Dusting, by the book: George Peabody Library's centuries-old volumes get annual cleaning

Video: Len Turner and David Schmelick

The George Peabody Library got a much-needed sprucing up Friday during the annual cleaning of the "Cathedral of Books."

The thorough cleaning brought together librarians, preservation specialists, and volunteers to dust the shelves, windows, floors, and the books themselves—carefully.

Many of the George Peabody Library's 300,000 volumes date back to the 19th century when the library opened, but some pieces date as far back as the Renaissance. These books represent the "Industrial Revolution of book-making," says Mark Pollei, senior book conservator for Johns Hopkins University's Sheridan Libraries.

"These books are from the era that began transitioning from handmade books to machine-made books," he said. "The papers, adhesives, and boards were the best that bookmakers could find, but the materials had to be economical and weren't vetted for longevity."

Preserving these centuries-old books requires much more than an occasional dusting—care considerations are built into the facility. Because a stable environment is a key factor in slowing the degradation of paper, modern HVAC systems are in place to control the humidity and heat in the building. Ornamental lamps have been retrofitted with LED lighting to cut down on environmental heat, and all of the windows (including the skylights in the ceiling) have extra storm layers for protection from the elements.

The yearly cleaning, too, is crucial to protecting the collection, which is non-circulating but open to the public for viewing. The library incorporates an array of architectural styles, including Neo-Greco columns and rosettes; Italian ornamented recesses; French gothic finials and pendants; and five tiers of ornate scrollwork and cast-iron balconies. In other words, thousands of nooks and crannies for the dust to settle. Even the floors of the stacks, original to the design, feature a textured harlequin pattern that is impossible to sweep. "Vacuuming is essential," says Pollei.

To remove the accumulated dust, conservators use specially designed HEPA vacuums with highly sensitive low-suction settings. They also use microfiber cloths, dusters, and soft-bristle brushes to sweep dust from the book's spine to its fore edge. They plan to complete an exhaustive, methodical cleaning of one level each year.

"We aspire to be good stewards of the collection and to protect the books for future generations," Pollei says.