The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 6, Number 4
Aug 1982

Cleaning the Newberry's Collections

by Michele V. Cloonan

This spring the Newberry Library moved its entire collection of some 1.4 million volumes, 5 million manuscripts, and numerous artifacts into a new ten-story climate-controlled stack building1 adjoining the original library. The move itself took a little over two months (March 29 to June 4). Preparations for the move, however, began long beforehand.

The decision to clean our collections prior to moving them stemmed from several factors. First, cleaning the collections before the move afforded an excellent opportunity to survey the collections, spot problem areas, and in some instances, to tie and/or bag books with loose covers and spines. In the case of oversize folios, the particularly fragile items were wrapped in paper. The only category of materials not cleaned were the microfilms, as budget restrictions did not allow the purchase or rental of film care machines. Preparatory cleaning, tying and wrapping before the move assured minimal fragment losses during the move and prevented further damage to already brittle or deteriorated materials.

The second compelling reason to clean materials before the move was to reduce premature clogging of the filter system in the new stack building. The high efficiency filters in the new building necessitated that books and other library materials be as dust-free as possible when they were moved in.

Other reasons for cleaning before the move included the necessity of checking for insect and rodent infestation, mold and other adverse conditions.

Many conservators feel that a periodic cleaning of book collections would be optimal. In the words of an early book conservation soothsayer, "Dust upon books to any extent points to neglect, and neglect means more or less slow decay." 2 There is no doubt that such cleanings discourage insects and rodents, uncover leaks in plumbing and heating systems and expose adverse stack conditions. 3 The Conservation Department of the Lenin State Library in Moscow, for example, has a special section devoted exclusively to book hygiene and disinfection. This section is responsible for the dusting, disinfection and fumigation of books as well as for the monitoring of temperature and humidity levels. 4

Unfortunately, very few libraries can afford the luxury of full-time stack maintenance personnel. The Newberry had not cleaned its collections for nearly 20 years prior to the pre-move cleaning. This necessitated a comprehensive cleaning program. To this end, some IS students were hired and trained six months before the move began.

Preliminary training began with our in-house slide show, which was originally developed by the Conservation Department to teach book paging personnel the proper way to handle and shelve our books and manuscripts. (The show was later shown to the movers as part of their pre- move training.) The slide show was followed up by a comprehensive tour of the stacks with show-and-tell examples of some of our unique holdings. The final phase of training was the actual cleaning. I worked alongside the students until I felt confident that they could work alone. I also worked with the students when they cleaned materials in the Special Collections Department.

There are two commonly used methods for cleaning large collections of books: vacuuming, usually done in conjunction with hand dusting; and air blowing.

Air blowers, used with dust collectors, have been used by the Detroit Public Library and the National Archives in Washington. 5,6 Large dust collecting cabinets gather dust blown off the books through a compressed air hose. Blowers are usually custom made to exact specifications and are expensive.

The use of vacuums and treated cloths for cleaning books and manuscripts also has precedents. The Library of Congress and the Lenin State Library have both used this method successfully4,7 and it is described in the Horton manual, 8 the most important work on the subject to date.

The Newberry's collections were judged sufficiently valuable and fragile to warrant the more time-consuming but gentler method of hand vacuuming and dusting. We used a dozen portable Eureka vacuums, Model #155, and, initially, One-Wipes. One-Wipes, however, did not hold up after more than two washings, contrary to the manufacturer's claims, and proved too expensive to replace so frequently. We therefore switched to Chicopee Stretch 'n Dust disposable cleaning cloths. Hand dusting in most instances augmented vacuuming, but for highly valuable or fragile items, dusting alone was used.

When vacuuming or dusting books individually, the book was held in the left hand, spine uppermost, and the head tilted down. The dust cloth or vacuum nozzle was worked downward and away from the headcap. If an entire shelf was being vacuumed at once, extra care was taken to avoid damaging headcaps. The brushes from the vacuum cleaners also had to be replaced frequently; when bristles wear down they become hard and abrasive. Still another important safeguard was to change the dustbags often. Because of the great number of books that we vacuumed, it was necessary to check the bags daily.

