Dusty and Dirty Books

As soon as you walk into an archive store, you can smell the dust. 100,000s of books and documents dating back hundreds of years, all carry dust and dirt they picked up along the way. They are encrusted with it. As you open a book or the lid of an archive box, it hits you with intensity. It feels as if by taking the lid off an archive box, the seal of a vacuum has been broken, with fresh air being sucked into the box and the ancient air and dust being chucked out. The documents take their first asthmatic breath after decades of solitary confinement.

Whenever I’ve been working with documents, I get covered in this black filthy stuff. Over the years, working with archive documents and very old books, something has crossed my mind time and again. What is this dirt?



Before the book has been put into an archive collection and the sterile environment of the archive store, it would have spent a lifetime on a shelf, in a room, where people lived and worked. Over the years, they picked up the dust of the room, particles from furnishings, animals, people, tobacco smoke and open fires. All this leaves deposits on the paper. They get dirty in a very similar way to how paintings become dirty.

Look at the edges of your oldest books. There may well be an area of grey grime. When the book is closed this is quite apparent. When looking at a page though, it is only around the edge where the grime appears. Often books have been left closed on the shelf, looked at infrequently and may have gone years without being opened. It is the edges where the dust collects.

Every place, building, room is different and its dust reflects this. An analysis of dust in St Paul’s Cathedral showed that at least half the material was human detritus. A by-product of the millions of tourists who visit there each year. At Hampton Court Palace, the “dust” reflects the time of year and whether the visitors have gone into the gardens before the palace itself, bringing with them the fine sand particles from the gravel used to surface the wide garden footpaths.

If you look at the dust on books and manuscripts, it will tell you a story of where they have been.



On top of this dust from where a book is stored, it also suffers from the interaction with us humans. We always leave a bit of ourselves on the pages. We read them, write on them, scrawl on them, annotate them. In the course of a day, our hands and fingers pick up and re-deposit particles from everything we touch, food, coffee, tea, beer, as well as contact with other people and animals.

We shed our skin and hair. We sneeze, salivate and breath out moisture containing molecules from our lungs and mouth. That includes molecules of what we have eaten. When our breath smells of garlic, that smell comes from the very molecules of the garlic we ate.

We read a book, turn the pages and leave oils from the skin on our fingers. We may even lick our fingers to turn a page, as Venantius of Salvamec did when turning the poisoned corners of the pages from Aristotle’s Second Poetics in the Name of the Rose. He died of course. Everywhere we go, everything we touch, we leave ourselves there. Not just the oils, skin and so on, but also our very DNA. We can carry other people’s DNA too, simply by shaking hands with someone, and then going on to deposit it somewhere else. More stuff for the book to carry.

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This pamphlet from 1714 is pretty clean, but look tothe top corners where the frontispiece is dirty. This could typically be from where people have held and turned the pages.


Dirty work

Archives is dirty work. When I was an archaeologist, I enjoyed the attention I received when covered in mud. That was an obvious part of the job, as you dig around in mud, clays and sometimes, quite crazy deposits. Archivists are no different. An archivist will spend a day immersed in collections that are covered in grime, in the same way as an archaeologist does. Many archivists wear protective clothing. The hardcore archivists talk of being caked in dirt from head to toe, having spent the day working through boxes of documents.

There is a line of thought that when dealing very old books and manuscripts, the reader and archivist wears gloves to protect the material from our ever-dirty hands. This isn’t so. More damage could be made when wearing gloves, as you lose a sense of touch and more likely to rip the page. So, no gloves are worn.

When you call an item up from an archive, you cannot rely on collections being clean. Generally speaking, conservation and cleaning will only take place when a book or document is to be put on display, digitised, or is a popular item. Sometimes items may not have been looked at for decades. They have been out of site for a long time and there is no justification to clean them. Nor is it practical as cleaning is a time-consuming job.


