Behind the scenes: Leatherbound book cleaning.

Museum of the Order of St John Judi McGinley, Museum Assistant

This month I will be showing you the techniques that I use when cleaning  and caring for antiquarian leatherbound books and I will also touch upon some of the problems that most museums and archives encounter when it comes to the conservation and preservation of these objects.

A large number of museum and archive collections contain a wide variety of books such as modern paperbacks,  clothbound hardbacks, leather and even vellum covered books, the latter material being a fine parchment manufactured from calf skin.

Books have traditionally been manufactured using a wide range of organic matter such as plant and animal materials. The basic components of a book such as the paper, boards and threads are composed of cellulose while animal glue and even bread flour paste was a common adhesive used in the binding of nineteenth century books. In addition to animal skins, book covers can also be constructed using materials such as textiles and plastic.

Most conservators and curators will agree that antiquarian leatherbound books are the divas of the book world! Apart from being beautiful to look at they can also be extremely high maintenance!



For a start, leather and paper react to changes in the moisture content of the surrounding air so that leatherbound books can become stiff and brittle if the environment is too dry, while excessive moisture in the air can give rise to damp conditions which are perfect for mould growth. Mouldy books can provide an ideal environment for insects such as silverfish, book lice and furniture beetle, the latter commonly referred to as bookworm. These little critters will take up residence within  damp and mouldy books which also provide a good source of sustenance as the pests will feast on the mould growth as well as any cellulose material that they come across, thus destroying the pages of the book as they feast.

I am currently working on a conservation cleaning project which involves a large number of 18th and 19th century books. These books are covered in layers of  loose and ingrained dust and I have discovered  a few other horrors which I will discuss in next month’s post!

You can see the tools that I have been using to tackle the books in the below image.



  Smoke sponge  and a  selection soft and medium bristled brushes.


I started off by covering a long table with some sheets of tissue paper which provide some degree of cushioning for the books. Under normal circumstances I would not handle books or paper wearing gloves but I tend to wear nitrile gloves while cleaning dusty books and documents to prevent marking the paper with dusty finger or palm prints.
As I mentioned earlier, these books are covered in thick layers of dust and debris so I will usually start off by brushing both the front and back covers (also known as the book boards) of the closed book under suction which entails using a medium bristled brush to brush the surface dust and debris into a stocking covered museum vac nozzle set on a moderate suction level. I will only use the vacuum if the books are in a stable condition and have no serious damage or loose fragments hanging off of them.
Dust and debris that has collected on the end of the stocking covered vacuum nozzle.
Using a medium bristled bamboo handled hake brush, I will then remove any remaining dust by sweeping the brush head from the edge of the spine to the edges of the front and back covers  ensuring that the dust is brushed into a card board box .
Bamboo handled hake brush.
I then use a soft bristled brush to brush the spine from top to bottom. It is imperative that a soft brush is used on the spine as it is the most vulnerable part of the book.
I then use smoke sponge to remove any ingrained dirt from the covers and spine by rubbing the sponge gently against the surfaces avoiding any damaged areas of the book.
Smoke sponge before and after cleaning.
Most of these books are large and heavy so I have also I fashioned two book supports using two sheets of medium density polyethylene foam known as plastazote. I rolled each sheet into a sausage shape and secured them by tying the ends and middles with archival grade cotton tape.
Makeshift plastazote book supports.
I am able to protect the book spine from damage by resting the front and back covers of the open book on the supports. This will allow me to clean the inside covers and any dusty pages  with out causing any stress to the spine.
I then use the bamboo handled brush to clean the inside of the front and back covers and any dusty pages that I come across.  I then go over any ingrained dirt with a fresh piece of smoke sponge ensuring that I avoid any damaged areas or print.
I  finish off by cleaning the edges of the pages (collectively known as the text block) by closing the book and using a soft or medium bristled brush to gently sweep any dust from the top, bottom and middle of the text block into the cardboard box. If the text block is extremely dirty but stable then I will go over each side very gently with a piece of smoke sponge. However, if the  edges of the pages are torn or unstable then I will avoid using smoke sponge on them to prevent further damage.
Next month I will be discussing the problems that most museums and archives encounter when it comes to the conservation and preservation of book collections.




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