Stinky Books

Recently, a 12-volume set of Civil War histories was returned to the Library after being kept by a patron for several years.  The books reeked of cigarette smoke.  The odor was chokingly strong even from several feet away.  Reluctant to return the items to the collection in their current state, Circulation brought them to the Conservation Lab to find out what could be done.

Some of the suggestions I’ve heard for removing noxious odors from books include:

  • Leaving the book, fanned open, under a fume hood for a few weeks to air out.
  • Leaving the book outside in fresh air (climate dependent) to air out.
  • Interleaving the book with paper towels and then putting it in the freezer.
  • Sealing the book in an airtight container along with an odor-absorbing compound (such as unscented clay kitty litter, charcoal briquettes, or a proprietary odor remover) for up to a month.

Since the book cart of smoky books was filling our work area with the unpleasant, stale odor of lingering cigarette smoke, we moved them under the fume hood while we decided on a more aggressive course of action.  The fume hood gets regular use, so leaving the books there for several weeks would not be a desirable option.  We lack a safe outdoor space in which we could fan out the books in fresh air, and even if we had such a space, the weather here in Iowa has been experiencing such dramatic, unpredictable swings that we nixed the idea.  The freezer method lacks a convincing grounding in chemistry, and our freezers are currently full of books being freeze-dried.

So, we settled on the sealed-container method of odor removal.  In the past, I’ve used clay litter, which has worked to varying degrees, and also takes quite some time (up to a month).  We decided instead to test a product specifically marketed as an odor remover.  Gonzo Odor Eliminator for Homes was recommended to us by the University of Iowa Preservation Department.  The product is comprised of “non-toxic, environmentally safe volcanic minerals,” which have a negative charge that attracts positively-charged odors.  Each 32-0z. mesh bag allegedly eliminates odors in a space up to 600 square feet within 8 hours.  This claim raised our expectations considerably!

We put the smoky books in a chamber with the Gonzo Odor Eliminator on a Friday afternoon, and by the time I checked them the following Monday morning, the smoke smell was already gone — even when I fanned through the textblock pages.  The smoky volumes are so large that only 3 fit in the chamber at a time, but with such a quick turn-around for effective odor removal, we will be able to cycle through the entire batch by early next week.

Procedure for Removing Odors from Books

1. First, I located a disused trash-can style humidity chamber in our storage closet.  I wiped down the inside surfaces of the container with a non-toxic, biodegradable spray cleaner and let it air out.

2. Next, I scrubbed down one of the packing crates we typically use for disaster salvage with soap and water, and then let it dry.

3. Before going any further, I labeled the lid of the container.

4. Placing the Gonzo mesh bag in the bottom of the container, I nestled the packing crate into the bin.

5. I fanned out the books (standing on end) in the crate, and covered the plastic bin.  I then left the Gonzo Odor Eliminator to do its work, which it accomplished effectively in just a couple of days.


    1. Great question, Sarah. I just put it to the sniff test, and I would say the Gonzo does smell like smoke, but only very slightly. I had to put my nose right up to the mesh bag to detect it. According to the packaging, the bag of volcanic minerals can be placed in direct sunlight for a few hours to recharge its odor-capturing capabilities.

    1. Jeff,

      I do think you’ll want to use a sealed bin for best results. Ours is not airtight, but the lid snaps into place, and we place a few bricks on top of it to weight it down further. Good luck!

  1. Thank you for posting this! I’m setting up one of these at our library, and what you shared is helpful.

  2. Pingback: Book Repair 101
  3. Thanks for posting this. Someone just gave some books to my kids and they reek of smoke. I even have one of those rock bags hanging in a closet already. 🙂

  4. Need this for smoky books. Also need this for books smelly of cat urine. Do you know if it works on that as well?

    1. It’s worth a try, but cat urine odor is extremely persistent and more potent than the smells of mildew or smoke. It might not be as effective….

  5. Hi, Looks like a great idea! Can you tell me if the odor eliminator can be used over and over or do you have to buy a new one every time you have a different set of books? Thanks.

    1. You can use the same Gonzo pellets bag a couple of times, then you would have to re-activate it. We usually re-activate the Gonzo pellet bags by placing them next to a window that gets a lot of sun. After a couple of days they regain potency.

