How a ‘tiny car wash’ helps the Boston Public Library clear dust from its millions of books

depulvera machine
One of the Boston Public Library's dust-busting Depulvera machines. –Boston Public Library

With millions of books picking up dust in the stacks or gathering grit in patrons’ backpacks, librarians at the Boston Public Library trying to keep the tomes clean have their work cut out for them.

Luckily, they get some help from dust-busting machines designed specifically for cleaning books. The library has two Italian-made Depulvera machines, which use a conveyor belt and brushes to sweep away layers of dirt that can accumulate on a book.

“We love it,” Nancy Browne, the library’s chief of cataloging and processing, told Boston.com, describing the machine as “a little, tiny car wash for books.”

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As a conveyor belt carries the book through the machine, brushes sweep the edges of the book left and right, before it gets turned the other way and brushed top to bottom. The Depulvera also has an electronic eye that adjusts the brushes to the size of each book traveling through for a cleaning.

Really dusty items can get run through the device more than once, Browne said.

The Boston institution gave a behind-the-scenes look at the Depulvera in action when it posted a video on Twitter, which quickly went viral.

According to Browne, the existence of the cleaning tool were discovered at a conference by her predecessor, Catherine Willis, in 2011. Browne said Willis got to test out the machine with a few of the library’s dirtiest books and was “astounded” by the results.

“When it came out on the other side, she could actually see stuff that was embossed into the spine of the book that she didn’t even know was there before,” Browne said.

The public library eventually acquired two of the machines, which can clean 12 books per minute, in 2014. 

Browne said the Depulvera isn’t the only book-cleaning machine available to libraries, but she prefers Italian machines, which are enclosed by a lid.

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“That means that my workers, or me, if I’m doing it, don’t have to breathe in the dust,” she said. “It’s covered and there’s a hose that goes out to a vacuum cleaner kind of attachment that has filters in it.”

The machine has a vacuum attachment that helps protect librarians from the dust. —Boston Public Library

Browne estimated the machines are in weekly, and sometimes daily, use.  Librarians put books through for a good cleaning when they are added to the library’s archival center, when an older item is requested for immediate use from the stacks, or when a volume is going to be digitized.

“You’re making it easier for someone to either digitize or read without breathing in dangerous dust,” she said.

The machine is not used to clean items from the library’s rare books collections.  

Before they acquired the dusting machines, Browne said there wasn’t a good method for cleaning books off when they were retrieved from the stacks. Librarians just did their best cleaning books by hand with soft cotton cloths.

“It’s really good to have one of these,” Browne said. “I’d like to have one at home.”

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