Our first question when we handle new acquisitions is always, Does it need cleaning? The usual answer is yes. Then we must decide how much cleaning is appropriate and choose the method that will be most effective and safe.
Each of us has a personal definition of dirt. For general book purposes, dirt is whatever doesn’t belong on a book; it’s foreign matter. Dirt obscures beauty. Dirt is not necessarily a passive substance. Dirt and its components can be abrasive, not just unsightly.
Cleaning old books and their aging paper can present a conundrum. There are many ways to clean books and ephemera, but the more effective the cleaner, the more abrasive it may be, and the greater the risk that cleaning will cause damage. Weigh the need for cleaning against the stability of the book and what it’s made of; always test, especially when colors or fabrics are involved.
The patina of age, the well-handled quality of a much-loved old book that has passed through many hands, isn’t what we’re out to destroy anymore than we would alter the appearance of a fine piece of antique furniture; we want to preserve, not update it. The goal of cleaning old books ought not to be to wipe out all traces of their past, but to guarantee their future.
A good rule of thumb is this: Surface dirt can always be safely removed, if it’s removed by the least-abrasive means possible. And it should be removed. Depending on its constituents, dirt can cause or promote potentially irreparable deterioration in paper and other book parts.
Here are some of the cleaners we consider indispensable.
In our opinion, the product has just gotten better, because it’s no longer sold only in quart containers. A quart of Clean Cover Gel goes a long way, especially when you’re learning to use it properly. It’s a good example of less is more. We learned the hard way. Because Clean Cover Gel is pleasant to use — dare we say fun? — we used too much at first, creating a lather when a sheer coating was all that was required. The new, smaller container is good training: Brodart now sells it in 4-ounce plastic jars for $2.95. We consider this a must for dealers in old books.
We’ll discuss the cleaning of leather in a future column. In the meantime, we’d like to hear from you: What are your favorite book cleaning products and methods?
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We have ou sons wedding album which is about 25 years old and the cover has become very sticky. Is there some way to clean this off?
If not, the pictures are all 5 X 5 inches, can we purchase a similar album somewhere. The album contains 17 pages – 34 pictures.
I have a first edition Thomas Hardy novel which is in structurally very good condition but many of the pages have brownish, blotchy stains – can these be cleaned, removed – or protected from further deterioration?
My cat spilled pine tar-based leg wax on a first-edition. It hit cover and pages. Can it be cleaned off?