Keeping the dust at bay

For this month’s library pick we turn to an item not from the library collection, but one that we use in caring for it: our book vacuum cleaner. It may not be historic, decorative, or intellectually significant, but its importance for the preservation of the library’s books makes it entirely worthy of our attention!
Our book vacuum cleaner!Our book vacuum cleaner!
Just like any museum objects, books need protection from the harmful effects of dust and dirt particles which, if left to build up, can cause damage and contribute to decay. So why don’t we use a regular vacuum cleaner? The powerful suction and rough synthetic brushes that come with the average domestic vacuum cleaner are too severe to be used on books, especially in a collection like the Cory Library, where some of the books are as many as 400 years old.

Many of the books produced before the mid nineteenth century were bound in boards (stiff covers) covered with leather or marbled paper. The leather was often decorated with gold leaf, which was impressed into the surface using stamps or roll tools. These materials and effects are highly decorative but equally vulnerable to abrasion if not treated gently. Similarly, the stiffened cloth and printed cardboard covers that became popular during the nineteenth century offered no less scope for decoration, and care must be taken not to damage their surfaces with rough treatment. Even the most modern books have features that must be treated sensitively when cleaning, such as paper covers or dust jackets that are easily torn.

Using a specialist book vacuum cleaner with variable suction means that we can raise or lower the level to suit the material make-up and state of the particular item we are cleaning. With the suction at the appropriate level we use a brush attachment to gently remove dust from the book’s covers, the spine, and the edges of the pages. The brush attachments are made of soft animal hair, which is gentle on such vulnerable surfaces as leather, paper and gold leaf. A HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter within the vacuum cleaner prevents even very small particles of dust (most importantly any mould, mildew and fungal spores that might be present) from being released through the air exit vent and back into the room.

Spending an hour or so with a pile of dusty books and a fun-sized vacuum cleaner may not be the most glamorous part of a librarian’s job, but it’s certainly important work. A regular programme of cleaning is an essential part of collection management, helping us to preserve the attractive, unique and fascinating objects that are the more common subjects of blog posts like this!

Jenny Sargent
Cory Library Manager