Archive-archaeology – behaviour

There have been studies into these depositions on books and manuscripts, and the outcomes have been intriguing. Dr Kathryn Rudy studied the deposits left on certain medieval manuscripts and books. She found patterns in the deposits that matched up to people’s behaviour and beliefs. I find her work fascinating, being able to reveal what was going on inside the medieval minds.

This is an archaeology on a microscopic scale. Looking at the deposits, the pattern of them and coming to conclusions about the human behaviour behind it all. The dirt also reflects the environment a book was kept in and how it was treated. In my personal collection, I have a cook book by Marguerite Patten from the 1950s, which on the inside is very clean, but the cover is covered in stuff. Do I see the raw ingredients on the page, where my mother made these exotic dishes? The book has been used in the kitchen, but the inside pages are pristine. What behaviour does that explain? I would say my mother used the book in the kitchen when cooking, but also cherished it, keeping the book closed when doing the actual preparation and cooking.


Archive-archaeology – Reconstruction

Whenever I am facing a manuscript, my mind goes to the minutiae attached to the surface of the paper. The dirt in the corners, the splashes of ink on a page. One of my heroes of history is Robert Hooke and I once had the pleasure of seeing his handwritten diary close-up. This is an iconic document that shows many aspects of his life and about him as man. I know that over the years, the pages of the diary would have been looked after by conservators, repaired and cleaned. The patina it had built up form it’s early years of being handled by Hooke, being in his rooms, collecting deposits of the coffee Hooke drank, the various “medicines” he took, and possibly, his very own DNA, will not be there on the surface of the pages. But getting close to it, I was still taken to his rooms and personal life from over 300 years ago.

A similar thought struck me when I looked at documents with Nicolaus Hawksmoor’s signature on. I was thinking about his Whitehall Office of his Majesties Works where he signed it, the other people present, the stationary cupboard in the office, the stationer who supplied the paper, the place where it was made. See Hawksmoor.

If all those sediments were still there, then in theory it is possible to analyse and discover Hooke’s behaviour or the office of Hawksmoor. In very much the same way an archaeologist would in analyse deposits found in the base of a pottery vessel to interpret what food people stored processed and ate 2000 years ago.


Archive-archaeology – DNA

Could it be possible to extract DNA from the surface of a manuscript? What would the possibility be of getting hold of a person’s DNA from 300 years ago? If a person has handled a manuscript, then surely it will be present on the surface. There may be cross contamination from years of use. When the police open a cold case from say, 40 years ago, care is taken not to contaminate the file. They may need to take samples from the surface of evidence, hairs, skin may still be present. The officers looking at the case wear protective clothing to protect the document from themselves.

The potential is there, to extract the DNA of a historic person and discover very intimate biological information about them? We could take a look at Hooke’s DNA and understand his illnesses better, although many were self-inflicted. Would we want to? How much of history do we want to know? How close do we want to get?


Breathing history

In a similar way that we leave ourselves on documents, they could become part of us. When faced with these uncleaned papers and books, the grime transfers onto our fingers. We disturb them and the dust from the pages will floats into the air. That is what I was smelling and inhaling when opening that archive box. As we breath it in and we lick our fingers, touch our faces, these deposits become part of us. In a recent article in The Atlantic, a deposit of Lapis Lazuli was found embedded in the inside front tooth of an early medieval scribe. Maybe this is from a lifetime of putting a paintbrush in her mouth as she worked. Beware though, save a thought for poor Venantius of Salvamec, and don’t lick your fingers.


References and sources

Dr Kathryn Rudy and dirty manuscripts


A BBC article on her findings is found here.


Her article on Dirty Books can be read here:



St Paul’s Catherdral

Bernard Feilden, Conservation of Historic Buldings, 2007, Architectural Press, London.



Food, manuscripts and dirt

This is a good article form the Recipes Project. It looks at the relationships between food and manuscripts.



Lapis Lazuli in teeth

Why a Medieval Woman Had Lapis Lazuli Hidden in Her Teeth, Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic.



Not this kind of dirty document.


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