Think back to the last time you moved house: Sorting, packing and loading all your possessions, you were likely struck with the realisation that after being in storage for so long, some items simply needed to be cleaned before they went into your new home. But what if your house was a library, and your furniture literally millions of books? Such is the moving plan for the British Library, currently gearing up for a massive relocation of books from storage facilities across London into a new facility in Yorkshire in 2008.

It’s an immense job – in all, some 250 km of books and other materials will be heading to the new storage site in Boston Spa – and organisers are looking to do a bit of housecleaning before making the big move. “The books are going to go from a reasonable environment to a far, far better one,” says Jane Wilson, the British Library’s project manager for the book move. “We’re using it as an opportunity to do some cleaning first.” This isn’t the first big book move for the British Library, which, as far as national libraries go, is somewhat of a newcomer.

Formed in 1973 as an amalgamation of a group of existing library and archives collections, the new British Library brought together a wealth of previously-gathered material, in particular the library at the British Museum – which, owing to its status as Britain’s legal depository, was entitled to a copy of nearly every item printed in the United Kingdom.

Understandably, overcrowding had long been a problem in the British Museum collection, but by the time of the British Library’s formation, the issue had become serious and plans were made for a new central building to solve the library’s storage crisis. However, after relocating the building site and suffering through a host of delays, the facility was not completed until 1998 – during which time rising costs necessitated cutting the building’s size by a third.

While high-use items were transferred to the new library, many books – such as the 50 km of low-use and archival material located in a former naval library at London’s Royal Arsenal in Woolwich – remained in their existing locations, waiting for the addition of more storage space. Now, though, it’s the Woolwich collection’s turn, and in anticipation of its move to the Boston Spa location, a team of librarians is busy working their way through the thousands of shelves, cleaning equipment in tow.

Transport of the books alone is expected to take two years, so it’s no surprise that the pre-cleaning project is an even more massive effort, particularly since many of the items in the collection are old, delicate, valuable or simply unusual – everything from hundred-year-old copies of the Times to the latest children’s magazine-and-action-figure combo are on site. Walk into the stacks, and you’re immediately struck by that inimitable library smell; step in a bit further, and you’ll find a team of three – occasionally dressed in white cleansuits to protect themselves from the dust – working their way through the shelves. In a way, Wilson says, it’s a bit like walking through history.

Books sit loose on the shelves or are packaged in a myriad of styles; some are wrapped in paper and ribbon like Christmas parcels, while other items are shrink-wrapped or nestled inside archival boxes. The different styles of storage, Wilson says, illustrate the legacy of conservation techniques over the years; some particularly low-use items have not been disturbed since their archiving decades ago. With all that material, though – particularly such a variety of ageing or historic items – comes a lot of dust. The Woolwich facility isn’t alone in tackling the problem of dust on books, however: A National Preservation Office assessment of libraries and archives between 2001-2005 noted that 53 per cent of all material surveyed showed signs of surface dirt, and among items classed as unstable or actively deteriorating, 71 per cent had surface dirt. “That’s a pretty unpleasant picture,” says Alison Walker, head of the National Preservation Office. What’s more, dusty books can have a negative impact on a library’s public image – even if the books are themselves ageing.

“People tend to associate history with dustiness,” says Peter Brimblecombe of the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences, which has undertaken substantial research on dust deposition in historic buildings. “However, there’s a contradiction: People gain a historic feeling from seeing dust, but almost immediately also think that it’s a sign of poor care and management.” Some argue that dust can also be a warning sign of health risks. According to Hassan Bolourchi of American firm Library Dust Consulting, librarians who work with dusty books risk an increased rate of lung cancer, asthma, allergies, skin irritation and nervous system problems. One American Lung Association survey points to more than 800 scientific studies confirming a relationship between air particulates and illness, hospitalisation and premature death, and a World Health Organisation report estimates that more than 2.8 million people die each year due to overexposure to highly concentrated air particulates. Even though a librarian may not be placed under such extreme conditions during dayto- day duties, a walk through any library will confirm that dust can be a significant problem for books and handlers alike.

“People tend to associate history with dustiness,”

“However, there’s a contradiction: People gain a historic feeling from seeing dust, but almost immediately also think that it’s a sign of poor care and management.” 

