Health and Collections Care During COVID-19

Health and Collections Care During COVID19

My name is Heather Hamilton, and I am the new conservator for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. I am so pleased to have joined the staff at TSLAC. My position began on May 1st, right in the middle of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, so many of my coworkers on the Archives and Information Services team are working from home, and I am getting to know them through online meetings. Working in the Summerlee Conservation Lab does not require me to have close contact with other staff, so I am able to work at the Lorenzo de Zavala building most days. TSLAC continues to be open to researchers, so a small number of staff are here to provide those services. Those of us working in the building wear face coverings and practice social distancing. Needless to say, my first weeks on the job have been memorable.

One of my first assignments at TSLAC was to research handling recommendations for library and archives materials during the pandemic and to write a set of guidelines for our staff. My research led me to a wealth of information compiled by organizations whose goal it is to help libraries and museums fulfill their missions. The Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the National Center for Preservation Training and Technology (NCPTT), and the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) are just three that have gathered information and interviewed scientists about how best to handle heritage collections and to share them with patrons safely.

The most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that the primary source of coronavirus spread is through person-to-person contact. We are taking precautions at TSLAC to minimize the risk of this type of transmission. In an abundance of caution, we are also using an isolation period for collections that could have been contaminated. I’m sharing our guidelines with you here. Because the situation is fluid, we will update our practices as needed and keep up with the best information we can find.

Handling Collection Materials During the Coronavirus Outbreak
By Heather Hamilton, Conservator, ARIS, TSLAC / May 7, 2020

 As employees, we are all concerned about the ways we might be exposed to coronavirus in the workplace. Centers for Disease Control guidelines for understanding the spread of the virus focus on two methods of transmission:

  • respiratory transmission through water droplets expelled when coughing or talking
  • touching high-contact surfaces that have been contaminated, then touching the face

Most of us are now aware of the CDC recommendations to prevent transmission:

  • Wear a face covering in public spaces.
  • Keep a minimum distance of six feet from others.
  • Wash your hands frequently and for at least 20 seconds.
  • Cough into your bent elbow or into a tissue. Dispose of the tissue in a trash can and then wash your hands.
  • Disinfect high-touch surfaces, such as shared office equipment, with a 70% alcohol solution.

Working at TSLAC, we have added concerns about handling collection materials that may have been contaminated. How long can coronavirus survive on collections? The following periods of virus viability have been published.

New England Journal of Medicine 3/17/20: Plastics: 72 hours; Stainless steel: 48 hours; Paper: 24 hours

Journal of Hospital Infection 2/6/20: Plastics: 6 to 9 days; Metals: 5 days; Paper: 4 to 5 days

Because research on the virus is ongoing, we aren’t surprised to read differing results from studies. However, collecting institutions like ours need to apply the findings to our day-to-day operations. On March 30, 2020, the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) hosted a webinar to help libraries, archives, and museums interpret the science and apply it to the re-opening of their facilities.

Dr. David Berendes, epidemiologist with the CDC, answered questions from IMLS staff. He explained that, under lab conditions, the virus can live up to 24 hours on paper. However, paper’s porous surface tends to trap the virus so that it cannot easily infect a person who handles it. Dr. Berendes stated that a 24-hour quarantine for paper-based materials would be a cautious approach when dealing with paper items that could have been contaminated.

Of course, not all the materials we handle have a porous paper surface. We need to be aware of non-paper materials in our collections. This would include items such as:

  • Mylar sleeves and covers
  • Coated paper dust jackets and storage boxes
  • Plastic storage cases
  • Non-cardboard shipping containers
  • Digital media and electronic devices

The virus can survive longer on these materials. A box of mixed library materials containing books, papers, and plastics should, therefore, have a longer quarantine than a box of papers alone. The Northeast Document Conservation Center is a resource for collecting institutions, offering training and guidelines for preserving cultural heritage materials. Their guidance is to use a 24-hour quarantine for paper-based materials that may have been contaminated and a 7-day quarantine for mixed materials that include plastics.

