I've seen a lot of videos and tutorials on how to remove library markings (stickers, in particular) from used books. A lot of them opt for Goo Gone and fingernails or razor blades—which is fine if you're not dealing with collectibles (although honestly I'd shy away from using any of those options. Ever).
When I worked in a library they were very fond of Goo Gone. What I found was that because it's an oil-based product, it often left slight oil staining on anything that absorbed it. This includes cloth-bound books, dust jackets that weren't coated (glossy), and text block paper. I still have books that I used this technique on over 5 years ago and although I was told the stains would dissipate, they have not.
With a few exceptions, you want to avoid introducing wet-media to your dry book. (There are, of course, wet restoration techniques, but you should leave those to the professionals who have been trained in such matters.)
When attempting to restore a book with library markings, you actually want to interfere as little as possible with the structure. This means trying ease stickers off without ripping the paper underneath and gently cleaning off residue from the surface.
In general, you have the following problem areas when dealing with library books:
- The sticker(s) on the cover / spine
- The front end sheet ISBN sticker
- Tape residue from an improperly taped dust jacket cover
- Library pocket
- RFID sticker
- Library stamps on the end sheet, title or half title pages
- Library stamp on the head (top edge) of the book block
- Possible cancellation marks, when the book is removed from the library's collection
These basically break down into two categories:
- Ink marks
- Glue residue
(I'll talk about ink marks in another post.)
Rule #1: Each book is different.
You'll use different techniques based on the condition and age of the book.
Rule #2: If you're not comfortable with any of the techniques, leave the book alone.
The last thing you want to do is completely ruin the book. Sometimes, the better thing to do is to just leave it alone, or take it to a professional to restore.
Rule #3: Use the right tools.
FYI, your fingernail, while handy, does not constitute "the right tool."
- A peeler label knife: This has a long, sharp bevel on one side and is completely flat on the other. It's fairly rigid, so not great for areas that are contoured, but works well on flat surfaces.
- A paper spatula: Instead of a peeler label knife, you can use a paper spatula. It's a bit more flexible and good for sliding between paper & label.
- Delrin Hera: This is a bookbinder's tool—Kind of like a multi-purpose spatula, but you can also use it as a gentle scraper. Warning, it's not cheap.
- A crepe eraser: This is a specialty eraser that picks up modern, petroleum-based adhesives.
- Fine grit sandpaper: I don't usually recommend sanding your text block or altering the pages, but a 320 grit sandpaper can help smooth over roughened/torn surface areas on your end sheets. The grit is fine enough that it can technically clean off the surface dirt on the page or the book edges. Some restorers go so far as to sand off remainder marks and library stamps from the book head or foot.
- A hair dryer. I opt for a hair dryer with a low heat setting. I stay away from heat guns because you can too easily burn your paper if you're not careful.
You may also need:
For stickers, you want to use a peeler label knife or a paper spatula. Some petroleum based glues also will release more easily if heated. This is where the hair dryer comes in.
- Support your book cover if you're removing stickers from the interior pages. You can do this by stacking magazines or books next to the book you'll be working on—so that when you open the cover, it rests on the stack.
- When using your knife/spatula angle it so that its practically parallel to your work surface. You want to avoid gouging or indenting the surface of the book.
- Carefully work your way around the edge of the label or sticker, catching the edge and lifting it slightly. This is more exploratory, to see how well the label is stuck and if removing it will also remove part of the book cover or end paper.
- Note: you don't want to use a razor blade or scraper for this because the blades aren't completely flat on one side. This in conjunction with the sharpness of the blade elevates the potential for catching on or cutting through the paper surface. Rips can be repaired much more easily than clean cuts.
- If no part of the book is pulling up with the label, continue to work your way around, exploring a little further under the label with each pass. Be patient. Do not just rip off the sticker.
- If you start to notice any part of the paper or book cover coming off with the sticker, stop and come back from the opposite direction. If it continues to tear, stop altogether.
- You can come back in with a hairdryer, set on low and carefully heat the sticker. This may help the adhesive to release. Again, be patient & take it slow.
- The only problem with this method is that you don't want to over heat the adhesive because it may absorb into the paper and stain it—or it may release completely from the sticker paper but leave a residue on the book cover or end sheets, in which case you'll have to do a little more doctoring.
Tape residue is annoying, but easily tackled. Generally we see tape residue when someone has taped a mylar dust jacket protector—holding the flaps to the book block or the front cover.
If the book contact with the tape was minimal and the tape is easily removed, I'd just use the crepe eraser to remove the adhesive bits.
