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!

Caring for the Books You Want to Keep

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A shelving no-no. These books are shelved on an exterior wall. The do probably have an insulation value!

I’ve written in other posts about getting rid of books I don’t need. At the same time, there are some books that are like old friends, that you enjoy reading and re-reading or frequently reference. The good news is that, with proper care, it is likely that your favorite books will outlast you. Well-made books on acid-free paper properly cared for and handled can last for hundreds of years.

Start with well-made books. Recently I pulled out my forty year old mass-market paperback of The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis. It was a challenge to read. The paper was brittle, pages literally fell out and by the end, and the book was in pieces held together by a rubber band. Lesson: when you find a book you like, purchase the best edition you can afford, ideally hardbound on a good acid-free paper. Paperbacks are fine for a “one and done” reading, or as a way to find out whether this is a book you would read again. I have forty year old hardbound books that look like new, or have just slightly yellowed. Trade paperbacks are generally printed on better paper and use a better glue in the binding.

Handling matters. This begins with how you open the book for the first time. My post on “How to Open a New Book” covers this. Several other things are important in our handling of books:

  • When we take them off the shelf, don’t pull them off from the top of the spine but rather grasp both sides of the spine in the middle of the book, which may mean pushing the adjacent books in.
  • Always handle the books with clean hands so we don’t leave grease or dirt on the books which causes them to deteriorate more quickly.
  • When reading, or copying the book, don’t force the book flat where it lies open at 180 degrees. This is hard on the binding, especially for paperbacks. Books are meant to be held in our hands or cradled in our laps.
  • If you write in your books (and only your books, not the library’s!), only use pencil. Ink can run and bleed through pages.
  • Don’t eat or drink around books you care about.
  • Don’t fold, dog ear, or use self-stick notes on pages. The adhesive can damage the paper. Paper clips and rubber bands can tear pages. A good acid-free paper bookmark is the best for marking your place.

Safe storage.  The conditions under which our books are kept when we aren’t handling them are especially important to their survival. A few key ideas:

  • Books are best stored lying flat or upright held in place by either the ends of the bookshelves or books ends. Books stored at a slant can become misshapen.
  • Watch humidity and temperature. A cool room with humidity under 35% is best. I shelve some of my books on an external wall. That’s not a good idea as this exposes them to more temperature and humidity change. You don’t want musty books!
  • Books need dusting! Hold the book closed and gently wipe the edges and covers with a soft cloth.
  • Light is the enemy! Especially keep books away from any form of direct sunlight or other intense light sources. The UV radiation of sunlight and fluorescent light is particularly bad. This accelerates deterioration and fading of colors.
  • Avoid storage in basements and other places that could be damp or attics that can be too hot. Don’t store books near heating vents or radiators, which can dry out bindings. Whenever storing books, look for evidence of pests. Rats, mice and silverfish are common problems.
  • If you are boxing up books, alkaline corrugated cardboard boxes that are new are best. Don’t use any boxes that have contained food, because the odor will transfer to the books. Don’t store them in plastic bags or wraps that can emit gas.

Compared to digital media, books are an amazing storage device. Most digital media will be unreadable in ten to fifty years, either because of corruption of the media, or obsolescence of the hardware to access the media. I have books from my grandparents that are over one hundred years old. A few months ago, I had a chance to view books published at the time of the Reformation five hundred years ago. A little tender loving care, and your books will be friends for life.