As of now, a 24-hour quarantine for paper and 7-day quarantine for plastics seems cautious, and that is the standard TSLAC will use unless recommendations change.

So, what does this mean for day-to-day handling of collections at TSLAC?

Paper-based materials are not very effective carriers of the virus, so we don’t need to be fearful of handling our books and paper. However, we do need to stop and think about materials that come to us in the course of our work. When faced with a collection that has not been in our care over the past days, we can ask ourselves the following questions. This will guide us in following the recommendations that are available.

  • Where was this material over the past week?
  • Are these materials paper-based and porous? Are there non-porous materials included?
  • Do I need to handle these items today or can I set them aside for a period?
  • The safest course of action would be to isolate the materials. After items have been quarantined, we are safe to handle them.

Additional topics for handling collections:

Gloves: The wearing of gloves is helpful during this time, but we need to use them cautiously. While wearing gloves will keep the virus off our hands, we should be sure not to touch the gloves to our faces. Keep in mind the guidelines for glove-wearing that we practiced before the outbreak. Gloves reduce our tactile sense, so we should not use them to turn pages in a book or to leaf through individual paper sheets. This detail work is better done with clean hands after a quarantine has been completed. As always, certain photographic materials and digital media require gloves to protect sensitive surfaces from grease on our hands.

Disinfecting: The coronavirus can be killed with standard household disinfectants like alcohol and diluted bleach solutions. However, most collection materials cannot tolerate disinfectants, so a quarantine period is a better option.


Institute of Museum and Library Services. (2020, March 30) Mitigating COVID-19 When Managing Paper-Based, Circulating, and Other Types of Collections. [Webinar]

Kampf, D. Todt, S. Pfaender, and E. Steinmann. “Persistence of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces and their inactivation with biocidal agents,” Journal of Hospital Infection 104 (2020) 246-251. March 20, 2020.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. (2020, March 25) Covid-19 Basics: Disinfecting Cultural Resources. [Recording of Facebook Live event]


Northeast Document Conservation Center. (2020, March 26) Disinfecting Books and Other Collections.

Sewing a Book

When visitors at TSLAC’s Summerlee Conservation Lab learn about conservation treatment, they often ask questions about sewing books.  Does sewing really hold a book together?  (Yes!)  Do you actually sew books by hand?  (Yes!)  The following is a quick introduction to sewing a book in a conservation treatment.

In many of the 19th- and 20th-century books at TSLAC, sewing is the primary way the pages are bound.  When the book was originally made, large paper sheets were folded and trimmed into pages.  The pages usually nest together in bundles, which bookbinders call sections.  The bookbinder used a needle and thread to sew through the folds in the sections, securing all the pages together in the right order.  After sewing, linings of paper, textile, or leather were adhered over the sewing to further strengthen the book’s spine.

Sewing is fundamental to a book, so today’s conservators leave it in place whenever possible.  But sometimes, a book is so damaged that it must be re-sewn.  When this happens, the first step is to remove the original sewing to separate the leaves.

Removing sewing thread from a book.
Removing sewing thread from a book.

It’s likely that some of the paper folds are damaged, so the conservator mends them with thin, flexible Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste.

Japanese tissue was adhered outside every fold to prepare this book for sewing.
Japanese tissue was adhered outside every fold to prepare this book for sewing.

Then, the conservator follows the original sewing pattern to re-sew the volume.  In the 19th century, binders began taking shortcuts to reduce time and materials in their work.  Today’s conservator will follow those original shortcuts, often sewing two or three sections at a time. 

Sewing a book.
Sewing a book.

Conservators use thread and other components that have a similar weight and thickness as the original sewing.  This helps the repaired volume to flex and move as intended.  It also helps the repaired volume to fit back into its original cover.

