Simple Tools for Cleaning Your Books

Okay, so you may recall (given that I only posted about it a couple days ago) that I received a rather un-good copy of Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb. And by "un-good," I mean that it was a bit worn, torn, and dirty. There's not much I can do about the worn parts, but there are a few simple things I can do to clean up the dirty areas—at least if the "dirt" is caused by dust, pencil smudges, or other dry elements. Pen marks, highlighter, & water stains are another story. (Unfortunately there's really not much you can do about those.)

Allow me to introduce you to my conservator's cleaning kit:

1. Magnetic dust cloth: good for getting that loose film of dust from covers and book block edges (unless rough cut or deckled).

These are fairly inexpensive dusting cloths, not to be confused with microfiber or regular dust rags. They're essentially a lint-free cloth (made of tyvek & nylon) that creates an electrostatic charge which acts like a magnet for dust. They're about the thickness of a doubled-up paper towel & can be washed and reused.

Hopefully, you'll have archival covers for your jacketed books, but these are handy to have (especially after a trip to the used bookstore).

2. Drafting Pad: sometimes called a document cleaning pad or a "dry clean eraser," not to be confused with household cleaning pads like the magic eraser. A drafting pad is essentially a bag of tiny, crumbled eraser bits. You shake it over the page, allow the eraser dust to settle and gently rub it with your (very clean) finger to pick up surface dirt. You then brush it away with a soft artist's brush.

3. An artist's dusting brush or unused, soft-bristled paintbrush: You'll find that just about any soft artist's paint brushes will work. You just need to make sure it's not been used for painting or other arts/crafts, and that it isn't the cheap-o kind that sheds bristles. Flat brushes (not pointy) work best. You use the dry brush to gently sweep away eraser bits & dust.

4. Absorene: This is a putty/play-dough like substance used to wipe away surface dirt. It's very much like a pliable eraser, but the dirt particles get absorbed into the putty, so it won't streak your page as it collects the dirt. It works best on superficial rather than ingrained dirt.

This is the same basic idea as a kneaded eraser, but I'd stay away from those because they can smudge.

Don't try to use Absorene on cloth book covers. Like play-dough it can get crumbly and stick in crevices & is nearly impossible to get out when that happens.

If you want to get really fancy, you can use Groom Stick (which sounds like it should be some fancy shmancy mustache comb—which it is not, no matter how much you may want it to be). It's a little more expensive but is probably lasts longer than the Absorene. Groom Stick sort of reminds me of silly-putty (but it's not. don't go out and buy silly putty thinking it will work). It's a non-abrasive, non-staining "molecular trap." Which just means that it traps the dirt, much like Absorene, and won't smudge. Unlike Absorene, however, it won't crumble and dry as it gets used.

5. A plastic eraser: You know those cheap-o white erasers you get in the school supply aisle? They work great. Technically I guess it's a "polymer" eraser, but you know the ones to which I am referring.

Again, you use these on superficial or pencil marks. Always erase in one direction (no going back and forth) and when you erase move from the spine toward the edge of the book. This prevents wrinkling or page buckling. And be gentle, especially with older books. If the mark doesn't come out with several passes of a light touch, it probably won't fare any better with a heavy hand.

When cleaning a book, you want to be careful and methodical. You'll probably not be able to make the book shiny and new again, but you will be able to remove the top layer of dust / dirt which helps the book stay healthy for a little bit longer.

The other proactive thing you can do is dust your books regularly, especially the head (or top) of the book that collects the majority of dust. A good magnetic feather duster works fine for this.

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