On venturing into one of our strongrooms on the 19th November you would have been forgiven for thinking you had walked onto the set of a sci-fi film, with men in masks, plastic sheeting and strange equipment.
For the last three weeks, Harwell Document Restoration Services, a specialist company with experience of handling archive and library collections, has been cleaning one of our strongrooms; walls, floors, ceilings, shelving, cupboards, light fittings and collections.
Dust found in libraries and archives is likely to contain mould spores, pest detritus, skin cells, textile fibres, degraded leather and other matter. It enters strongrooms though doors and by people, or was already present on material when it was donated. The Library, therefore, has a regular cleaning programme to prevent the build up of dust to levels that may cause a nuisance to users and damage to our collections. Handling dirty items is not only unpleasant, but can be a health risk, allergies can be triggered. Dust also attracts pests such as moths, booklice, silverfish and carpet beetles which can destroy text blocks and bindings.
Harwell used dry cleaning methods and avoided cleaning agents and liquids, which cause often irreparable damage to collections. For each type of material, be it a volume, box or unbound papers, there is a different way of cleaning. “Dust bunnies” (soft cloths) were used for cleaning most bindings, and soft natural bristle brushes used for leather, bookcloth, paper, suede, parchment and vellum bindings, where cloths can be abrasive. Smoke sponges and low suction vacuum cleaners were used to clean text blocks in good condition and where possible, dusting trays and boxes were employed to reduce the amount of dirt spread around during cleaning.
Throughout the cleaning, collections were kept in sequence; they were removed shelf at a time, placed in shelf order on a trolley, cleaned and replaced. Special care was taken over items that are particularly fragile or damaged.
The old proverb “Cleanliness is a fine life-preserver” is indeed true; by keeping our collections clean we are extending their usable life.