Monday, December 21, 2009

Conserve This???

I am a book conservator, with some experience in works of art on paper, and photographs. My first volunteer position, many years ago, was in the costume conservation lab at the National Museum of American History helping re-house clothing that had been recently acquired by the museum, or had just come off of exhibit.

Conservation has many areas of specialty- books, paper, photographs and costumes, as I mentioned, and also modern art, which can have all sorts of challenges because of modern art materials (e.g. acrylic paints) or common materials that are used in a new way thanks to the inspiration of an artist.

As I walk through an exhibit I often wonder how the conservator at that particular museum will approach the challenges presented by the artwork I am seeing. I recently saw the exhibit "Staged Stories: Renwick Craft Invitational 2009" at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, and I was delighted by the work of Mark Newport a fiber artist who knits life, or larger-than-life sized super hero costumes out of acrylic yarn.
As a knitter I was amazed by all the details of his work, noting his choices in how he did his armhole decreases or shaping to make a waist or legs for the cosutme. As a conservator, I wondered how my counterpart at the museum would face the choices regarding conservation of such a piece. For example, when housing a costume for storage, you want to fill the sleeves or torso or legs just enough to support the article of clothing in a shape similar to how it would be worn, but in the case of these superhero costumes, part of the artist's concept is that they are empty and hanging on the hanger, which would indicate a different approach, perhaps. And then how will this particular acrylic yarn do over time? What will be the approach for treatment of a tear in the fabric? At least with acrylic yarn there is little to fear from moths!

And while this may sound like a horrible inability to leave my work in the lab, it does offer me another level of wonder when I see an exhibit.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Moldy books! Yikes!
Storing books in a cool, dry, place is really important.
Most of the time the worst that will happen is that the books
will get a little musty, develop that "old book smell".
But there is also the chance that a book could grow mold.

This book was a victim of improper storage, but given that it was published in 1705, it is not surprising that it had a few years living in Virginia without the benefit of air-conditioning.

Old leather-bound can be particularly susceptible to mold growth, and while it is possible to clean them, it is delicate work. Leather can get very friable as it ages, drying out
and becoming powdery, and mold will just make it worse.
Mold digests the material that it is sitting on, "growing" into the substrate just as much as it spreads out as colorful fuzz on a book cover.

And since mold can be an allergen whether live or dead, it is always important to have respiratory protection when working on moldy items. In the lab I have a fume trunk that I can pose right over my work area, the exhaust fan draws all the air and mold away from the book as I work. It even has a light to help me see what I am doing!

The dry cleaning sponge lifts up the dirt and mold from
the surface of the book, and as the sponge gets dirty, I cut
those bits off so I am always working with a clean surface. Over the cover, and then through the text one page at a time, very, very, carefully. And when I am done, there is a clean, use-able book, ready for the reading room!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Field Trip- Remote Storage

Just about every library has more books than it can store in it's main building. Research libraries often retain their lower use collections in high-density storage buildings where tens of thousands of books can be stored in boxes and retrieved upon request.

Here at UVA, we have Ivy Stacks, a big warehouse off grounds that was built a few years back to house the lower use collections. Each box in this picture is one cubic foot filled with books and each shelf is two boxes deep. The shelves go waaaay up and run the length of the building. You can see L-- walking down the row to get a sense of the scale of this place.

And even though we call these books "low use", there are library staff who work out there full time, retrieving books for return to the main library or scanning articles for digital delivery.

Retrieval is accomplished with a customized lift that has a shelving attachment. The driver can go anywhere along the stacks, find the box they're looking for, retrieve the particular book, and then go on to find the next requested item. It seems a little like finding a needle in a haystack when you first look at the scale of the building, but everything is catalogged, labeled, and organized and findable!

Monday, November 16, 2009

AV field trip

Originally uploaded by dingbatdc
As our lab is in progress, we've been making visits to other conservation facilities. The Library of Congress has a new building just up the road in Culpepper where they catalog, house and conserve all kinds of audio visual materials. It is an amazing facility for all kinds of reasons.

AV materials are not my area of specialty, but I have enough experience from my previous jobs to appreciate the work they do at Culpepper and to be impressed with the layout of the workflows. It is also neat to see equipment I have, used in a different way. This is a fume trunk in their record album (remember those??) cleaning area.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

neato keen!

Acquiring new collections can be so exciting. It is an opportunity to discover new documents or information hidden in a bundle of letters. People often gather around to find out what is coming through the door and admire the penmanship of days gone by. Librarians and archivists get very excited by the potential in each new collection.

But if you're a preservation librarian, or a conservator, you get very excited by signs of bug damage. Certainly, if it looks like an active infestation, the collections will be frozen (a standard Integrated Pest Management [IPM] technique) and then cleaned.

