How to Clean and Sanitize Wet Books

Aileen asked: I have some cookbooks that got wet from a leaking waste pipe in my house. I’m concerned about possible bacteria in and on the books. The books have varying degrees of wetness. On some, just the cover got wet, and on others, the pages got wet too. Is there any way that I can sanitize them so that I can still use them?

When books get wet, prompt action is the key to restoring them and bringing them back to life. There are professional services that will do the task for you, or you can dry the books out at home. It takes time and patience, but if you’re willing to put forth the effort, you can get the same results as the professionals. Here’s how to dry your books and remove any mold that may have started growing.

Air Drying Wet Books

If you are starting with frozen books, allow them to come to room temperature before proceeding with the drying methods below.

You Will Need:

  • White paper towels and/or Non-printed newspaper
  • Plastic sheeting
  • Sponges
  • Electric fans

Steps to Dry Very Wet (Dripping) Books:

  1. Begin by covering the work area with plastic so the water does not damage it.
  2. On top of the plastic, spread out several layers of white paper towels or non-printed newspaper. These will be used to help absorb the moisture from the books.
  3. Keep the book closed so that pages will not become damaged.
  4. With the book closed, stand it up on edge on top of the absorbent paper.
  5. Place a sponge under one corner of the book to prop it up slightly. This will allow water to drain out of the bottom.
  6. Allow the book to stay propped up until no more water drips from it, and there is no water pooling on the pages when they are opened gently.
  7. Once the book reaches this point, you are ready to move onto the steps for drying a moderately wet book.

Steps to Dry Moderately Wet (wet, but not dripping) Books:

  1. At this point, it is safe to gently open the book.
  2. Cut the non-printed newspaper or paper towels so they are just slightly larger than the book.
  3. Open the front cover and place a paper towel or paper between the cover and the front page.
  4. Lift about ¼ inch stack of pages and insert another sheet of absorbent paper or a paper towel.
  5. Continue placing an absorbent paper or paper towel every quarter of an inch throughout the entire book.
  6. Place a final sheet between the last page and the back cover.
  7. Lay the book on top of some paper towels. Keep it lined up so that the binding does not lose its shape.
  8. Change the papers as needed.
  9. When you change the papers, insert dry sheets between new pages to allow for more water removal.
  10. Once the book is just damp, you can proceed to the steps for cleaning damp books.

Steps to Dry Damp Books:

  1. When books are just damp, they are not as fragile as wet books.
  2. Stand  the book up and fan open the pages.
  3. The book should only be opened about 60 degrees so that the binding is not stretched.
  4. Keep fans running in the room, but not aimed directly at the book. You don’t want the pages to be flapping with the air movement.
  5. Allow the book to stay open until it is completely dried. This can take time, up to several weeks.
  6. Once completely dry, close the book and press it by laying several books or a brick on top. This will help to flatten out rippled pages.

Blow Drying Wet Books

This method is offered by a disaster recovery expert who claims it will provide professional results at home.

You Will Need:

  • Plastic Ziploc bags
  • Waxed paper
  • White paper towels and/or Non-printed newspaper
  • Blow dryer
  • Freezer

Steps to Blow Dry Wet Books:

  1. Pull out a sheet of waxed paper and wrap it in a “u” around the book. If there is no waxed paper available, place the book in a plastic bag.
  2. Place the book in a freezer. If it’s possible to have them commercially frozen, you will have better results, but home freezing will work.
  3. Once frozen, you can remove it when you’re ready to work. You’ll only work as long as the book is still frozen. Once it begins to thaw, you will return it to the freezer. (While you wait for it to refreeze, you can work on the next book if there is more than one.)
  4. Lay the book flat and turn on the blow dryer. Use the high heat and air settings.
  5. Keep the air moving around the cover. Work up and down and side to side.
  6. Lift the cover carefully and allow the air to flow inside. If any pages are stuck to the cover, gently loosen them so they don’t tear.
  7. When the cover is dry, move to the inside pages.
  8. Start with the first page, blowing air on it as you smooth it out with your hand.
  9. When the pages begin to feel wet when you touch them, the book is thawing and it’s time to refreeze.
  10. Place a blank sheet of paper to mark where you were and rewrap the book.
  11. Place it in the freezer and allow it to freeze again.
  12. Move onto a second book or wait for the first.
  13. When frozen again, remove it and begin working again, using the same drying methods as before.
  14. Keep working in short amounts until you have worked through the entire book.

Dealing with Mold Growth

You Will Need:

  • Spray bottle
  • 97-99% isopropyl alcohol

Steps to Remove Mold from Wet Books:

  1. Fill a spray bottle with the isopropyl alcohol. Normal rubbing alcohol is only 3% alcohol. To get these higher concentrations, see your drug store or pharmacy.
  2. Spray all areas of the book that have mold starting to grow. The book is already wet. The additional moisture will not cause more damage, but leaving the mold definitely will.
  3. Once you have sprayed all of the moldy areas, cover the book as described earlier and freeze. It is best to wrap these books several times and place them in well sealed bags. The taste of alcohol will be absorbed by the other foods in the freezer if left exposed.
  4. Once frozen, continue with the drying method described above.

