The Book Doctor Is In: Dirty Books in the Library!?

book doctorIn every sense of the word dirty books have been a concern of librarians since risqué pictographs turned up in the Library of Alexandria. Here though we’re limiting the discussion of off-color library materials to those that are marked, stained, or simply nasty from too much handling.

Some marks and stains can be overlooked, but sometimes what is written — or drawn — in a book must be eliminated. Here are some common problems and suggestions on how to clean books.

Pencil Marks

Simply erasing pencil markings is usually easy — provided you use a good eraser that doesn’t smear the marks or discolor the paper. Some of the best erasers that I’m aware of are the Pink Carnation erasers. All will usually do a complete job of removing pencil, pastel and charcoal markings.

It’s never a good idea to use the built-in eraser on pencils as they may already be blackened from previous use or dried out to the point of being hard. In both cases, the eraser tends to rearrange pencil marks, but rarely completely remove them. The pink wedge erasers that fit over the end of pencils also tend to smear the marks and discolor the paper.

And in case you missed this in kindergarten, never erase by scrubbing the eraser back and forth over the marks as you can easily wrinkle or tear the paper. Move the eraser in one direction only while holding the paper in place.


Removing ballpoint pen ink is nearly impossible. A web search for “removing ink from paper” will provide you with some “you gotta be kidding me!” suggestions like soaking the paper in nail polish remover or drenching it with bleach. Let’s stay away from toxic and hazardous chemicals and keep in mind that we want to get rid of the markings, but not all the print on the page!

The bottom line is that you will probably not be successful in trying to eliminate ink marks from your books. Ink eradicator or nail polish remover might be effective on markings on unprinted areas but if the markings extend over printed areas, you’re probably out of luck.

If the markings are objectionable and make the book unusable, you can try to find another copy of the book and photocopy the needed page. Then remove the marked page and tip in a clean replacement. This process can be tricky if the page is printed on both sides.


Crayon marks can be unsightly and distracting, but rarely so objectionable that you feel you must obliterate them since they are almost always made by young children who haven’t yet developed a propensity for drawing nasty pictures.

book-repair-p28-Image-2Still, it’s best to remove as much excess crayon as possible by carefully scraping it off with a knife. Then place paper towel on both sides of the marked page and warm it with an iron to draw out some of the wax to keep it from spreading to adjacent pages.

Should you also find crayon marks throughout your library, Crayola® has excellent suggestions for removing marks made by their products.

Chewing Gum and Other Nasty Things

Over the years, I’ve encountered many unusual — even bizarre — things used as bookmarks and left there when the book was returned. I’ve even read claims that people have found forgotten strips of bacon in books. However, that seems like such a wanton waste of bacon that I doubt those claims are true.

But nasty things DO get inside of books so guidelines for dealing with things that leave a residue in books is helpful:

  • Chewing gum and anything else that has some bulk can often be removed by freezing it and then gently scratching it off.
  • Residual oil and grease may be at least partially removed with paper towel and a warm iron.
  • Some stains can often be improved with a kneaded rubber eraser or Absorene® Paper and Book Cleaner. Knead a small amount of Absorene in your hand until it is soft and rub it lightly in one direction over the soiled surface. As it picks up the stain or dirt, knead it again to freshen it. If some crumbs are left behind, brush them away.

General Cleaning of Covers and Page Edges

  • Cloth covers can usually be cleaned with Absorene or Demco Book Cleaner. Since Absorene is a dough-like product there is very little chance of it discoloring the cover but there have been complaints that residue can remain on books with rough covers. Demco Book Cleaner is an effective product for removing soil from cloth covers, but since it is water-based, it’s a good idea to test the cover in an inconspicuous place for color-fastness. Note that this product was formerly marketed for cleaning covers and pages, but is no longer recommended for use on book paper.
  • book-repair-p28-Image-5Paper covers should be cleaned with a dry product, such as Absorene Book Cleaner or Dry Cleaning Sponges.
  • Plastic covers are easily cleaned with Demco Book Cleaner and a piece of cloth or a sponge.
  • Cleaning the page edges can make an amazing improvement in the appearance of a book and is easier than you might expect. Simply use a piece of fine sandpaper to quickly restore the edges of the text block to a like-new appearance.

As always, feel free to use the link below to post any comments or questions and I’ll respond. I may use your input in future posts.

Throughout this series, we’ll be referring to two resources from Demco. The pamphlet Demco Collection Care Guide and the Demco Collection Care DVD are both available to help you through your book repair challenges.

If you’re looking for information on how to quarantine books to help prevent the spread of illness, read “How to Quarantine Books in Your School Library.”


John Ison

John Ison

John Ison retired in 2011 after working with Demco for more than 25 years, most recently as the Director of Library Relations. During that time he conducted over 300 book repair workshops, wrote the Demco Collection Care Guide, and wrote and produced the Demco Collection Care DVD.