Dusting: How to Care for Books on a Shelf

It’s a constant struggle.  It’s a battle in a war you’ll never truly win.  It’s a fight against your skin cells, windy weather, ventilation and laundry systems, and the normal particles that are in the air.

Dust is the scourge of booksellers, librarians, and collectors alike.  Few people enjoy dusting, but it is a chore that must be accomplished on a regular schedule or everything goes out of control.  Large bookstores like Barnes & Noble have all the opening employees dust on a schedule, usually for about 5 minutes right before opening on a rotation of a different section each day of the week.  Smaller bookstores fit it in on slow days when there are few customers.  For those smaller bookstores, dusting is usually at the bottom of the list of tasks and has the lowest priority, far below things like organizing categories, counting the till, or putting away go-backs.  Warehouses and internet sellers who have their books in storage are usually so focused on volume (quantity, not quality) that dusting never actually gets done at all.

It needs to be done, though.

When stored on shelves in a non-presentation fashion — that is, spines down and fore-edges pointed up so as to protect the textblock from gravity drop and tearing at the hinges — a hand-vacuum can get up most of the dust that settles on the fore-edges.  This also works for the top edges of a book if they are stored on a shelf for presentation, although you should be careful of vacuuming near the spine, especially if the book has a dust jacket.  Books should be lifted off the shelf in handfuls and slightly damp rag used to wipe the shelf down.  Don’t scoot books along the shelves, that’ll just scuff the spines.  In an open warehouse, dusting should be done in a rotation, a few bays every day.  Be careful of dust jackets when using the vacuum or the rag, because they are often the most delicate part of the book, especially if you haven’t put them in a protective Mylar sleeve.

Dust comes up from the edges of a book fairly easy, probably because of the thin surfaces that the edges of the pages present for sticking.  On the other hand, dust that has settled on a book jacket is hard to shake off… perhaps that’s why they’re called “dust jackets”?  Even dust on cloth and leather covers is hard to get off sometimes.  Often you can just shake a book gently, but sometimes a dry dusting rag is necessary.  There are also products on the market to help get ingrained soiling out of your cloth covers.

If you are an internet seller, try to keep your inventory stored on shelves that are not near openings to the outside.  Closed rooms without foot-traffic are best.  Must of the dust that settles on our books come from the skin particles that we all shed frequently.  Air filtration can work in smaller spaces to keep your books dust-free, but they won’t work in larger spaces like warehouses.  Even industrial air filters are not meant to work in open warehouses.

Good luck!

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