Exhibiting and Preserving Historic Artifacts at TSLAC

TSLAC opened its new exhibit, A Home for Texas History, on February 22, 2022. When cultural institutions display their collections, it’s important to follow exhibition best practices. These guidelines help preserve historic collections by limiting the risks and aging affects inherent to exhibiting artifacts. By following exhibition best practices, TSLAC is able to make collections accessible to the public, while also ensuring that iconic artifacts will still be available, and legible, to future generations.

The “Travis Letter” displayed in low light and its explanatory panel.

Why are the light levels low in the display cases?  Light causes inks and pigments to fade over a relatively short time. It speeds up the aging process of fragile materials such as brittle papers, photographs, and textiles. We keep the lights low in exhibit cases where our most vulnerable materials are displayed. In the current exhibit, this applies most of all to documents written with iron gall ink, the common ink in use during the 19th century.

Why is the exhibition period limited? Exhibition standards limit the number of hours fragile items can be on display during any five-year period. At TSLAC, we track the amount of time that items are exhibited and this information becomes a part of each object’s preservation history. The more fragile documents in A Home for Texas History will be removed from the exhibit cases and replaced with other collection items before the end of the six-month exhibit. Keeping display periods within established guidelines is another way we safeguard treasured historic collections.

What other measures are being taken to preserve the materials during the exhibit? TSLAC staff check the exhibit cases every day to make sure the artifacts remain in good condition. The cases with items that are most prone to fading and aging from light exposure are being draped when the building is closed. This way, we can limit light exposure to only the hours that visitors will be viewing the documents and artifacts.

Handling Guidelines for Fragile Books

by Heather Hamilton, Conservator for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission

TSLAC is home to many historic leather bindings. Modern books are not often manufactured at the large sizes that were used in the past. Ledgers, for example, were once ubiquitous for record keeping, and the TSLAC collections contain many of these, often very large, record-keeping books. TSLAC staff provides access to the volumes every day, either in our reading rooms, through reproduction services, or online, through the Texas Digital Archive. Most of our 19th century books have their original leather bindings, and book leather is not a stable material over the long-term. It degrades with age and breaks down into the powdery “red rot” you have seen on old leather bindings. Old books can have a number of other condition problems as well, like detached covers, broken sewing, and torn and loose pages.

TSLAC staff are trained in handling fragile books. Below is the advice I share with staff members to help them handle historic books safely.

_________________________________________________________________

Pulling fragile leather bindings from the stacks can be a bit scary. The books may have leather fragments flaking from the spine and the leather might look powdery and deteriorated. With some care, you can still pull these items safely for use by staff and patrons.

Grasping a book on the shelf

In order to get a secure hold on a book, you need to make space on either side of it. This video demonstrates how you can remove a sturdy, nearby book, making room to grasp your fragile item.

Leather spines with weak endcaps

Do not try to pull the book from the top of its spine. That area, called the headcap, will most likely be weak and can break off. Better to wrap your hand around the middle of the spine, so that you are holding the spine as well as the front and back covers. Once you have pulled a book from the shelf, the volumes nearby will lean into the gap you have created. Try to guide them gently into the space, so they don’t fall awkwardly.

Alternatively, if the books are not tight on the shelf, you can push the items to the left and right of your book backward slightly to make room to grasp your book. Here’s a demonstration.

Turning the pages of fragile books

When a book is brittle, turning pages is difficult. The way we turn brittle pages is different from leafing through a new book with strong paper. Work slowly. Look carefully at the edges of the pages you are turning. Avoid areas that are torn or dog-eared. Find a portion of the page that looks stable and lift it there. A micro-spatula is helpful for lifting brittle pages. If you don’t have this tool, a small slip of printer paper works as well.

Notice that, in the video, I also have a couple of wooden boards next to the book. These allow me to support the loose cover as I open it. We also have book cradles available in the reading rooms, and these work in a similar way. The spine and the covers all need to be supported in a natural position as we turn to different parts of a fragile book.

