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Bookbinding & Conservation
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|Published in Legacy Online, April 2003
Uh oh. What is that smell?With spring rains, many of us are confronted with a perennial problem: high humidity in our basements. Even the most conscientious of us will sometimes have books stored in places where we really shouldn't (I just moved a whole lot of old textbooks and paperbacks from my partially finished basement), which can lead to mold and mildew this time of year. Mold & mildew become a problem starting at humidity levels of about 70% rh. Completely eliminating any mold/mildew is almost impossible, once it gets well entrenched. But I have some suggestions.
First, do nothing to clean the books. Any kind of cleaner or solvent, mold-killer, et cetera, will just cause further damage. Bringing the books into your living space, where they are warm & dry, is the best first step. Using a de-humidifier is always a good idea.
To deal with that mold/mildew smell . . . First, get some fresh containers of baking soda. Place about half a box in a shallow bowl. Then put several of your books in a plastic bag (such as a trash bag). Put the bowl inside the bag, on top of the books. Seal the bag. Then carefully place the entire package (so as to not spill the baking soda) into a freezer or deep freeze. Leave the package in there for a couple of days. This will help to dry out the books, with the excess moisture being absorbed by the baking soda (as the temperature inside the bag drops, the relative humidity will rise, and the baking soda will absorb most of this). Freezing is also an excellent way to force the mold/mildew into an inactive state, though probably will not kill it completely.
Upon taking the package out of the freezer, remove the books and the bowl. Discard the baking soda. Allow the books to return to room temperature. You can then either just use a soft brush to remove any obvious mold spores (will now look like a powder), or you can use a vacuum. If you brush the books off, do so outside, so you don't contaminate your living space with the spores. If you use a vacuum, it would be advisable to invest in a HEPA-type filter bag, since this will catch the mold spores. This should help greatly.
Something else you can do is to place some of the books, standing up on end with their pages fanned out, in direct sunlight. This will also help to dry the books, and the UV light will help to kill the mold/mildew. Unfortunately this light will also cause damage to your books. I would recommend limiting the exposure time to no more than about 15 minutes.
Once the books have been dried, frozen, or exposed to UV, there may still be a residual odor. About the only thing you can do to deal with this is to allow the books to air properly. Placing them standing with pages somewhat fanned out for a few hours should help.
The best thing is to stop mold & mildew before it starts, by storing your books in your living space and controlling humidity. But if you get into trouble, try these suggestions. Good luck.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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