Volunteering at the Portico – Part 4: Conservation cleaning

For the second day of collections care or conservation cleaning with Jim, myself and another volunteer cleaned 2 shelves of oversized books including the shelf itself (shown in the photograph at the beginning of this post). Very simply we were instructed to do the following:

  • Remove the books from the shelf and carefully carry them to the workstation ensuring that they stayed in the order we found them in. We were short on space but stacked them along a bare bit of shelf nearby.
  • We each adopted a different role and started a kind of production line of book cleaning. I started by removing the old cotton tying tape, and then used the museum vac to gently clean the front and back covers, the spine, the end sheets (on the inside) and the top edge or head. The latter was arguably the most important as this is where most of the dust and dirt had collected.
Image source: I Book Binding
  • The museum vac can be purchased from the website I mentioned in a previous blog post, PEL preservation equipment ltd, the website states the following about the vacuum:

Compact and light weight, specially developed to conservation standards with unique PEL features such as adjustable suction level, allowing the lowest vacuum on delicate fragile items, to full power for tougher cleaning jobs.


‘Mildew spores are locked in a disposable HEPA (Grade E10-E11) filter bag by patented valve preventing further contamination. A range of accessories are available for the museum vacuum. Shoulder strap (adjustable up to 140cm) for hands free operation is available for this model, as is a nylon carry bag for the vacuum and all the accessories. Stretch hose without coil back pressure & soft rubber tools prevent chipping and scratching works of art.’

  • I then very carefully passed the book to the other volunteer so she could apply clean cotton tape to bind the fragile books together. I emphasise ‘carefully’ because some of the books are incredibly fragile, with covers falling off in some cases, the spine crumbling away in others (see photo below) and they were large and not easy to handle. In some of the books I found a fragment of the original spine on the inside of the book. This ‘unbleached cotton tying tape’ can also be found on the PEL website, its uses vary from tying up bundles of documents and folders to bookbinding, or for tying together damaged books while they await repair. It’s non abrasive, with no dye to bleed. Jim explained that this tape is more of a temporary fix.
Showing the spine falling away and loose covers. Also where the dirt has collected on the spine where it has been exposed.
2 strategically placed and freshly applied cotton ties.
  • Whilst the shelf was empty we also cleaned them using a slightly dampened piece of blue roll which brought up a surprising amount of dirt.
  • Finally we placed the books back in order. We needed to work quickly during this process, which was a challenge when handling such fragile books, but as we were both confident of the process it went smoothly.

After the cleaning we were discussing book binding – including when to re-bind a book. This discussion was similar to what I wrote in a previous blog post about the decision to conserve something or not. A book may be re-bound if it’s used a lot, for monetary reasons or research for example, but the decision should also be made collaboratively. Also – if a book is re-bound it can’t be considered as conservation work or even restoration, simply because during the re-binding process new material is added. Conservation is preserving what you have or replacing it like-for-like.

We also had a really interesting conversation where Jim showed us how you can tell if a book has been re-bound. On the inside cover or pastedown of a particular book we could see 2 sets of ‘tape’ showing evidence of rebinding. Having 2 sets is not ordinary and the reason for it isn’t clear. On some books you can also see were they’ve attached the old cover and spine to new book cloth, such as in the image below. I need to research book cloth and familiarise myself better with the book binding process so I can better spot if a book has been re-bound or not.

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