The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 22, Number 3

Managing a Stacks Cleaning Project

by Shannon Zachary

This article was originally published in Archival Products News, Winter 1997, v.5 #1. Archival Products is a division of Library Binding Service, in Des Moines, IA.

Shannon Zachary is Head of Conservation & Book Repair at the University of Michigan Library, 3202 Buhr Building, 837 Greene Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. Phone 313/763-6980; fax 313/763-7886; email

If cleanliness is next to godliness, I have seen some pretty unholy books in our stacks! When the dust mice gathering on the volumes are plump enough to wink back at you, it may be time to consider a systematic cleaning program.

A stacks cleaning project can benefit the collections in several ways:

reducing dust levels to make for a more pleasant working atmosphere for both patrons and staff,

creating a clean environment so that mold, insects, rodents, and other pests are not as readily attracted,

reducing dust on the outer surfaces of books, tapes, or CDs so that it cannot work into the interior, causing irreversible soiling or scratching.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, people take their cues from the environment they find: a collection that is clean and well kept promotes general respect and care for the materials.

The Project

At the University of Michigan Library, we accomplish stacks cleaning as rotating special projects targeting specific collections or parts of collections. This projects approach, versus a year-round ongoing program, fits our patterns of staff and funding; defining specific goals and time limits also helps give staff a clear sense of accomplishment. Projects scheduled early in the University's summer term can draw on a ready supply of student assistants and are less disruptive to the library patrons than those done during the regular school year.

Our stacks cleaning projects typically use two to six teams of two workers. From the experience of many such projects, we have calculated average progress of about 11 linear feet of book shelving per worker per hour or 22 linear feet for a team of two workers.


Stacks cleaning is a job that can be adapted well to make use of temporary employees, student assistants, or volunteers. But remember, staff executing a cleaning project will handle every item in the targeted collection. It takes much more time and resources to correct problems created by poorly trained, insufficiently supported, or badly rewarded workers than it does to invest in their well-being from the first.

Stacks cleaning is physically strenuous, dirty, and often boring. When interviewing prospective members of a cleaning crew, it is important to describe the job accurately and make sure each worker is comfortable in meeting its demands. Because of the physical demands of lifting books on and off the shelves, we normally limit each worker to a maximum of four hours per day on this task. Workers are grouped in teams and instructed to rotate jobs frequently to reduce the stress of repetitive motion.

Some people have allergies to dust or to various matter carried in dust. We ask applicants during the interview if they have conditions that would interfere with their ability to carry out this job assignment. Allergic sensitivity to substances can develop suddenly. The manager of a cleaning project must be ready to listen carefully to staff complaints, take them seriously, and work with the staff to identify and correct problems promptly.

The project manager must also take responsibility to make sure the workers know how their work is respected and appreciated. In addition to pay checks, appreciation should take many forms, such as an article in the library newsletter, a lunch or an ice cream break to celebrate mini-goals, and relaying words of appreciation expressed by library staff and patrons.


Each team of two cleaners shares a book truck and other supplies (see list at the end of this article). One team member transfers a shelf of books, a few volumes at a time, to a book truck or hands them to a second team member to place on the truck. Care is taken to keep the books in order.

One worker then wipes down the shelf, first with a dry rag or vacuum cleaner and then with a damp (not wet) rag rung out in a dilute solution of Lysol® or other disinfectant. The team works through the shelves from top to bottom, so any dust falling lands on the next shelf to be cleaned. After a damp wipe, the shelf is carefully dried since it must be dry when books are returned to it. Because wooden shelves absorb moisture, allow them a longer drying time or dispense with the damp wipe.

Meanwhile, the second team member treats each book individually, dusting the head of the book first where the most dirt accumulates. The closed book is cradled securely under one arm with a hand supporting the fore edge. The head of the book is tilted forward with the spine uppermost. A soft cloth or brush is used to push the dust away from the spine. Dust that falls down the spine or between the pages of the book is there forever! Finally, a soft cloth is used to wipe down the sides and other edges of the book. Great care must be exercised so that the cloth does not snag on torn or loose parts of the binding.

At this point the crew can also perform other quick maintenance activities, such as placing unbound pamphlets into envelopes or tying up damaged bound volumes with cotton tape. Take care, however, not to hinder the purpose of the cleaning crew by burdening them with too many add-on tasks.

Finally, one team member hands the dusted books, one or two at a time and in order, to the other who positions them on the clean dry shelf. Each worker needs a hand free to support the other books in the row during transfer. The worker placing the books on the shelf insures that the books are all upright, adequately supported, and flush with or an inch or two in from the front edge of the shelf.

Either the project manager or a team leader can be assigned additional tasks of monitoring the use of supplies, monitoring the progress of the project (an outline diagram of the stacks can be colored in as each range is completed), and overseeing set-up and clean-up at the beginning and end of each work session.

Signs posted in the area not only ask patrons for their patience with the noise and inconvenience, but also inform the public of the action the library is taking to care for the collection.

Supplies and Equipment

Liquid Lysol® (active ingredient o-phenylphenol) or a similar disinfectant may be diluted in the water used to wring out damp cloths for wiping down shelves. The disinfectant should never be used directly on the books themselves. In some stack areas where ventilation is poor, workers find the fumes of the disinfectant obnoxious; in this case plain water is used.

Soft cloths or brushes are easier to handle than vacuum cleaners for the fine work of dusting individual volumes. Each team will want a vacuum cleaner at hand, however, to pick up gross dust from the floor or behind where the books sat on the shelves. The nozzle of a vacuum cleaner can be propped upright to receive dust as it is brushed off the books.

Well-washed cotton flannel, knits, or diaper cloth make excellent rags. The cotton is absorbent and easy to wash. Chemically treated dusting cloths should not be used around library material; even if the chemical does not transfer directly onto the books, it does build up as an oily residue on the workers' hands. Dust Bunny® cloths, which rely on physical structure rather than chemicals to attract and hold dust, are useful but tend to lose efficiency with repeated washing.

Staff will need a generous supply of clean rags for this work. Our estimates for laundry are about six to ten rags per four-hour day or about a pound of dry laundry per team. Arrangements must be made to contract the work to a local laundry or, if a staff member is to handle the laundry at home, expectations and compensation must be negotiated in advance. If wet rags must sit more than a day before washing, hang them up to dry before packing them into the laundry bag.

The best vacuum cleaners for stacks cleaning are equipped with HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters. HEPA filters screen out particulate matter down to .3 microns; many standard household vacuums simply redistribute the finer dust through the exhaust. A canister vacuum fitted with an extra long hose (15-20 ft.) may be easier to manipulate and less wearing on staff than backpack models.

Nilfisk and Miele also manufacture HEPA filter vacuum cleaners that are excellent, but expensive. Vacuums designed for cleaning photocopy machines also have fine particulate filtration.

Checklist of supplies for each stacks cleaning team

1 step stool or library ladder, as needed
1 book truck
box or tote for supplies, fits on lower book truck shelf
1 vacuum cleaner and spare bags
1 or 2 sturdy bookends
soft cotton rags (several dozen)
2 soft brushes (cheap shaving brush or similar)
2 aprons
2 pairs rubber and/or cotton gloves
face mask for dust
1 bucket
liquid Lysol or other disinfectant
extension cord (25 ft.)
laundry bag
alkaline envelopes for pamphlets, various sizes
cotton tape and scissors
notebook or notepad and clipboard

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