Book Care

Books making you sick? Tips for dealing with Biblioitis

Your guide to a healthier home library (and you) by avoiding sicknesses and allergies caused by books.

cover of It's No Fun to Be SickThere’s an alarm that’s always ringing but not often heard. By exchanging a common phrase’s preposition for another, we hope to make our proposition timely and helpful, and easy on the ear.

We all know what it is to be sick of something. The construction makes little sense when we think of books. Sick of books is a rare state; we’ve known it only as a moment’s conviction that we should train the dog as well as collect all those insightful tomes on the subject.

Sick from books is the condition that worries us increasingly. We hear more and more from librarians who say they sneeze all day, booksellers who complain of year-round sinus irritation, private collectors whose eyes burn when they relax among their beloved old books. Anecdotal these reports may be, but like the paranoid who has enemies, the sufferers from badly kept books are experiencing something real. If a health problem is already active, exposure to books that need cleaning and (this is crucial!) maintenance in a clean state can make the difference between occasional sniffles and full-blown misery.

Routine cleaning impacts books’ appearance, longevity, and value. Cleaning your books can do much the same for you, though your increase in value is improved physical comfort. There’s a psychological benefit, too: why wonder if your books may spark another asthma attack?

Do your books smell unpleasant? Odor can be an indication that there’s an irritant present. It may be limited to the books, or it may pervade your home or shop. Never noticed a bad book smell before? Think of it as an early-warning system for your library, your entire premises, and your own health.

We’re forever harping on the virtues of cleaning books. Now we’d like to beat the drum for good book handling manners. As we wrote in The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New: A Simple Repair Manual for Book Lovers, “There are still people who, no doubt unconsciously, wet a finger on their tongues to make page turning easier. This appalling act transfers moisture, and worse, to the page. The book will rarely be damaged, but the next person to turn the page may come away with more than information or entertainment. Therefore a few germ-related courtesies never hurt.”

Think of it as an early-warning system for your library, your entire premises, and your own health.

During the cold and flu season, wash your hands before and after handling books, especially when books are shared. No plumbing nearby? A packet of wipes will do the trick. Depending on how long certain germs survive outside the happy growth grounds of the human body, books sneezed or coughed upon ought to be removed from circulation (24 hours is probably sufficient; wrapped in plastic and frozen overnight is even better).

Gloves are another multipurpose defense. Conservators and visitors to rare book rooms expect to wear them, for doing so protects books from what human hands convey. Book product suppliers carry various styles, usually in a choice of lightweight, washable cotton or nylon. Reasonably priced, these protectors are useful for countless tasks.

You and your books don’t live in isolation, but with all sorts of living and less lively things, including bacteria you wouldn’t wish on your least-favorite author. Your control over your environment may never be total, but there are steps you can take to reduce environmental impact on books that in turns affects you.

The dirt and dust you remove from floors and figurines also settles on your books. Do you dust your books as often as you vacuum the carpet? Like edges that hold debris and its constituents, dust jackets and boards are ideal as potential germ conveyors — another reason for clear plastic covers, which can be easily cleaned with rubbing alcohol on a clean cloth. Alcohol kills germs on plastic book covers just as it does on your arm when it’s swabbed before an injection. And plastic covers can be cleaned repeatedly, and replaced when necessary.

Indoor air pollution is a serious factor, sometimes worse than that beyond your walls. For guidance, try such sources as the Environmental Protection Agency. A forest fire or flood that doesn’t destroy can still bring trouble, from inhalable particles to mold spores.

Many of these suggestions are especially important where children are concerned. Envision a youngster in bed with the flu and a book. Kids may be more likely than adults to rub their eyes, swipe at their noses, catch a cough in the palm of their hands, and then go back to that book. Was the book as clean as it can be before the child took it up, and will it be cleaned when it’s set aside?. The child who learns personal care can learn to care for books at the same time, to respect them intellectually and physically, like any other friend.


  • What a nonsense suggestion to clean books. People sneeze or have tears in eyes when reading olds books because of chemicals used to treat and bleach pulps to make book, and also chemical from ink. When the books are old the chemicals start to vapour into the air and get into our noses and eyes. Clean all you want won’t make a difference.

  • I’m allergic to books whenever I read any book be it old or new I start itchy, my lips and nose then my hold body Im a ready that love to hold a book but can’t tablets, computer, Kindle but. I miss my book

    • My hands and face itch, tongue swells,eyes water and lips swell when handling or reading a book so I have to wrap my book in clear plastic to read it. Is there anything I can do to my books so I don’t have to do this or is there something I can buy. I enjoy holding a book when rrading

      • Hello Michele, I have the same reaction when handling or reading a book. Do you know what causes this? I itch all over and I don’t know the reason why.

        • I just had this happen for the first time. My eyes are swollen…and the only thing new is my new book which has a formaldehyde smell. Ugh! I guess I will not be reading books in my future….

  • I keep bookshelves exclusively on interior walls to avoid moisture and condensation from the rapid temperature changes on outer walls. It is humid on the South. Dust is a common allergen, I use a microfiber duster and sometimes an air duster. How do others dust books?

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