The impact of dust on our collections

Dust can speed up the chemical processes that lead to chemical deterioration of heritage collections, and makes them dirty so protecting collections from dust is an important first step in slowing deterioration.

Figure 1 UV-fluorescent powder is used here to illustrate how dust is transferred into boxes.  The powder is clearly visible under UV light (A) and mostly invisible under natural light (B).

We have studied the nature of dust and how it accumulates in our collections so we can improve the effectiveness of our cleaning and boxing programmes. Our studies found:

  • Dust in the repositories is generated mostly from building materials and people
  • Accumulation varies and is affected by air flow and activities, with most found in the busiest areas or near the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning vents
  • Once ingrained in the surface of paper, it cannot be completely removed using conservation techniques, so prevention is better than cure.
  • Boxes and folders, are highly effective at preventing dust reaching collection material
  • Vacuum cleaners fitted with a HEPA-filter (a high-efficiency particulate air filter that can remove very fine particles from the air) is the most effective method of removing dust
  • If vacuuming is not possible, dry micro-fibre clothes effectively clean boxes and a very damp micro-fibre cloth for shelving is also effective
  •  Lambs’ wool dusters are ineffective as they scatter dust more than they remove it

The results of this study have improved our understanding of the risk that dust poses to our collection and, importantly, has influenced decisions and policy regarding the cleaning of the storage areas at Kew.

For more information on this project please read our blog posts.

Work on the PAS enabled The National Archives, in collaboration with other interested bodies, to identify knowledge gaps with the aim of driving forward a research agenda that will lead to improved standards to protect cultural heritage.

PAS 198 is available from the BSI website (cost £60).