The structure of books

A book is more than stack of papers. It’s really a mechanical object with a number of components operating together. Folded sheets are sewn together to form a spine that hinges at every opening. This is the textblock. It is connected to the covers by cords, and the covers, too, hinge at the spine. The boards and spine are covered with leather, which lends further strength to the structure. At least…it provided strength when the leather was new. Opening the book and turning the pages relies on the sewing and the hinges being intact, or at a minimum, being strong enough to withstand these movements.

When we handle fragile leather bindings, we aren’t always sure of all the condition issues. Some problems may be obvious as soon as we locate the book on a shelf, but other issues and weaknesses are not clear until we have it in our hands and try to use it. Handling the book slowly and supporting it as we open the covers and turn the leaves are the best ways to limit further damage to a book that may be more fragile than we first knew.

Mold on Books and Paper

The snow storm in February 2021 caught central Texas by surprise and created a lot of hardship. Burst pipes were among the many challenges. I received a number of inquiries from people dealing with paper materials that got wet in their homes. I’d like to offer some basic information about what you can do with wet or moldy books and documents and when you should contact a professional to help.

Mold can grow on almost any material, but we will focus here on paper-based items: books, documents, and photographs. When paper materials become wet, from a weather-related incident or leaky pipes, mold growth begins fairly quickly, within 2 to 3 days. It’s important to address the wet items as soon as possible. Quick intervention to dry the materials will prevent serious damage. Note that mold growth is not limited to floods and leak events. Materials stored in even slightly damp environments, such as basements and garages, are in danger of mold growth. 

Handling paper materials after a flood or leak

If you find your papers damp or sitting in water, you first need to determine what kind of water it is. If it is “black water,” meaning toxic water, you should not handle the materials. A salvage professional should help with the cleanup, in this case. If you know the water to be safe and relatively clean, you can take the following steps to save your books and documents.

Sheets of wet paper spread out to dry. Photo by Sarah Norris

Sheets of wet paper spread out to dry. Photo by Sarah Norris.

Damp papers and photos: Gently separate stacked sheets while they are still wet, and lay them out to dry in a single layer. Remember that paper is easily torn when wet. Place them on butcher paper, towels, or paper towels. Exchange the towels frequently to aide in drying. Don’t lay towels on the image side of photographs, as it will likely stick. If the papers and photos do not separate from each other easily, don’t tug them apart, that will either tear the paper or damage the media. If the sheets are stuck together, take a deep breath, and let them dry. Once dry, they can likely be separated safely by a professional.

Photographs hung up to dry.

Another way to dry your photos is to hang them on a line with a wooden clothespin. Be sure the clothespin stays at the edge of the photo, not on the fragile image. Photo by Sarah Norris.

A book splayed open for drying, with paper towels inserted.

Damp books: For wet books, stand them up on their bottom edge, using supports if needed. Don’t use supports that will trap the water or prevent drying. Fan the pages open as best you can to allow the inside of the book to dry. Insert butcher paper or paper towels between numerous pages. Then change out the towels and shift the inserts to different openings as the book dries. Again, don’t tug apart stuck pages or they might tear.

Place a fan nearby your drying materials, but be careful that the fan isn’t tearing the papers or blowing them across the room.

If mold has already begun to grow, you will need the assistance of a paper conservator or mold remediation expert familiar with paper-based materials. Breathing mold can cause health problems, so do not handle moldy items or try to clean them without assistance. Do not use chemical agents to kill mold on paper. They are not designed for this use and the paper and media cannot tolerate them. A professional has methods for removing mold from paper without causing further damage and without breathing the mold.

Prevention!

Mold remediation can be difficult and time-consuming. Once paper has mold growth, it may never be entirely free of mold. Paper is a web of fibers, and mold grows both on the surface and into the fiber web. We can remove some of the mold, but tiny spores, trapped between fibers, may not be accessible. Paper-based materials that have been treated for mold should be stored in conditions where mold cannot grow. An item that had mold in the past should not be stored in potentially damp areas for any period of time, because the remaining spores can be quickly reactivated.