Additional Tips and Advice

  • If you have a large number of books and don’t have time to get to them right away, keep them in the freezer (use the steps found in the blow drying section). This also applies if you are having them professionally cleaned. Freezing the books prevents further damage and mold growth until you or a professional are ready to dry them.
  • Run an electric dehumidifier in the room to help remove moisture from the air and speed up drying times.
  • If the pages are glossy, it requires a different cleaning method. The glossy pages are made from a clay that causes them to become sticky and adhere to each other. Placing waxed paper between the pages and freezing them immediately will help restore this successfully. Be prepared to put in extra time and effort on these glossy books.
  • Professional book restorers have access to chemicals and drying methods that may produce better results. If the book is valuable or you don’t have the time to dry it yourself, they will do it for you, for a fee. Be sure to keep the books frozen until they can come and assess the damage.
  • If there is dirt on the books, leave it alone until the book is dried. Once dry, most dirt will brush off. If you try to remove it while wet, it will just spread the mud around and cause a larger stain.

Comments

  1. David says:

    I have a number of books that unbeknownst to me have been wet and are now dry. Having just discovered this, how does one go about getting them apart without ruining every page? The photos seem to be the worst. I can find endless tips if the books are still wet, but nothing on once they are dried and stuck.I thought maybe I could soak them again, but am really unsure. Someone must know. Help, please!

  2. Juan says:

    I got a wet book with mold; however I lack a freezer to do the procedure that you have indicated. It is my family’s freezer, and they are not willing to allow me to do it, even with bags. Is it okay if I just leave it in a bag? The book is still wet.

  3. amanda says:

    I have the same problem that David (of June 7, 2012) has and eagerly await an answer.

  4. BruisedPeaches says:

    You will need a knife or letter opener with a thin fine blade (a filet knife works best), a pot of boiling water, a teaspoon of vinegar and a blow dryer (optional). Boil the water with the vinegar; it works as a mold inhibitor. Insert the knife near the spine between the two stuck pages with the blade facing the edge. Don’t move it yet. I like the filet knife as it is light enough to work on it’s own. Hold the book over the steaming pot of water about 6-12 inches from the edge of the book. As the steam loosens the pages, the knife will slide down toward the edge of the page. You can also pull it down slowly, very slowly as the page will tear if not moist enough. If your hands are hot, the book is too close to the steam. Go slowly and don’t let the pages get saturated. Once the pages separate, stick a sheet of new copy paper between them if you had multiple pages that were stuck together. If only one or two pages were stuck, just leave the book open to dry. A hand-held blow dryer speeds this up considerably. This works great for glossy picture books and I’ve had mixed results with paperbacks. I restore books for resale and learned this trick through trial and error. Good luck.

  5. BruisedPeaches says:

    To address Juan with the wet moldy book;
    Enclose the book in a paper shopping bag filled with a pound of rice to cover the entire book. Leave it in a sunny location and check periodically (every couple of days) and slip a sheet of new copy paper in the pages that are drying so they don’t stick together. What also works but may cost a little more than rice is DampRid, which you can get at Home Depot or Lowe’s. Put that into a cheese cloth and tie it up. Leave it in the paper bag with the book; don’t pour it directly on the book. Once the book is thoroughly dry, the mold can be brushed off with a dry sisal brush. Don’t brush the book while drying or you will lose the print. Good luck.

  6. Heather says:

    I have a book that got wet, but is now dry. Is there any chance that mold could grow on this book?

  7. Melanie says:

    Heather,
    Mold can grow from the moisture (humidity) in the air. Also, the book may appear dry, but actually have moisture trapped in the spine. In short, yes, there’s a chance mold can grow. If this just happened, you may want to place the book in the sun or use a blow dryer or vacuum to aerate the spine and remove mold spores. Mold spores are in the air; they land on dry surfaces and then grow in the presence of moisture. You can pour baking soda into an air-tight container, place a baking rack in the bottom of the container and rest the book on the rack – this would not only remove any odors from your book that developed when it got wet, but also remove any remaining moisture in the spine. Be careful not to over-dry the book, as that may cause additional damage.

    Source: Cornell University Library – Mold
    Source: Book Think – How to Remove Odors from Books
    Source: Biblio – Identify, Prevent, and Remove Mold and Mildew from Books

  8. Cookie says:

    I have a cookbook that got damaged at my mom’s house. There is black mildew on the bottom corner of the book cover and pages. The rest of the book is intact. How do I get rid of the mildew? It is a family heirloom.
    Thanks!

  9. Brenda says:

    I have inherited a large number of vintage books and magazines. They smell musty, but show no signs of water damage or mold. How do I remove the smell?

  10. Melanie says:

    Brenda,
    Find a plastic storage container that has a lid. Place a wire baking sheet along the bottom of the container and sprinkle baking soda over the bottom of the container. Place the books and magazines on the rack. Since you have multiple books/magazines, you can place another rack on top of the first layer of books and then place more books on top of the second rack as well. Seal the container for several days and the smell should be gone.

    Source: Book Think – How to Remove Odors from Books

  11. Gene P says:

    Brenda, I had this problem and laid the book open in a large, flat box and filled it with cat litter and sealed it in a plastic trash bag. The odor is gone, as well as any moisture. I didn’t put the cat litter ON it; just laid the book on the litter. Hope you found your solution.

  12. Louise V says:

    I have read countless articles on how to clean a book, but no one mentions how you clean the pages (material between covers). I have a lot of books with mold and yellowing and stains on the top, bottom and sides of the pages. I have tried the eraser bit with no luck. Also, what word describes the pages between the covers? I downloaded a glossary, but I didn’t find any word to describes the physical contents a book. Any suggestions?

  13. Amber says:

    HELP! I spilled my CREAM SODA and it got all into the edges of my library books!! Do I have to get the sugar out somehow before drying?? My instinct says to mist it with more water, then dry? Or, I mean, how do you RINSE paper in a book????

    PLEASE HELP ASAP. THANK YOU.

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