Emergency Care


Insect Infestation in Books


By April Hann Lanford

Bookworms, Insect Infestation in Books

By April Hann Lanford

While the connotation of a bookworm is that of a voracious reader, there are insects that actually feed on books.  Books are inherently inviting and vulnerable, given their construction of organic materials such as paper, cardboard, starch-based binding adhesive, cotton, and leather.  If left unattended, insects can lead to a significant amount of damage.

Bookworms are not actually worms.


One of the primary causes of damage to books is caused by several species of beetles. Interestingly, the majority of the damage is not caused by the adult beetle, but by its larvae.  The adult lays its eggs within accessible crevices in the book. As the larvae develop, it feeds off of the starch in the paper and eventually may bore through sections of the text block.  This can result in the appearance of holes and channels.  The larvae can look like a worm at different stages, and it is believed how the term “bookworm” originated.


Another common culprit is silverfish.  Silverfish are a nuisance to not only books but any paper-related items.  These insects feed off the adhesive in bindings and on paper.  Damage from these insects resembles skinning and shallow losses along the surface, to irregular elongated holes and losses along the edges.


While typically known to be significantly detrimental to wood, they can also quickly cause damage to the covers and bindings on books.

Book Lice

These small white insects tend to infest damp and moldy books and feed on the mold and fungi within the text block.


Fortunately, there are a few ways to easily safeguard your collection and avoid unwelcome guests.


Climate-controlled environment Like fine art, antiques, and furniture, it is best to avoid fluctuations in climate and generally maintain a 70-degree temperature with 50% RH.

Do not store packed in basements or attics These areas are typically more prone to pests.  They also are not climate controlled and are prone to water damage.

Do not store directly boxed on the floor Items stored on the floor are vulnerable to pests and water damage. Items should always be elevated at least 3” off from the floor.

On Display

On a shelf – When possible, books on display can be better monitored for signs of insect activity.  Books on a shelf have better air circulation and are less apt to get damp and then develop mold, which invites pests and degradation. 

Clamshell boxes – While books are displayed, they are sensitive to exposure to sunlight, dust, and other environmental exposures.  As an additional safeguard, fragile or unique volumes can be stored in archival clamshell boxes to provide additional protection.

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If you discover an infestation, there are a variety of potential options.  Given that each case is different, you should contact a specialist to determine the best path forward.


Pesticide should never be applied to a book or paper, it could cause staining and further deterioration of the piece.  Contact a specialist to determine if the area where the infested piece should be addressed.

B-Anoxic Treatment

The item is placed within an air-tight chamber. The oxygen is gradually depleted from the chamber.

This is the most passive approach and is preferred since it does not expose the piece to chemicals.

This approach is a gradual process and has the longest turnaround time for treatment.

D-Freeze/Thaw Cycle

The item is wrapped, frozen, and then thawed. To ensure the infestation is eradicated, the cycle is often repeated.  This treatment does not require exposure to chemicals.

Final Steps

After the infestation has been successfully eradicated, the piece should be cleaned to remove any extraneous debris, insect casings, etc. on the surface.  Areas of structural instability should be consolidated and stabilized to ensure that the book is not further compromised when handled in the future.

Fortunately, over time, binding materials have evolved in the 20th century to help deter insect activity.  Proper storage and monitoring your collection while on display are two ways to deter damage.

If you need assistance or have questions about book care or addressing an infestation, please feel welcome to contact us at:



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