  6. Thank you for the suggestion! I recently acquired an approximately 200-year old hardcover journal that was exposed to pipe smoke, cast-iron stove smoke, and cigarette smoke over most of that timeframe. It smelled a bit ripe when I acquired it, but after flying home with it, the smell was intense and permeated through a ziplock bag. Needed to find a lasting solution, so I tried the Gonzo rocks, which I found on Amazon for about $8.50. I placed the book splayed open as much as possible and sealed it in a large plastic bin with the Gonzo and left it for about five days before checking on it.

    When I came back, the smoke smell was even more intense, and I began to question the product. It had all, however, been outside in my garage which got pretty hot that week. I also became concerned that the size of the bin I am using is too large, and the air doesn’t circulate. So, I purchased a small 12-inch fan that rotates until it is horizontal and placed the Gonzo on top so the air actively moves through the rocks. I checked on it about 8 hours later and it was very much improved; I had to put the book right up to my nose to smell anything. I think this approach should work for most books that haven’t been subjected to two centuries of varied smoke…

    Now, however, there is still a lingering smoke odor in this book and the Gonzo isn’t taking care of it. My next step is to try to rehabilitate the Gonzo by leaving it out in the sun and start over, but it’s the science of the smoke permeation that has me curious. I’ve wondered why my book smelled so much worse after flying. I know cargo holds are supposed to be pressurized, but one of my shampoo bottles had exploded, so I wonder if it was depressurized during this particular flight.

    That got me to thinking – if I placed my book in a vacuum chamber, might it draw out the remaining stubborn smoke particles?

    1. Using a vacuum chamber is outside the scope of our experience. Perhaps another round in the Gonzo chamber will be effective.

  7. Seeing very allergic to cats, I am usually able to tell quickly if a book belonged to a cat owner. Any recommendations to rid the book of this problem?

  8. I’ve read that most old books smell musty because of mold and/or mildew, and that unless you kill this it will come back. This is why some people recommend putting the books in a ziplock bag in a freezer for a week or so. The Gonzo stuff sounds like a good way to remove the odor, but needs the second step in the freezer as well. What do you think?

    1. Unfortunately. there is no way to completely exterminate mold spores. They can be de-activated by cleaning, but there will always be potential for re-activation in conditions that are favorable for mold growth (high temp, high humidity). Freezing is very effective, however, for pest infestations. Below are 2 links to a resource provided by the National Park Service through its Conserv-O-Gram program. One leaflet deals with mold, the other deals with pests. You are correct, Gonzo only targets the odor of mildew, it does nothing to mitigate presence of mold spores.

      Click to access 03-04.pdf

      Click to access 03-06.pdf

    1. We no longer have the garbage can in preservation, but any standard, large-sized garbage can will do.

  9. Great article. Thanks for posting your advice and the photos! I’m gonna give the Gonzo rocks a try.

  10. I would like to give this a try. Thank you for posting it! I am highly chemically sensitive and often books from the library smell strongly of perfume/perfumes lotion. Do you think this method would help for this?

  11. Thanks so much for sharing this! I was given a ton of old crochet magazines, but they were in a house with heavy smokers for a couple years and I’ve been trying to figure out how to get the smell out. Can’t wait to give it a try!

  12. What if the book cannot be stood on end with pages splayed? I have an old bible with a soft leather cover. Do you think I could lay it flat but opened and it will work as effectively?? I will try anyway. It certainly cannot hurt.

    1. Hi Kris – you’re right, it can’t hurt to try. It may be worth it to change the opening position every now and again, too – for example start with it open in the middle, then after a few hours open it more toward the front, and still later open again more toward the back. It may increase the time needed to remove odors, too.

  13. Thanks for this idea. We have a local ‘cat-rescue Society’ who have a 2’nd hand Facebook page book sale. It’s great to get books this way especially throughout Covid. But the woman doing all the WORK must be a smoker or live with a smoker, because the books have a terrible smell. The last couple books; I ended up putting a mask and gloves on and rubbing every page with laundry deodorant sheets. It barely helped. I tried dessicants. That didn’t work. I sat each book in a plastic bag with fresh coffee beans. At least it smelled like a cup of coffee. I’m anxious to try this. Thank-you. Catherine

  14. Just leaving a note to say that this 11 year old post is still finding an audience! Excited to try it out! Thanks.

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