Stinky Books

No, I’m not talking about books with lousy plots.

I’m talking about books that smell. I’m not talking about that faintly musty smell of “old bookstore” which is the smell of book love for most bibliophiles. Older books do, of their own, give off a smell (VOC’s) as paper and binding material ages.

I’m talking about the smell that makes you and everyone else who walks into the room wrinkle their noses and say, “Ew, what’s that smell.”

It happens. Sometimes we don’t notice it in the store. Some of us don’t have as strong a sense of smell as others and we don’t notice until we get home–or our spouse or partner notices

Sometimes the book smells really musty, probably if it has been stored for some time in a very damp place with little light or air circulation, like in a basement closet against an outer wall. The big thing here is to check the book for mold or mildew. Mold looks like any mold, fuzzy growth on the surface. Mildew is evident by smell and by discolored spots or a powdery flaking layer on the surface of a cover or page. You want to get these away from any other books you value because mold and mildew spread by spores. This kind of damage takes some work, either by you or a conservator, so you will want to decide how valuable the book is. If it is not, your best bet is to discard it–mold and mildew can be harmful to your health. This website offers good tips if you do want to try to conserve these books.

The other big problem is books that have been owned by smokers or by pet owners, particularly cats. I understand. I have a clock from a grandfather who smoked cigars. He died over 40 years ago and I swear I can still smell cigars when I’m up close to that clock.

In a conversation on my book page, and in surveying book pages, it seemed like people found four methods useful in dealing with book smell:

  1. Fresh air and opening the book, fanning the pages. Some suggest sunlight, although the light can yellow the pages or even curl them if damp. Hairdryers can be used to dry and air out a book. I would use this “air books out” method first to make sure the book is not holding any residual dampness.
  2. Some try cleaning the books, with Lysol spray or de-natured alcohol wipes. Of course, you want to be careful not to damage the pages and make sure the book is thoroughly dry.
  3. Others try various scents or sachets of flowers or herbs–or Febreze. I wonder if this only temporarily masks the odor. Dryer sheets between the pages sealed in a food storage bag also is a version of this that may also absorb some odor.
  4. The one that made the most sense in avoiding further damage to the book was using some form of odor absorbent material with the book in a sealed environment. People mention newspapers between pages, sealing the book in food storage bags, or putting books in some sort of sealed bin with anything from baking soda to cornstarch to kitty litter. Some sprinkle cornstarch or baby powder or baking soda between the pages. Some just have it sealed up with the book. Just don’t use the baking soda you’ve had in the fridge. It has already done its job. Get fresh baking soda. Store these in an airtight container for at least three days. Don’t have the books tightly packed but upright, fanning the pages.

If these methods fail, discard the book, unless it is valuable enough either emotionally or monetarily to warrant the cost of a professional conservator. With online searches, many books are replaceable.

There are two other lessons in all this. Unless you are buying online (check on returning books in this case) give any secondhand books a good sniff before you buy them. If the bookseller ask, you can always just claim you love the smell of old books.

The other has to do with your own books. The basic considerations are:

  • Clean. This is the first line of defense against damage. Dust your books periodically.
  • Control moisture and humidity. They should be under 60 percent humidity and stored at around 70 degrees.
  • Circulate air. Some HVAC systems have a continuous fan feature to move air. Fans may also help. Taking books out when you clean and fanning through the pages is also a good idea.

While we may like the smell of old bookstores, we probably don’t want our homes to smell like one. If we have been away for a time and notice a musty smell, it is worth addressing, both for our own health, and for that of our books, especially if we have some stored away. If we think we would like to pass along some portion of our book collection, we want to make sure we are not passing along stinky books. That’s a gift that keeps giving, but not in the way we would like!

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