you need to give your bookshelves a deep-cleaning. Once that’s done, follow the steps below to clean your books, too.

How To Clean Bookshelves

Time involved: 15-20 minutes per bookcase

Equipment You Need:

  • Lint-free soft cleaning cloths
  • Magic Eraser
  • Wood scratch repair kit (optional)
  • Vacuum with attachments

Materials You Need:

  • Warm water
  • Some mild liquid dish detergent

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 them 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 they’re easier 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 get rid of 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. Here’s more on how to clean baseboards in case you find stains or mildew.

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, read on for the best ways to clean books, including ways to get rid of mold, mildew, and greasy stains.

White leather reading chair in clean home library featuring floor to ceiling bookshelves

How to Clean Books

Time required: 1-2 minutes to clean most books, longer for damaged ones

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.

Equipment You Need:

  • Lint-free white cloths
  • A nylon sock or large piece of cheesecloth
  • A sturdy rubber band
  • Vacuum with attachments
  • Soft-bristled paint brush
  • Sheet or old towel

Materials You Need:

  • Warm water

Instructions

NOTE: If the books are valuable or very old, take them to a professional book restorer.

  1. 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.
  2. Remove the dust jacket, if any, and set it aside.
  3. 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.
  4. With the book closed, vacuum the book’s cover and the pages’ edges to remove dust.
  5. Holding the book with one hand, spine up, fan the pages slowly to release any dust and insects. Repeat this a few times.
  6. Turn the book upright and use your thumb to fan it 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. If not, you’ve at least let the pages “breathe,” which will help prevent mildew and discourage bugs.
  7. Now, 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!) Grab a fresh dry cloth and buff the book cover until it’s dry.
  8. Repeat the step above with the book’s dust jacket. Slip the completely dry dust jacket back onto the book, and it’s ready to reshelve.

Cleaning Mold or Mildew in Books

Time required: 1 minute working time per page, 8-10 hours waiting.

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.

Equipment You Need:

  • Wax paper
  • Paper towels
  • Air-tight container large enough to hold the book

Materials You Need:

  • 3% hydrogen peroxide
  • Baking soda

Instructions

  1. Place a sheet of wax paper behind the damaged page to protect the rest of the book.
  2. Lightly dampen a paper towel with hydrogen peroxide and wipe the affected page to kill mold or mildew spores.
  3. Leave the book open to the treated page until it dries.
  4. Repeat for each affected page.
  5. To remove mold or mildew odors from your book, sprinkle a cup of baking soda (bicarbonate) in the bottom of a container large enough to hold the book. 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

Time required: 5-10 minutes per book plus drying time

Equipment You Need:

  • Dry-cleaning sponge (for paper or cloth book covers)
  • Saddle soap (leather covers)
  • Lint-free white cleaning cloths

Materials You Need:

  • Warm water
  • Wax paper
  • Baking soda (for greasy pages)

Directions:

  1. To remove greasy stains from paper or cloth covers, use the dry cleaning sponge. (This is not the same as a Magic Eraser or melamine sponge. It’s specifically designed to remove stains and damage from porous surfaces like paper.) 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.
  2. 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 a soapy cloth to remove grime. Buff dry with a fresh cloth.
  3. To remove greasy stains on book pages, place a piece of wax paper behind the affected page. Sprinkle enough baking soda (bicarbonate) to cover the greasy mark and then cover it with another sheet of wax paper. Close the book and put a weight on it (like another book), then wait overnight for the baking soda to absorb the grease. The next day, clean the book using a vacuum attachment and nylon as described above.

Tips to Keep Your Books in Great Shape

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.

Comment Policy

Comments are moderated. I try to moderate comments as quickly as possible but it may take up to 72 hours.

I welcome and encourage questions and discussion. However, I will not approve comments that are off-topic, repetitive, or which request information already covered within the article; contain hateful or threatening language, advertising or spam; or which try to solicit personal information from other users of this site.

Comments may be removed in the future if the information they contain or seek becomes outdated or gets incorporated within the article itself. Anyone who violates this comment policy may be blocked from making future comments.

3 Comments

  1. One of the most pleasing sights for me is that of a well-organized bookshelf. It is a common dream of many avid readers to own a house with one room in it, completely dedicated to books. A room full of books, that is organized to perfection brings with it warmth, relaxation and peace of mind.

  2. Bethel Smith says:

    My husband has always loved to collect old books. He has recently taken up an interest in brass hardware and has been studying up on the proper methods to care for them. I will be sure to suggest to him your tip of properly taking care of the bookshelf by organizing, dusting, and vacuuming. A lot of our books have been sitting for years and can use a good hand-cleaning. If we take care of them properly by properly treating the brass and caring for the books frequently, I’m sure that we can keep them in excellent condition.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Good book care is important.

Leave a Reply
Comments are moderated. Your comment is pending moderator approval.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *