Cleaning is rarely on the top of anyone’s list of favorite things to do, but it is a necessary part of our existence. In the archives, cleaning is particularly important for preservation of the collections. Dirt and dust can settle on photographs and scratch or become embedded in the emulsion or top paper fibers of the image. Handling bound volumes covered with a layer of dust and then opening to the pages, can easily result in dirty fingerprints transferred onto pages. Dirt and dust can also attract pests and be carriers for air pollutants and mold spores. In short, cleaning not only helps combat the stereotype of dusty archives and makes us feel neater, it is an important part of preventive action in preservation.
This summer we were fortunate to have Karis Raeburn, a new graduate of the Public History Program at Wright State, volunteer her professional skills to us. As luck would have it, Karis has experience cleaning rare books and ledgers at the Tower of London. On top of that, Karis said words I never thought I would hear in the archives, “I LOVE to clean books!”
Among other projects, Karis worked on researching, cleaning and rehousing collections of general store ledgers dating back to the late 1800s to early 1900s. A HEPA vacuum with variable speed control is used to capture the dirt and dust that is swept off with a soft brush. Vulcanized rubber sponges are used in cleaning other areas of the ledgers. When cleaning books, it is important not to brush too hard, which can actually push the dirt deeper into the material. It is also important to clean the text block (edges of a closed book’s pages) while the ledger is tightly closed, and brush away from the spine.
Since dust and dirt can also harbor inside, the pages are swept clean with a soft brush. Inside is where all the fun, interesting history resides. Karis found some wonderful drawings in the back of one of the Strayer General Store (Logan County, Ohio) ledgers.
After cleaning, the difference is noticeable to archivists and patrons alike, and the volumes’ physical condition is improved. We can all literally breathe a little easier.
If you want to learn more about proper cleaning methods for books, the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) has a helpful preservation leaflet covering the basics at http://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/4.-storage-and-handling/4.3-cleaning-books-and-shelves .