If the tape is laminated to the book boards, first use your paper spatula to probe around the edges. The tape may come up easily. If it does not, you may need to heat the tape slightly with a hair dryer. Be careful to not over heat which could melt the tape and the adhesive into your book cover.
Depending on the tape used, it may leave a stain behind. I would not attempt to remove the stain for fear of damaging the cover. I would use the crepe eraser to ensure that all adhesive residue is removed, however.
With glue residue, you want to first determine if the glue is animal, vegetable, or petroleum based.
Animal and vegetable glues
These are usually water soluble and therefor reversible with water. There is a technique to releasing labels with animal or vegetable glues (so don't just go spraying water on the label). You'll see these glues most often used to adhere older bookplates to the end sheets of a book.
If you think you have an animal or vegetable glue (vegetable glues include potato, rice, and wheat pastes):
- Cut 2 pieces of waxed paper. One to slide between the page with the label and the page behind it. This protects other pages from getting wet / damp; And one to place over your label after the wet material is applied.
- Cut a paper towel slightly smaller than your label. (this is important because when water is applied to the paper towel it will expand.)
- With a spray bottle, spray your paper towel to moisten it. Do this away from the book to avoid getting the pages or cover wet. You want your paper towel wet but not dripping.
- Lay your moistened paper towel over your label, making sure that the paper towel doesn't actually touch the page the label is adhered to. We're trying to control the amount of moisture that's introduced to your book.
- Place your second piece of wax paper over the moistened paper towel. You may want to weight this slightly to ensure it doesn't move.
- Set a timer for 10 minutes, after which remove the weight, waxed paper and moistened paper towel.
- With your paper spatula, explore the edges and corners of the label to see if it will easily pry up. If any of the label still sticks, place a re-moistened paper towel back on top of the label and repeat in 5 minute increments.
- If an animal or vegetable glue was used, this should cause the label to release with minimal to no residue on your paper.
- If your page gets damp, use the hair dryer, on the low setting to dry it.
- If the page is still a bit 'worbly' after you've dried it, you may need to press it for 24 hours.
- Make sure the page is completely dry to the touch
- Place waxed paper in front of and behind the page
- Lay it on a flat surface
- Stack heavier books on top of it
Petroleum based adhesives
These need heat to help them release from the substrate. Most modern adhesives are petroleum based and most likely anything glued into a library book in the past 40+ years will be petroleum-based.
- Use your paper spatula to gently probe the edges of the label to see how well the glue is adhered to the book. Some glues are very superficial and will just lift off the surface with a little pressure from a paper spatula or a Hera. Other glues are more stubborn and may need heat to release.
- If there are any parts of the label that aren't glued, carefully remove them by tearing and pealing back the pieces that aren't stuck to the book beneath.
- Carefully work your way around the adhered areas with your spatula. If the adhesive begins to remove the paper beneath, stop and use the hair dryer.
- On the lowest setting, use the hair dryer to slowly heat the adhesive areas, occasionally checking with your spatula to see if the adhesive will release. You don't want the heat too high or the adhesive will absorb into the end sheets, staining them.
- If this still doesn't work, you may need to pull out the big guns and use an iron. I didn't include this in the supply list because I don't recommend using an iron unless you are 100% comfortable doing so.
- You want to use an iron that doesn't have holes on the bottom or a steam setting, and you'll want a clean piece of paper to lay on top of the label you are heating up.
- You want an even, dry heat, set at the lowest setting (if the iron has settings)
- Tack irons work well, but you need to be quick and possibly have an extra set of hands available so you're not juggling a hot iron and a paper spatula.
- The only problem with this technique is that you will most certainly get staining as the adhesive heats up and is absorbed into the paper—and the only way to get the stain out is to sand the paper with a 320 grit sandpaper.
- Once your label is removed, you may still have some adhesive residue. This is when you pull out your crepe eraser and run it over the sticky areas, just as you would a regular eraser.
- With your other hand, make sure to hold the paper down on either side of the area you are erasing to ensure the paper doesn't wrinkle or buckle.
- Do this until all the sticky bits have been removed.
- If the adhesive has stained your page, the only way to remove the staining is by sanding with a fine grit sand paper. If the end sheet is printed, this may mean that a portion of the printed matter will get sanded away, so you have to decide which is the lesser of two evils. In this instance, I'd opt for the stain rather than removing the printed matter.
If you're dealing with a leather binding and/or silk covered end sheets, you may want to take the book to a book restorer as special rules apply to these materials when removing adhesives.