Love devouring a good book? Meet the real bookworms – and they’re better at it than you.

It’s World Book Day on Tuesday March 2nd. Our nation loves books. Adults, children, even babies, we all love devouring a good book. Unhappily though, we aren’t the only ones. The larvae of moths, booklice, carpet beetles, spider beetles, silverfish, woodworm (also known as bookworms), and death watch beetles, (true!) all enjoy books even more thoroughly than we do.

That’s gross. Why would they do that?

They’re hungry and you’re providing a food source. Books can provide a feast for larvae which feed on wood, animal substances, mould and mildew. Let’s look at these in turn.
The larvae of deathwatch beetles and woodworm love to eat wood. Books are made from wood pulp, so if a beetle lays eggs on the book its larvae will bore in and around the pages and covers for up to four years before emerging as adult beetles, possibly laying eggs on the way out.
The larvae of silverfish, moths and carpet beetles will only graze on animal substances, shredding the book as they go, so they like a bit of leather binding, a side order of size (a glue made from animal hooves) and possibly a dessert of parchment or vellum, if you’re lucky enough to have really old books.
Silverfish and tiny psocids (booklice) are choosy and feed on the starches and proteins in cellulose, which is contained in wood pulp. They like to graze, so create a scuffed appearance on pages and covers. They prefer certain colours and have been known to create patterns as they hunt out the dyes and pigments they prefer.

How can I avoid things eating my books?

Make sure your books aren’t damp. Most of these insects prefer their food a bit wet, so damp books – those stored in lofts, cellars or sheds, or placed on shelves against colder outer walls, will suffer most. To encourage air circulation, don’t push books right back against the wall or shelf.
Insects enter through windows in the spring and summer and lay eggs. Vacuum and dust regularly, unless your books are extremely rare or valuable, in which case seek specialist advice.

Any other tips for looking after books?

Yes! While we’re looking out for things that might spoil our enjoyment of a good book, we can also consider light, chemicals and bad handling. Light will fade the covers, so store them away from windows. Store them upright instead of stacked. Dropping books and opening them too wide weakens the spine and bindings, so handle them carefully. Chemicals from modern paints, glues, waxes and varnishes, as well as from some woods, can cause books to degrade, so be careful where you store them.
Most importantly…. Enjoy reading, enjoy your books and use these simple tips to make sure that you’re the one who enjoys them the most.

The importance of correct storage packing

As a museum curator, I know that packing items correctly for storage is vitally important. This is something that trainee museum curators are taught on the MA course and which is drummed in during our working lives every time we come across damage, as it’s so often due to incorrect packing. Most people aren’t aware of this, and why should they be?


If organic items are stored incorrectly several things can happen:

  • They can be broken
  • They can become dusty: as dust is acidic it will eat away at the item, damaging the surface
  • They can become a target for insects or rodents
  • They can become mildewed or mouldy


Mildew and woodworm on an incorrectly packed Nigerian wooden mask
Mildew on am incorrectly packed Nigerian wooden mask

This last is what I will talk about here. Recently I worked with a collection that had been packed for international transport and then put straight into storage in the same packing. The storage conditions were not optimal as the collection was placed into an attic with (as with all attics) extreme seasonal temperature fluctuations. The collection had been in storage for between 7-20 years depending on individual items.


The collection had been carefully packed for international transport into cardboard boxes, then into packing paper and then either bubble wrapped or put into plastic bags. This was adequate for the transport of a personal collection, but on arrival, the items should have been removed from the bubble wrap and plastic bags and re-packed for storage. While useful to stop damage during transport, the plastic around each item creates a micro-climate. Fluctuating temperatures in the storage facility had added to the micro-climate, causing water vapour collected in the winter’s chill to condense inside the plastic in the warmer summers. Bubble wrapped items had become mildewed. Mildew is a superficial growth made of hyphae, small filaments of fungus, which is mainly associated with garden plants but can also affect organic items indoors.


Once mildews and mould take hold they can grow quickly and we were fortunate that these were only small growths, easily brushed off. Correct re-packing for long term storage (a sturdy acid free box, to prevent acid leakage and insect ingress, acid free tissue rolled into balls to support the items, further museum-quality materials for delicate or very important items) will keep this collection in a far better condition even in a poor environment such as an attic.


Sometimes it’s too late. Some things are in such a poor state that the mould has damaged the item irretrievably and it has to be disposed of. Simple regular housekeeping checks can prevent this and keep collections going for many more years.


Company history or lunch?

clothes moth tineola bisseliella
Clothes moth

Everyone has heard tales of Granny pulling out her fox fur, clothes moths flying everywhere and the once-beautiful fur in tatters. Recently a Scottish relative showed me his kilt and jacket. These 60 year old family heirlooms had been ruined over one single winter. He’d even had to buy new socks as when he’d put them he had found that the heel had been eaten away entirely. Clothes moths (notably Tineola Biselliella and Tinea Pellionella) are a serious pest of stored organic items.
It’s not actually the moths eating your heritage, it’s their larvae. Females lay clusters of 30-200 eggs and they hatch 4-10 days later into tiny caterpillars which begin to eat. And eat, and eat, until they are ready to spin cocoons (a few months to two years). They then spend 2-6 weeks developing into moths, at which point they leave their cocoons and begin the reproductive cycle, dying within a month or so.


Moths go for organic in a big way – think silk, wool, hair, skins, sometimes linen or cotton, in carpets, curtains, rugs, runners, cushions, clothes etc. So how does this relate to your historical collections of books, papers, paintings or prints? You’ll be delighted to hear that they also enjoy a bit of leather (books) and cloth (book bindings) as well as parchment or vellum and occasionally the animal glue on canvases. Yum.

clothes moth tineola bisseliella
beige, brown and cream with a cream head, the  clothes moth blends in well with organic fibres


To find moths, think like a moth. They prefer dark, humid, warm, undisturbed places. Quiet parts of modern homes and offices are perfect. Look in cupboards, in cracks, under chests of drawers. And remember, if you don’t do this and it’s your collection falling into tatters, you can’t just go and get another one. You don’t want to be the one who allowed 200 years of your company’s history to become lunch.