After lining, spine shaping, and covering, this book is ready to read.

After treatment.
After treatment.

P.S. – It’s been a wonderful 10 years writing this blog.  As I transition to a new position at the University of Texas School of Information, I look forward to reading new posts here in the future.  Stay tuned!

#AskAConservator Day: 11/4

November 4th is #AskAConservator day! TSLAC Conservator Sarah Norris will be available to answer your conservation and collections care questions.  Tweet us @TSLAC to learn more about conservation and how to care for your family history.

November 4 commemorates the catastrophic 1966 flood in Florence, Italy that damaged priceless cultural heritage.  The international response to this disaster marked the beginning of the modern era in conservation practice.

Have questions about preserving family photos?  Worried about newspaper clippings?  Curious about how we save books and documents here at TSLAC?  Tweet us @TSLAC #AskAConservator on 11/4 for answers!

Our Summer Intern at Work!

As summer closes, we say farewell to conservation intern Fenna Engelke.  Fenna has returned to the University of Amsterdam to continue her conservation studies.  She worked on some great projects at TSLAC.

Fenna at work in the lab.
Fenna at work in the lab.

Serial Set 461 offered a challenge in oversize paper treatment.  The fold-out map inside the volume had been previously re-folded incorrectly.  This was causing the book to bulge out of square, placing unnecessary stress on the sewing and joints.  The treatment goal was to mend the map and return the book to square. 

Before treatment, the book shows a large gap where the map was inserted.
Before treatment, the book shows a large gap where the map was inserted.

We had initially hoped we might separate the map and store it flat.  However, we soon learned that the map was too large for even our largest oversize drawers.  This meant the best plan was to re-fold the map and continue to store it in the book.  Fenna completed robust mends to withstand folded storage.  She showed flexibility in her treatment approach given changing parameters and real-world project constraints.

Reattaching the map in the book with the portable light table.
Reattaching the map in the book with the portable light table.

Fenna also worked on Civil War-era family correspondence from TSLAC’s Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center in Liberty, TX.  The letters were severely mold- and water-damaged.  They required spot mends for stabilization and rehousing in Mylar sleeves to improve handling. 

During treatment, mold-damaged leaves are carefully separated.
During treatment, mold-damaged leaves are carefully separated.

Fenna worked very carefully with the soft, damaged paper, separating leaves that had long been stuck together.  While no treatment can undo the damage left by the mold, these leaves are now stabilized and accessible to researchers for the first time in many years.

We thank Fenna for her great work over the summer and wish her the best in the new school year!

Welcome to Conservation Intern, Fenna Engelke

In July, TSLAC is excited to welcome our first summer conservation intern, Fenna Engelke.  Fenna is pursuing her master’s degree in conservation at the University of Amsterdam, and she brings to TSLAC her previous experience at the Harry Ransom Center and the Bullock Texas State History Museum.  Fenna has jumped right into our conservation workflow, mending torn leaves in an 1874 Texas Adjutant General’s report; and repairing an oversize map from an 1844 Congressional Serial Set volume.  Fenna will also be conducting a preservation survey on scrapbooks to help us better understand the condition of this challenging part of our collection.  Welcome, Fenna!

Fenna spot-tests media for water solubility on TSLAC’s Frontier Battalion muster rolls.
Fenna spot-tests media for water solubility on TSLAC’s Frontier Battalion muster rolls.

Delaminating a Sam Houston Letter

TSLAC recently received a donation of an original letter Gov. Sam Houston sent in 1860 to state senator and Texas Ranger Henry Clay Davis.  The letter was laminated and hinged to a scrapbook album page.  Lamination poses a number of challenges: it can cause splitting and tearing; it can increase acidity in paper; and, in this case, it blocked access to original materials.  Our goal was to remove the lamination so we could stabilize the paper and ink.

Before treatment: the laminated letter was hinged to a scrapbook page.
Before treatment: the laminated letter was hinged to a scrapbook page.

