Book Cosmetology

by Craig Stark

#6, 17 November 2003

Part I - Cleaning

Improving the appearance of a book, doing a short makeover, can be a value-building first step in book photography. If a book looks like garbage before you take a picture of it, you can bet it'll look like garbage in the resulting picture too, and its value will suffer. Fortunately, the converse is also true: if it looks good going in, it at least has the potential of looking good coming out. This is what we're going to discuss today - how to make things look good before the camera takes over.

Making a book look good generally involves one of three tasks - cleaning, simple repair and enhancements. Today we're going to talk about cleaning. We'll start with a disturbing fact:

No cleaning method for books is perfectly safe.

In case you missed it the first time, here it is again: no cleaning method for books is perfectly safe. All cleaning methods - with no exceptions - damage the book being cleaned. All. Each and every time they're used. Example: if you think wiping a dirty book with a damp cloth is safe, you might be surprised to learn that some water is slightly acidic, and we all know how well acid and cellulose get along. Well, this is easy to solve, isn't it? Buy an aquarium test kit and a bottle of pH correcting solution and produce your own alkaline water. Or, more simply, buy distilled (neutral) water. Problem solved. Not quite. Cyclical wetting and drying cause decay in cellulose. Water can be as alkaline as the day is long and still produce damage.

Fine, then don't use water at all. Use an eraser. Well, most erasers have acid content as well. The notorious Pink Pearl is especially culpable, and even that innocent, oft-recommended softie, the art gum eraser, is by no means free of acid. Minute crumbs from these erasers can become permanently fixed into board cloth and eventually contribute to foxing and associated problems.

Well, we can vacuum our books, can't we? Sure, but for this to be effective a brush must also be used to loosen dust particles. There's only one problem - brushes also spread dirt, sometimes working it in so deeply that no vacuum can recover it. Dirt, in case you're wondering, is the number one cause of book degradation.

Of course, we could go on with this game, get even sillier, but at some point common sense needs to kick in. For one thing, not all of today's books are tomorrow's Gutenberg Bibles. The great majority of books sold on this planet are sold for content, not collectibility, and even many collectible books won't survive the next - let's see - 549 Gutenberg years, no matter what steps we take to make it happen. Books are read, bought and sold, shipped, dropped, stomped on, burned - and cleaned! Books are not fixed entities. They're born. They live. They die.

Books are a process.

The next time you see a fellow bookseller recommending Lysol for cleaning books and are tempted to utter some harsh words of reproach, remember this. Books are a process. Yes, there are some cleaning methods that are better than others, some that will slow down the process, but unless we investigate them (and use them) with at least some expectation of damage, we'll be paralyzed. Extreme fussiness may have its place in extreme circumstances, but as booksellers, we live, almost without exception, in persistently mundane worlds.

Our advice is, ease up, because if you do nothing at all to your dirty books, they'll rot anyway. So, if we're in agreement on this, let's get on with things and discuss exactly what we're going to use to damage our books.

Finished Surfaces

Finished books or dust jackets, those with glossy or satin surfaces, can often be cleaned simply by wiping them with a damp cloth. If a more aggressive treatment is necessary, archival (acid free) detergents, cleaning gels, or solvents can be used. However, caution should be exercised here. Never apply any cleaning product directly to a book or dust jacket without testing it first. This can be accomplished by dampening a Q-Tip and delicately dabbing a small, inconspicuous area. If there's color transferred to the Q-Tip, stop. If it passes the test, clean. When cleaning, use a clean, white cloth (for purposes of maximum color disclosure), rub lightly, and check the cloth frequently for bleeding.

Detergents, gels and solvents vary in composition, strength, and recommended applications. An upcoming BookThinker article will discuss these in more detail. Meanwhile, any of the treatments discussed below for unfinished surfaces may also be used for finished surfaces - in fact, these should take care of many of the problems you will encounter. They should also be tried first, before solvents. Solvents can be successfully used on many finished surfaces as well, but because risks of damage are higher, we recommend using them only as a last resort and of course with caution. Ronsonol lighter fluid has been a bookseller's standby for years. It's relatively friendly to a wide variety of materials and is also useful for removing labels. Another effective solvent is Goof Off, available at most home improvement centers. Goof Off is more aggressive than lighter fluid - in fact, we've used it to remove labels applied with water-based glue - so be especially cautious with this.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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