So, prevention is the priority when it comes to protecting books, documents, and photos from mold. In libraries and archives, we store collections according to strict standards: Temperatures are kept below 70 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity is kept at 55% +/- 5%. These conditions are ideal, but may not be realistic in a Texas home. I usually tell people that paper items are comfortable in the same conditions that make you comfortable inside your house or apartment. Keep your important items in the climatized parts of your home. Don’t store them in a garage, attic, or basement, not even temporarily. Storage boxes of papers should be raised off the floor. The most common mold damage I have seen is when papers were stored in a cardboard box, directly on a garage floor. Even a small amount of water can seep into the bottom of the box and dampen the items inside. A bedroom closet shelf works well for storage.

Be aware that perimeter walls in a home can be damp. Items stored next to a perimeter wall can be vulnerable. When I was in college, I lived in a finished basement apartment in Massachusetts. My books were on open-backed shelves along the wall. Many of the books grew mold on their fore-edge and I didn’t even know it. I occasionally get calls from people in Galveston and other high-humidity cities, reporting mold on the back of framed artworks that were hanging on a wall. Dampness is not always obvious.

Know your valuable items

You can make a list of the valuable paper-based materials you are storing in your home. Once a year, pull these items out of storage and check the condition. Are they clean and dry? Is the storage location still the best option for these papers?

If you need to speak with a conservator about storage options or other conservation needs, the American Institute for Conservation provides a search tool to locate conservators in your area. https://www.culturalheritage.org/

Preservation information provided by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission is intended only as a general guideline for collections care. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission is not responsible for any damage that might occur in the specific application of this information.

Preservation of the Battleship Texas Schematic Prints

by Heather Hamilton, Conservator for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission

The Battleship Texas (USS Texas BB35) was built in 1911 by Newport News Shipbuilding and commissioned in 1914. The battleship was active in both world wars, finishing her duties in 1945 with transport runs to Pearl Harbor, to return service members home. In 1948, she was brought to Texas and placed out of commission at San Jacinto Battleground. USS Texas is now a state historic site and is undergoing restoration.

TSLAC holds more than 3,000 schematic prints of the Battleship Texas and its mechanical systems. The prints have various creation dates, including 1911, 1914, 1927, and 1931, indicating the schematics were made for the original ship designs as well as for several modernizations the ship underwent.

The Battleship Texas print collection consists of a number of photoreproduction processes in use for schematics at the time the battleship was built and modernized, including blueprints, diazo prints, and VanDyke prints. VanDykes are similar to blueprints, but the process creates a brown, rather than blue, image. VanDykes were most often produced as an interim printing step, allowing a negative image to be reversed to a positive, and they were often disposed of after the positive was created. However, TSLAC archivists have not found evidence of positives made from the Battleship Texas VanDyke negative prints.

Within the collection are 20 oversized prints. Each is around 2 ½ x 6 feet, but the largest is 10 feet long. Most of these large prints are VanDykes, though a few are blueprints. The chemistry used in the printing process leaves VanDykes vulnerable to deterioration and damage. The paper and fabric supports become brittle and they tear and crack easily. Contact with other schematics produced through different chemical processes, or contact with some housing materials, can discolor the brown prints. The very large size of these items exacerbates the challenges, so that it is extremely difficult to handle the prints safely.

The 20 large battleship prints were brought to the Summerlee Conservation Lab with extensive damages. They had been stored folded into boxes and were brittle and torn with many losses. Tears in the prints were repaired in the past with a commercially available pressure-sensitive tape (peel-and-stick tape). This is not the familiar “Scotch” tape, but an archival paper tape, which is more stable than Scotch tape, since it does not discolor or desiccate as Scotch tapes can.

Past mends made with mending tapes

Still, pressure-sesitive tapes are not preferred for the conservation of historic documents. They are too strong for brittle papers, which are prone to breaking along the edge of heavy mends. The commercial tapes are also too wide, in most cases, producing an unnecessarily large repair. Tapes are also difficult to reverse once they are stuck in place. Removing them is time-consuming and can cause more tears. Because of this risk, we did not to remove the many archival mending tapes, but opted, instead, to support the prints in Mylar sleeves, which will limit future damage.