Peter Brimblecombe of the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences

And from a conservator’s view, dust is undoubtedly deadly for books. Combining dust and humidity can cause debris to solidify on a book’s surface, while ageing and natural deterioration can break books down even further, leading to anything from broken page corners to ‘red rot’, the dusty reddish disintegration of leather bindings. Add in other external factors – including buildings that may let dust in through windows and doors, proximity to roads with heavy traffic, low use of a collection or a policy of adding new items without cleaning or quarantining them first – and dust production can be a serious problem. Even that ‘old book’ smell can be harmful, suggests Brimblecombe, if it’s actually a sign of microbiological volatile organic compounds lurking in the books. What, then, is the best way to keep books free of dangerous dust? For the most part, it’s a mixture of regular cleaning and storage in a climate-controlled, low-dust environment – like the new Boston Spa facility, which will be fully compliant with BS5454, Britain’s standard for the storage and exhibition of archived documents. In the meantime, the Woolwich team is working through their stock in an effort to fill their clean new facility with clean books. However, it’s no easy task.

Manual book cleaning generally consists of brushing dust and debris off of books in a wellventilated and dust-managed environment using gentle tools and natural-bristle brushes. However, time is a severely limiting factor in cleaning books by hand, and the activity is repetitive and often quite difficult – particularly for large collections, where the work runs the risk of lacking lustre over time for both cleaners and books. In the case of the British Library, the solution lies in book cleaning machines. For the Woolwich project, the library is using Italian manufacturer TiGiEmme’s Depulvera and L’Aura equipment, which utilise a system of conveyor belts and soft dust brushes to sweep dust off the surface of books with a minimum of operator intervention.

The Depulvera rotates the book 90 degrees inside the machine, allowing a multiple-pass approach that dusts a book’s sides but not its spine, avoiding potentially delicate surfaces. In addition, an electronic ‘eye’ inside the machine automatically adjusts brush height for each book’s size; similar sensors also stop the machine if any resistance against the book is detected, saving against possible damage. For larger or more unwieldy items, the L’Aura uses a similar process, but allows for only one pass on the item, leaving the operator to re-insert the book facing a different direction or finish the job by hand. The Depulvera can safely clean 12 books per minute and requires only two operators, potentially slashing the amount of time required by a major book-cleaning project. Additionally, as it’s possible to move the machine as needed throughout the stacks, it reduces the amount of handling needed to clean the books – which can be a major conservation benefit. “Any movement of books and archives has the potential to cause them harm,” says Caroline Bendix, an independent library conservator who has done substantial work with the British Library. “When you are cleaning, your handling of the items is increasing, and you need to be aware of that. Every time you brush along a damaged area, you will cause more damage and make it more difficult to repair later.”

In the case of the Woolwich move, choosing how best to clean an item – by machine, by hand or perhaps even not at all – is done on a case-by-case basis, and if an item is in doubt, a conservator is called upon to make the necessary judgement. “Some material gets to the stage where you can’t do anything, and the best thing to do is really not to touch it,” Wilson says. After all, it can sometimes take hours to clean a single book – even if it hasn’t been damaged by incorrect cleaning techniques. “The longest I’ve spent so far is 10 hours cleaning one book,” Bendix says. It’s this thoroughness that makes the British Library’s book move such a painstaking, time-consuming process – and, says Wilson, a fascinating one. “When you’re working, you can get distracted,” Wilson says. “It’s like being in a sweetshop in some cases.” And although most of the items at the Woolwich depository aren’t at the top of the British Library’s reader request list, there are, she says, a wealth of interesting gems for anyone who’s willing to look – as well as an untold number of items whose hour in the public interest may yet come. “The library has a responsibility to look after and care for a collection that may or may not be widely used,” says Wilson. “It may be that in 50 years’ time, some of these items that aren’t used very often may be in vogue again.” It’s this, she says, that’s one of the big motivators for preparing Woolwich’s books for the move.

These items represent a slice of the nation’s cultural and academic heritage, and keeping them in good repair is quite literally a matter of preserving Britain’s history. “We have a responsibility to the nation,” Wilson says.

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