Cleaning 400 years of dust from books

One of the world's most extensive collections of old books is covered in dust. Can IT technology help clean it?

Tech Culture

DUBLIN, Ireland--There isn't quite an inch of dust on top of Institutione Catholica, a two-volume theological set of books dating back a few centuries. But it looks close.

The entire top of the volumes is coated in a thick, brown mass. Some of the dust has formed into balls about the size of beetles. When a graduate student picks up one of the volumes, part of the frayed binding falls off. It will be glued back on later.

The Long Room: scenic, but not hermetically sealed. Trinity College

The Long Room in the Old Library at Dublin's Trinity College houses one of the most extensive collections of antique books in the world: it contains about 300,000 volumes as well as a trove of historical documents. (The college's library collection, begun in 1592, contains 4.5 million books in all.) Items range from 34 volumes of handwritten depositions taken in 1641 after an uprising against English rule to such gems as Wives, Mothers and Sisters in the Olden Time by Lady Herbert from 1871.

The vaulted chamber of the Long Room also draws about 600,000 tourists a year, said Susan Bioletti, who serves as the keeper of preservation and conservation.

The oldest Irish harp ever found sits on the main floor. Directly below the Long Room sits the Book of Kells, the 9th century illustrated manuscript, and other ancient books. In a way, the Old Library is the Grand Canyon for bibliophiles.

Unfortunately, a 400-year-old room with lots of large bay windows is not the ideal place to store old books. If she had her choice, Bioletti jokes that she'd put all the books into gray boxes. "But you can't turn it into a gray library. People have an emotional attachment to it," she said.

Thus, the university has kicked off an effort to balance the competing interests of preservation and tourism. It is cleaning the books and also trying to figure out ways to prevent environmental degradation in the future.

"I've researched it, and I haven't found evidence of a systematic clean-up. Maybe there was one in 19th century," she said.

A 2 million euro ($3 million) fundraising campaign has so far netted 900,000 euros.

The clean-up effort is a scientific project with several strands. A geologist, for instance, is analyzing the dust inside the building to figure out where it comes from. Some of it comes from coal dust. Back in the early 1990s, Trinity librarians say the room was often filled with a haze of smoke. Although use of coal is being faded out in the country, the dust is still there. Carbon can get ingrained in paper and dissolve it.

The dust also comes from decaying leather book covers, floating paper fibers, the building itself, and clothing worn by visitors. Some comes in from outside through the decaying window frames.

Spring cleaning for revolutionary posters. Trinity College

Bioletti is additionally trying to get funding for more environmental sensors and for a doctoral student to study air flow and air quality. Currently, Trinity has only four sensors in place. Data from the sensors will be inserted into computer simulations to plan any remodeling. And simulations to determine the effect of different types of windows will be examined.

One group is working on ways to control the environmental damage created by visitors. When visitors come into the room, particularly in large numbers, the levels of moisture, dust, and heat can rise. Some of the ideas include an air wash that would eliminate many fibers or a cooling chamber, which would slightly lower the temperature of visitors. (Cooling visitors, however, would probably be most effective in contained rooms, such as the one housing the Book of Kells.)

Scientists from the University of Cardiff in Wales, meanwhile, are examining the top corners of the pages of the books to determine the damage caused only by dust.

By contrast, the actual business of repairing and restoring the individual volumes is somewhat low tech. Graduate students largely use glue, adhesive strips, and brushes to get rid of the dust and keep the pages together. One book in the restoration lab is being held together with an ordinary Ace bandage. An Italian company makes a machine that can automatically clean books, but it can't be used on older volumes.

So far, academics have catalogued the repairs and cleaning needed for about two-thirds of the books, said Bioletti.

"Some of the work has been necessarily slow," she said. Nonetheless, "my biggest problem is crunching data."

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