An example of the older mending tapes (the wider tapes seen here) and the more narrow tissue mends

Many more tears had also occurred since the tape mends were applied. We repaired these more recent tears with a thin mending tissue. The tissue is thinner than the print paper and can flex without stressing it. Once the large prints were repaired, they were placed on a paper support and into Mylar sleeves. The sleeves make handling the prints much safer, since the fragile paper is supported overall. The long, narrow prints were then rolled onto tubes for storage in the TSLAC stacks.

Two prints rolled for storage

The next step for the oversized Battleship Texas blueprints and VanDykes will be imaging in the TSLAC imaging lab. Reformatting will allow for viewing the schematics without needing to access the original prints. But when the prints are needed, we can access them with much less risk of damage.

Handling Guidelines for Works on Paper

by Heather Hamilton, Conservator for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission

TSLAC staff members handle so many different archival and library materials, from fragile handwritten documents, to historic leather bindings, to oversized contemporary maps. Staff attend trainings in order to practice safe handling of collections. Normally, we would gather together as a team to discuss the challenges and receive training in a workshop format. During COVID-19, we are practicing social distancing at TSLAC, so for our 2021 trainings, we have prepared videos that staff can view at their convenience. The silver lining is that we can share these training materials with the public.

We will post a series of videos demonstrating the ways that collection materials can be handled to minimize risk of damage. I feel sure that you will find some useful information here that can help you care for your own family documents, artworks, and other fragile papers and books you may be caring for.

In this first series of videos, I’ll demonstrate handling oversized papers. Here, you’ll see me moving large materials by myself. With the right tools and some preparation, you can handle large items alone… up to a limit. Papers bigger than the ones you see here require help from a second person.

Handling Oversized Works on Paper: 4 Training Videos

Video 1: Flipping a large sheet without supports.

Remove any hanging jewelry or lanyards. Secure bulky clothes that could catch on the paper. Be sure you have a clear, clean space to turn the sheet. Lift the paper gently at the edge closest to you. Use both hands, placing your fingers on top of the sheet and thumbs underneath for a broad, secure hold. Lift the sheet until it just comes off the table and lean forward to lay it on its face. This should be done in one smooth motion. This is for stable papers. Fragile items require other methods.

Video 2: Lifting and moving an oversized sheet

This method requires that the sheet is strong and able to drape in a curved shape. It is not appropriate for fragile items. Arrange the area receiving the sheet. Be sure it is clean and clear of other items. Place all fingers under two opposite corners, with thumbs on top, for a broad, secure hold. Lift the sheet carefully, allowing the middle to drape gently down. Lift the sheet high enough not to drag on the table. Carry it to the receiving area and lay it down slowly. If the sheet will not drape, but buckles in any way when you lift it, lay the sheet back down, because this method will not be correct for this item.

Video 3: Moving unwieldy materials

The item here is a very large fragile print wrapped in plastic. Don’t be tempted to move fragile items from place to place without a support, even when you are pressed for time. Place the item carefully on a support board, one that doesn’t flex. Corrugated boards work well. In a library or archives setting, have boards like this available and easy to find. You can label them as “Support Boards for Moving Large Items” to make sure they do not wander off or get used for something else.

Video 4: Turning an artifact using two rigid boards

This method uses two rigid support boards to turn a sheet over. Again, corrugated boards are good for this, because they do not flex very much. The boards should be somewhat larger than the sheet to be turned. Place the sheet on a clean board. Gently lay the second board on the top by aligning the long edge and guiding the board down. This should be done slowly to prevent creating a draft that could make the artifact move. I’ve seen this happen and it is scary. If you need to align the top board, lift it a small amount to shift it, rather than scooting it across the artifact. Use binder’s clips to secure one long edge of the boards. These clips must not cinch the artifact itself but be a few inches away. Arrange the area that will receive the item. Place one hand under the center of the bottom board. Place the other hand on the top board, directly above your bottom hand. Turn the whole unit over in one smooth motion. Unclip the boards. Lift the top board slowly, being sure to check that the artifact is not lifting as you do so.

Future videos will show how you can handle fragile leather bindings and turn acidic pages.