First, the laminated packet was removed from the album page and examined.  The waxy feel of the lamination indicated polyethylene plastic.  Though lamination typically presses paper flat, this paper was rippled, and adhered to the plastic only in spots.  Accordingly, small amounts of ethyl acetate were used to release the lamination from the front of the letter.  It then became clear that multiple leaves had been adhered together inside the laminated packet.  The adhesive was water-soluble, so the leaves were released in a water bath.  Three leaves with matching folds (one manuscript leaf and two blanks) were retained as original material.

During treatment: lamination has been removed from the upper right corner.
During treatment: lamination has been removed from the upper right corner.

After washing, the letter was treated with calcium phytate to stabilize deteriorating iron gall ink.  All three original leaves were then deacidified and re-sized with gelatin.  The letter was mended with heat-set tissue to minimize the ink’s exposure to water after treatment.

After treatment: the lamination is removed, and the paper and ink are stabilized.
After treatment: the lamination is removed, and the paper and ink are stabilized.

This letter is now de-laminated and stabilized much closer to its original form.  TSLAC is pleased to add this document to our collections and to prolong its lifetime for public access.  Additional background on this letter and on Henry Clay Davis can be found in the Handbook of Texas online.

Conservation of Confederate Muster Rolls

In February, TSLAC Conservation observed a significant milestone: the completion of our long-running treatment project on our oversize Confederate Muster Rolls.

TSLAC’s Confederate Muster Roll collection documents vital information about Texans who enlisted to serve in the Civil War.  These documents hold great research interest for historians and genealogists.  They state the soldiers’ name, age, rank, and place of origin; sometimes they list items the soldiers brought into service, like guns and horses; and sometimes they include payroll information. 

At some time in the early-to-mid 20th century, these documents underwent a popular treatment called “silking.”  A thin piece of silk was adhered to both sides of each sheet to hold brittle, fragile pieces together.  Unfortunately, we now know that silk is acidic, and acid causes paper to turn even more brittle and brown than it might have originally.

Starting in 2010, we have taken approximately 15 muster roll sheets per month into the lab to remove the silking and deacidify the paper.  We also stabilize iron gall ink with a calcium phytate treatment.  Tears are mended and the sheets are sleeved for storage and handling.  This treatment prepares the documents for scanning and enables in-person access in the reading room, which was previously restricted due to the documents’ fragile condition.

As we move on to work on other materials, we commemorate the close of this major project!

A de-silked muster roll awaits mending.
A de-silked muster roll awaits mending.

Tape Removal and the Archives War

TSLAC Conservation recently completed a challenging treatment on the House Journals of the Republic of Texas, 1842.  This volume features a rare, contemporaneous account of the Archives War, a colorful incident in Texas history with special significance to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

The volume’s pages have become unusually brown and fragile over time, likely a result of the materials used to make the paper.  Tape has been extensively applied on the many resulting cracks and tears.  This tape has caused further staining. Institutional goals for this treatment were to reduce tape staining only in the Archives War section, leaving other stains and paper issues for another day.  This established three major treatment challenges: 1) removing tape from very fragile paper; 2) working in situ, inside the bound volume; 3) avoiding tidelines and paper discoloration that would create a mismatch with the rest of the book.

Tape and staining on pp 262-263 before treatment.

Tape and staining on pp 262-263 before treatment.

Extensive testing was undertaken to devise a treatment method.  Testing focused on a variety of solvents, solvent mixtures, and application methods.  The final strategy for most of the tape was:

  1. Remove the plastic carrier by applying ethyl acetate with Tek Wipe fabric through the non-taped side of the paper;
  2. Soften the adhesive by applying ethyl acetate with cotton swabs, then gently remove it with a microspatula;
  3. Reduce the staining with ethyl acetate applied with a Fuller’s earth poultice, which slowly wicks discoloration out of the paper; 
  4. Mend with heat-set tissue.

