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Session 3: Caring for Collections


collection maintenance

1 Housekeeping | 2 Cleaning Collections | 3 Stack Maintenance

Collection maintenance refers to the daily care of collections: keeping the stacks/storage area neat and clean, performing general housekeeping tasks in the building, and periodically cleaning the collections themselves.

These activities may differ somewhat from institution to institution. The staff of a public or academic library may need to straighten its shelves daily, while in an archive, staff must ensure that collections are in the right order and returned to the proper storage area. A library with general collections may undertake a cleaning project using student assistants, while a special collections department may contract with a conservator to clean certain materials. The common element in all these activities, however, is the need to continually observe the condition of collections and ensure that they are properly cared for.

1 Housekeeping

The practice of good housekeeping is probably the simplest and least expensive method of preventive conservation for any type of collection. Housekeeping will keep particulates such as dust, dirt, smoke, ash, and mold spores from gathering on or around objects in your collection. These particulates can cause abrasion of delicate objects such as photographs and will attract moisture from humid environments to form acids that cause chemical deterioration. Dust and dirt contain organic materials that serve as food for insects and mold, and therefore provide an environment in which they can live and flourish.

By keeping collections clean, you reduce the risk of these types of damage. Moreover, a building that is clean and neat engenders respect for the collections within it and makes for a healthier, more pleasant environment for staff and patrons.

A Housekeeping Plan

Housekeeping for the building and for collections in storage or on exhibit should be discussed and defined in a written housekeeping plan. This plan should be part of a larger building maintenance plan that includes routine inspections and maintenance of key building elements and systems (e.g., roof, drainage systems, pipes and plumbing, fire protection equipment, and HVAC equipment).

See Session 2: The Building and Environment to review information on building maintenance.

The housekeeping plan should carefully delineate who will do the work, how often the work will be done, and with what tools and methods it will be completed. The plan should detail weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly tasks, as well as special instructions for specific materials. Keep in mind that several different people will likely be performing the different housekeeping tasks (e.g., custodians, paraprofessionals, students, librarians, collections curators), and written schedules for each person and/or task may be needed.

How Often Should You Clean?

Housekeeping work should be performed on a regular schedule based on need and circumstance. For example, spaces are usually very dusty in the fall, during the first few weeks after the heating system has been turned on. Dust in the ductwork is dried out by the heated air, becomes airborne, and is then circulated throughout the building. Therefore, dusting and vacuuming may be required more frequently in the early fall than in other seasons.

2 Cleaning Collections

The cleaning of general book collections is typically recommended once a year. Special collections materials may require specialized cleaning procedures because of potential damage that may occur during cleaning. In some cases they will need to be cleaned by a conservator.

Cleaning General Book Collections

It is usually not practical to clean all collections at once in a large library unless an outside cleaning service is brought in. When cleaning is done in-house, the job is often divided into specific projects, where one section of the larger collection is cleaned at a time. This prevents book cleaning from turning into a never-ending (and discouraging!) project.

In most libraries, time and staffing limitations mean that collections are cleaned too infrequently rather than too often. But remember that overdusting and overcleaning of collections increases wear and the risk for damage from handling. Active cleaning of individual special collections items should be performed only when necessary. Storing collections inside boxes or furniture or under muslin dustcovers will reduce the amount of dirt and debris that settles on the collection itself, thereby lessening the need to clean.

Refer to the NEDCC Preservation Leaflet Cleaning Books and Shelves for a description of the procedures for cleaning general book collections.

Cleaning Individual Paper-based Objects in Storage or on Display

In general, cleaning of individual paper objects should not be a high priority for cultural institutions just beginning a preservation program. Because of the potential for damage that may occur during cleaning, the cleaning of paper objects of any kind in a collection should not be undertaken lightly. A conservator should be consulted to assess all the issues relating to the care of the object(s) in question. Objects with the following characteristics should be cleaned only by a conservator:

  • pastel or charcoal media;
  • loose or friable materials of any kind;
  • loose or flaking gelatin or baryta layers;
  • active or wet mold;
  • extensive repairs; and/or
  • objects that have been rolled and will not stay flat without assistance.

If you are unable to positively identify the process by which a photographic object was made, do not attempt to clean it. Even light surface brushing can remove silver image particles from a degraded salted paper print.

3 Stack Maintenance

The most basic function of stack maintenance in a public or academic library is to reshelve materials. The people doing this are often paraprofessionals, student workers, or volunteers, and they should be carefully trained to understand the importance of their job. Library collections that are treated with care and shelves that are kept orderly, convey a sense of the library's commitment to the well-being of its collections.

Preservation Concerns in Stack Maintenance

When transporting collections, use a sturdy and easily maneuverable book truck. Materials must be packed on the book truck in such a way that they cannot easily fall off. There should be step stools and open shelves provided in the stacks so that patrons can safely access books and materials without damaging them.

Shelvers should:

  • Make sure books do not extend beyond the edge of the shelf.
  • Shelve oversize books properly, usually flat in stacks of three or less.
  • Straighten books that are leaning.
  • If necessary, shelve books spine down; shelving spine up causes the text block to come loose from the covers.
  • Use book supports (bookends) where needed.
  • Not pack books so tightly that removing them becomes difficult.
  • Report overcrowded stack areas, and shift materials within the stacks when necessary to remedy this problem.


On the left, the crowded shelves show books leaning against each
other, with some shelved spine up; this will cause distortion. On the
right, these books are shelved upright and well-supported by bookends. Space is left on the shelves to allow for easy shelving and removal.

Staff members who are reshelving books should also keep an eye out for damaged volumes that might need repair or cleaning, and report any storage areas that are particularly dirty and need to be cleaned by the custodial crew.