Caring for books — How to store, clean, and handle your books

Whether you love surrounding yourself with books at home or prefer to limit your at-home collection and frequent the library, it’s good to know how to take good care of the books in your possession. (Aside: Much as I love reading blogs and researching topics online, for me e-readers don’t come close to curling up with a good, tangible book in hand. And whether they belong to me, a friend, or the library, I treat books lovingly.) Here are some tips for caring for books.

Choose the best location

Books like a temperature of about 70 degrees or cooler. So don’t store your books in a hot attic or place your bookshelf next to heat vents, fireplaces, or heaters. Most importantly, books don’t do well with big fluctuations in temperature. Like pianos, books are best placed on interior rather than exterior walls where they would experience frequent changes in humidity and temperature. 

For humidity, 45 to 55 percent is ideal. High humidity can cause mold growth (keep them out of damp basements), and if the humidity is too low, it can cause the paper and bindings to become brittle and disintegrate. 

Bright light isn’t good for books either. Direct sunlight and other bright lights can deteriorate the paper and fade or discolor covers.

Once you find the best location, shelve your books standing upright, ideally next to books of about the same size. This will provide support and prevent them from warping out of shape. To keep them from toppling, use bookends or another heavy object for support. If you have a big book that won’t stand on the shelf, lay it flat (not on its spine), with just one or two other books on top of it. 

BTW, what do you think of the designer trend of facing books with their spines inward on a bookshelf? Attractive, in a quirky but uniform sort of way, or silly because, well, how do you find the book you’re looking for?

Clean carefully

Either use a soft brush attachment from your vacuum, a feather duster (I finally have a good excuse to get one of these!), or a soft, dry cloth to gently remove the dust. (Don’t use the same cloth you’re using to dust the bookshelf; grab a clean one.) Don’t wet or dampen the cloth. And don’t use any kind of leather cleaner or polish or oil on leather bindings. Stick to that soft dry cloth when caring for books. Dust from the spine outward, so the dust falls away from the book rather than gathering in the spine. 

If you notice any signs of mold or mildew on a book (fuzzy, soft growth), wrap the book in a clean, dry plastic bag. Place it in the freezer for a couple of days to kill the fungi. Then remove and gently brush with a soft brush. 

Do you have a book that smells moldy? (This happens with books I pick up at Goodwill or consignment shops sometimes.) Place it in a plastic bag with a sprinkling of baking soda for a couple of days. The baking soda will absorb much of the odor. Remove and dust. 

Handle with TLC

• Make sure your hands are clean when you handle books. Oils and dirt on your hands can transfer to the cover and the pages (where there’s no removing them) and cause permanent damage. (That’s why they make you wear cotton gloves to handle rare books. I’m putting this on my bucket list, handling a book rare enough to require that I wear cotton gloves!)

• To protect books that will be handled often (or carried to and fro), cover them with paper. We learned to cover all of our textbooks in grade school, using plain brown paper. It felt like a magic trick, getting the book all folded into the paper cover without using any tape or fasteners! Do kids still cover their textbooks? I think it looks terrific, and someday I’ll cover my small book collection in plain paper marked with lovely cursive! You can also purchase book covers online or in some bookstores. They attach to the book magically, too. 

• Experts will tell you not to read a book while eating or drinking, but that’s half the fun, isn’t it, curling up with a good book and a cup of tea or coffee or glass of wine? So I suggest just being careful. Maybe don’t eat that crumbly cookie right over the book, okay? (I’m fine with stains in my cookbooks BTW—as long as the recipes are still legible! Caring for books doesn’t mean not using them!)

• When you remove a book from a shelf, resist the urge to pull it out by the top of the spine, which can easily damage it. Instead, push back the neighboring books and grab the book you want by the middle of the spine and pull it forward. It’s not at all cumbersome or time consuming; it just takes a bit of reminding oneself to make it a habit. (Do this when pulling books from library shelves, too, please!)

• Use proper bookmarks. Don’t clip pages with paperclips, which can leave rust marks, or sticky notes, which can leave residue. Of course, never fold a page to mark your place, and don’t put anything that’s not flat in a book to hold your page, either. (Don’t grab the nearest item, like a pencil, and stick it in your book because there isn’t a bookmark or paper scrap handy, for example.) Also, don’t turn a book upside down on its open spine or you’ll weaken (and eventually break) the spine. BTW, the best bookmark is a piece of acid-free paper, though if you’re not leaving it in the book long-term, I think that bookmark your child made in kindergarten will do just fine.

• It’s best not to open a book to lie at a 180-degree angle (flat open on a table, for example), which can stress the spine. It’s better to prop the covers to a less-flat angle. 

• If a book is important to you, think about placing it out of the reach of little children and pets who might damage it. Once children are old enough to handle paper (rather than board or fabric) books (just past the everything-in-the-mouth stage in our house), teach them to turn pages carefully when they read. Caring for books is an important skill for wee ones to learn!

• Experts advise not writing in books, but my recipe books are full of my handwritten notes, which makes them more valuable, not less, in my opinion! You may feel the same about some other of your books, too. 

Consider repairs

Damaged books that are valuable (monetarily or emotionally) can be repaired. Your local librarian can probably point you to someone local who restores books (a book conservator). Now that sounds like a lovely job!

You might also try your hand at some simple repairs. Save Your Books offers some free online classes in book repair.

Do you like filling your home with books or do you prefer to use the library? Do you cover your books? Write in them? Have any tips to share for caring for books?

You might also like: Caring for quilts and Pillow care.

2 thoughts on “Caring for books — How to store, clean, and handle your books”

  1. Thanks for the mildew-killing tip! I hadn’t thought of that at all. Thankfully, I have never found anything like that on any of our books (probably because it tends to be dry more often than it’s humid in here), but you never know when I’ll need to know that.

    Is leaving a book open flat still bad, even when it’s high-quality leather binding? We don’t leave our regular books open long-term, but we do our Bible.

    I can affirm the recommendation to keep valuable books out of reach of children and pets. When I was young, I had just gotten a new book, and my dog chewed the cover off. It wasn’t a valuable book, and even then I was upset. I’d hate to think how it would feel to have a truly valuable book destroyed by a pet.

    Confession: I have a book inside another book as a temporary “bookmark”. Cough.

    Bookmarked for future reference. 🙂

    • Haha! Can’t tell you how many times I’ve tucked my lip balm into my bedside book before nodding off!
      When it comes to leaving your Bible open flat, that good binding will certainly help. Can you tell if it’s being stressed at all? If not, it will likely be fine, though you may leave creases in the binding.
      That new book destroyed by your dog might not have been “valuable” to others, but if you were like me as a child, all books were valuable, especially new ones!
      Thanks for chatting, Amanda!


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