Reducing staining with a Fuller’s earth poultice. Seen here, half the leaf detached after tape removal and had to be mended back in place.

Reducing staining with a Fuller’s earth poultice. Seen here, half the leaf detached after tape removal and had to be mended back in place.

Tek Wipe is a non-woven blend of cellulose and polyester used for cleaning, washing, and drying in conservation treatments.  It is more flexible than traditional blotter, so it follows the contours of the book’s pages and reduces the risk of tears.  Working with solvent in small areas over Tek Wipe minimized tidelines.  Other treatment strategies for occasionally-used tapes included applying water-based gel, heat, and mechanical action.

At last, the tape is gone!

Pp 262-263 after treatment.

Pp 262-263 after treatment.

From Staple Binding to Sewn Binding

TSLAC Conservation recently completed treatment on the Basic Electrician: Students’ Manual for All Arms.  This 1928 publication by the U.S. War Department introduced American soldiers to the foundations and skills of practical electrical repairs for arms used in the field.

This volume was found staple-bound, with no boards or spine covering, stored in an envelope.  The text was punched for an unknown type of binding device.  The first three leaves, including the title page, had detached and broken into fragments.  Reference staff obtained copies of these leaves from another institution, whose copy of the book was similarly staple-bound with no outer covering.

Book before treatment, staple-bound with damaged leaves.

Book before treatment, staple-bound with damaged leaves.

Top priority for this treatment was to affix the replacement leaves and stabilize the volume for shelf storage.  Since the staples were restricting the opening, risking future leaf breakage, we decided to remove the staples, sew the volume, and create a new case binding.  With no historical example for the sewing or binding style, we were free to choose methods that accommodated the text.

First, we made the copies of the damaged leaves into double-sided replacement pages with proper registration.  A historical look wasn’t possible for these leaves given the low contrast, black-and-white copies provided, but archival-quality Permalife paper was used for long-term stability.  The replacement leaves were hinged together, and the volume was punched and sewn using a supported link stitch on three tapes.  The volume was gently rounded and backed, and then cased into a new case covered with toned Japanese tissue.  The tissue gives a leather-like appearance to blend with other volumes in the collection.

Replacement title page bound into volume.

Replacement title page bound into volume.

This treatment mixes techniques typical of both circulating collections work (the replacement leaves) and special collections work (the rebind and the covering) to create an accessible volume with a historically viable appearance.

Book after treatment

Book after treatment

Tape Removal for a P.O.W. Diary

In preparation for TSLAC’s upcoming food-themed exhibit, “Setting the Texas Table,” TSLAC Conservation worked on a WWII prisoner-of-war camp diary from the Robert P. Jones collection.  Food is a major focus of the diary, which features details of camp recipes and food aid packages from the American Red Cross.

The diary consists of a slim composition book, machine-sewn through one fold.  The back cover was torn away, leaving loose sewing behind.  Pressure-sensitive tape had been applied across the spine and inside the front cover.  The tape had begun to discolor and shrink with age, leaving sticky spots exposed at its edges.

Before treatment: tape holds the front cover and sewing in place.

I removed the tape carrier mechanically, with the additional application of heat in areas of soft, delicate paper.  Remaining acrylic-based adhesive was still sticky enough to be removed with a combination of vinyl and crepe erasers.  Residual adhesive discoloration was minimal and left in place. 

During treatment: Heat softens the adhesive to facilitate tape removal over soft paper and sewing thread.

With the tape removed, a new approach was required to stabilize the sewing and loose cover.  Slim hinges of Japanese tissue were adhered with wheat starch paste across the spine and inside the front hinge.  These hinges provided enough structure that no further hitching or sewing was needed.

After treatment: Kitakata Japanese tissue has replaced the exterior tape.

The diary will be on display along with the rest of our “Setting the Texas Table” exhibit in TSLAC’s lobby this fall.