But oftentimes the bugs are long gone. They do leave tracks, however, not footprints but rather "chew-prints". When I saw this bundle of papers I said "nice silverfish damage!" And I meant it.

Silverfish are a common pest and do have a tendency to show up in basements or dark, damp corners where people sometimes store their books and papers. Silverfish are a rather primitive insect, with their mouth on the underside of their body. So if you see signs of something scraping away at the surface in little round areas, it is very likely that a silverfish was nibbling at the paper in search of starch.

In this picture, you can see where the silverfish ate away the stamp to get to the dried out glue between the stamp and the postcard. Once they got to the postcard, they lost interest since they don't eat cellulose.

So I always carry my camera with me, in case I see a truly remarkable book or a truly remarkable example of "previous use"!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

getting closer

We needed some photos for the annual report,
so we had to stage them since the lab isn't quite finished.

I put some beakers in the cupboards
to make the place look a little more lived-in,
does it work? Maybe it you squint just a little?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Field Trip

We went on a field trip yesterday. My chain of command very graciously gave up a whole day to have me run them around DC, looking at conservation labs.

We visited three, one in a library, two in museums, two of the labs were recent construction, one had been in the same location since the 1930's. Only one of the labs was specifically a book conservation lab, but seeing the different labs and hearing the differing stories of their construction process was tremendously helpful.

As I reviewed the day in my mind, and thought about what worked and didn't work in each setting, I could decide what might apply to my current lab project and save other ideas for our "future lab". And while our book lab will most likely never have an x-ray room, it was still helpful to hear the conservator at the facility we were visiting talk about the functionality of their x-ray room. The success of a lab of any type is reflected in its ability to accommodate the collections it needs to treat. It doesn't matter how spiffy the x-ray equipment might be if the hallway and doors to the room are too narrow to accommodate the majority of the materials in your collection. If your collection has a significant amount of maps, architectural drawings or over sized prints then you will absolutely need a large sink for washing and large tables for flattening and drying. In a way I am glad to have this "starter lab" first, to try out a few ideas and new pieces of equipment as I get to know the scope of the collections and figure out the size and volume of items I'll be treating. The better you know your collections the better you'll be able to plan the workflow and the lab.

One of the take away messages from yesterday was "no detail is to small to think about". I will definitely keep this in mind!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


It is so exciting to see the lab start to come together. I arrived mid-renovation and jumped right into laying out the casework, sinks, benches, etc. There were drawings from the previous department head, but things had changed since her departure.

I had been in my previous lab for a number of years before the opportunity to change anything came along, which meant that my co-workers and I had plenty of time to decide what would suit our needs. Here, its a little different, everything is new and everything will hopefully move one day to the larger, collaborative conservation facility that the university is hoping to build.

The good news is that everything, including cabinets and sinks can be moved to the new facility, whenever and wherever it happens. So best effort, and keep going!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Book Repair

I've been working in the book repair unit while the lab is under construction. It is a great way to get to know a library collection- you get a sense of which parts of the collection are most heavily consulted by users, the age and scope of the collection, and how the books have been cared for over the years.

So far, the majority of the books have been from the main library which is mostly a humanities collection. There's a lot of wear and tear on the books, which tells me they've been used, which is a good sign in a circulating collection.

The work I'm doing in book repair also helps me decide which types of repair will be most useful to the library and which types of tools and paper and book cloth will fit the need. The library had a small operation before I got here, but now we can grow and create a workflow that truly complements the work of the conservation lab.

And besides, it's fun!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Starting a conservation lab from scratch has many challenges, from figuring out cabinets, sourcing equipment, to determining security protocols. One of the on-going "mini" challenges has been the shopping. The other labs I have worked in were working labs when I got there, a couple of them had been in operation for nearly 30 years. There were drawers full of paper, brushes, tools, leather hides, and rolls and rolls of book cloth. Digging into all the supplies could be a lot of fun, and had its mysterious/archeological aspect (what were they going to do with all this silicone release paper??? were gusseted endsheets going to save the world??). But my new lab is so new that there are no supplies. Our book repair unit has some things, but a lot of it will stay where it is.

So, starting from scratch means having to think of everything that has ever been useful, trying to remember what it's called, who might sell it and figuring out how much I need. Everyone is probably used to doing this to some degree for their daily life, but it is just a little different in a conservation lab. Some things are obvious, such as a board shear or book press, and even though they are scarce and specialized pieces of equipment, there is a guy who specializes in maintenance and sales. Then there are the less obvious things like the rubber mesh that is really nifty to layer onto a drying rack shelf so that the paper you are drying has more even support than the plain shelf grid- I remember that it is green mesh, probably rubber, but there was already a roll of it at my previous lab, so I am not exactly sure what the product is called or where it was ordered from- fortunately I'm pretty good at figuring these things out, and working in book repair while I wait for the lab helps to jog my memory.

But still, I have a lot of lists and leads to work through!