The students were instructed to wear white lisle gloves while they were cleaning. When the gloves became dirty, they were laundered. Gloves serve two purposes: they protect the workers' hands from the dirt on the books, and, more important, they prevent the transference of dirt from one book to another. Dirty, sweaty hands can cause unremovable stains on books.

While the students were cleaning the books, they sequestered all items that were too fragile to be moved without sustaining further damage. These fell into two categories: books whose covers were loose or broken along the hinge(s), and books whose pages or bindings were falling to pieces. Books in the first category were tied with ¾" wide cotton tape, while books in the second category were placed in polyethylene bags held shut with magic mending tape.

Bagging was not viewed as a permanent solution and we could therefore justify the use of the tape. Care was taken to apply it evenly and firmly, to avoid the possibility of loose tape sticking onto neighboring books. (The bags have not yet been removed from the relocated books, however.)

We purchased bags in all the stock sizes but could not find bags large enough to accommodate our elephant folios. These large folios were wrapped in neutral paper and taped. We used Permalife but other neutral papers would also have been suitable. Once wrapped, bagged or tied, the books were returned to the shelves ready for the move. (We plan to let these books stay in their wrappings indefinitely.)

A number of nonbook artifacts in the collections also had to be cleaned and prepared for the move. Such items included paintings, drawings, Indian pottery and baskets. Paintings and drawings were wrapped according to the specifications in Caroline Keck's Safeguarding Your Collection in Travel. 9 The pottery was dusted with Stretch 'n Dust cloths and hand-carried to the stack building. Baskets were carefully vacuumed by placing two pieces of Stretch 'n Dust cloth over the vacuum nozzle. The baskets were then placed in polyethylene bags that had been punctured with an awl to assure adequate ventilation. Next, the baskets were placed in boxes.

The cleaning took nearly eight months, in part because the students we hired worked only part time. Bagging, tying and wrapping added a significant amount of time, but the benefit of keeping our books in good condition seemed worth it. Bagging, tying and wrapping definitely kept down the number of spine fragments lost during the move.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of the cleaning program was our inability to properly refurbish the many railroad archives bound in 19th century account book bindings. The red rot problem of these bindings is serious and we did not have the time or resources to take adequate care of them. Cursory cleaning did very little to help their feeble condition.

We have tentatively decided to re-clean some of the dirtier collections. As of this writing, however, no specific program is underway.


1. For a more detailed description of the new stack building, see Susan Schur. "Library/Conservation Profile: The Newberry Library," Technology & Conservation, 6 (2): 22-32, Summer 1981.

2. William Blades. The Enemies of Books. London: Elliot Stock, 1896, p. 37.

3. George Martin and Dorothy Grant Cunha. Conservation of Library Materials: A Manual and Bibliography on the Care, Repair and Restoration of Library Materials. 2v. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1971, v.1, p.101.

4. Galina S. Rozkova. "Hygiene and Restoration of Book Stock at Libraries: Some Points of Interest Regarding the Work of the Lenin State Library of the USSR." Restaurator, 1: 191-197, 1970.

5. Private correspondence between Paul N. Banks and Jane Hale Morgan of the Detroit Public Library, 1980-81.

6. Private correspondence between Paul N. Banks and James L. Gear of the National Archives, 1970.

7. Library of Congress Information Bulletin, 31: 280- 281, June 23, 1972.

8. Carolyn Horton. Cleaning and Preserving Bindings and Related Materials. 2nd ed. rev. Chicago: Library Technology Program, American Library Association, 1969.

9. Nashville: AASLH, 1970. 78 pp.


Bro-Dart, Inc., 1609 Memorial Ave., Williamsport, PA 17705
Bookends with protective flanges.
Eureka Co., 7009 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL 60634 dd>Model #155 AT hand vacuums, bags and filters
Jason Supply Co., 1951 Landmeier Road, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007
Rolls of polyethylene, polyethylene bags and Chicopee Stretch 'n Dust cleaning cloths, #0414
Magid Manufacturing Co., 2060 N. Kolmar Ave., Chicago, IL 60639
White cotton lisle gloves, #93J
TALAS, 130 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10011 dd>Cotton tape

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