A Historical Book-like Box

The phase box is a standard conservation housing that provides physical and environmental protection. In June, TSLAC Conservation modified a phase box to approximate an original protective structure.

House Documents v.112, 58th Congress, 2nd Session, 1903-04 is a collection of soil maps published by the US Government Printing Office (GPO.) Rather than bind the maps into an atlas structure, GPO chose instead to box them as loose, folded leaves. Unique care was then taken to make the box look like a book:

House Documents v 112, 58th Congress, 2nd Session, 1903-1904

The box’s outer wrapper was covered in brown sheep leather. Spine labels are consistent with the look of GPO bindings.

House Documents v 112, 58th Congress, 2nd Session, 1903-1904

The box’s inner wrapper featured textile hinges and a printed map list.

It seems likely that this unusual structure originally protected the folded maps on its top and bottom, but these components are now missing. The back, covered board is missing, as well.

These maps receive relatively light patron use, so it was acceptable to leave them folded and boxed rather than flattened in a folder. Though the quickest treatment would be simply creating a new box, a bit of extra planning and time allowed preservation of the original housing’s careful aesthetic design.

First, a new inner wrapper was constructed of lightweight cardstock. The list of maps was lifted from the original inner wrapper and adhered in the same position in the new structure. Then, an outer phase box was constructed and the covering boards adhered. A new back board was made and covered in toned Japanese tissue.

House Documents v 112, 58th Congress, 2nd Session, 1903-1904

Existing and new boards are adhered to the flattened phase box. Here, the replacement board has not yet been toned to match the leather.

The result is a more robustly protective structure that retains the look and labeling of the original. This box better protects the maps inside and retains its unusual, carefully-designed appearance.

House Documents v 112, 58th Congress, 2nd Session, 1903-1904

New phase box with covering boards.

TSLAC Has a New Website Address

In keeping with the State of Texas’ plan to have state government agencies adopt the texas.gov domain name, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) now has a new website address. Please update your Internet bookmarks to: www.tsl.texas.gov.

This URL is the root of a vast array of agency content on the web, from general information about TSLAC (e.g., About Us) to targeted information for the public (Explore Our Resources), for libraries and educators (Continuing Education and Consulting), for state and local governments (Records Management Services), and more.

Advancing our mission to safeguard significant resources, provide information services that inspire and support research, education and reading, and enhance the capacity for achievement of current and future generations, we invite the public to connect with us online at our new website address. Our online resources are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Get to Know New TSLAC Director and Librarian, Mark Smith

In August, the seven-member Texas State Library and Archives Commission selected Mark Smith for the position of Director and Librarian, the agency’s chief executive also known as the Texas State Librarian. Though Mr. Smith’s tenure begins November 1, we reached out to him recently with 10 questions that address his background, perspective, priorities, and even his knowledge of Texas history. We look forward to getting to know more about Mr. Smith in the months and years to come.

Read the full interview on our website at https://www.tsl.state.tx.us/news/2013/get-to-know-mark-smith.

Questions about the interview?  Contact Cesar Garza, Communications Officer, at cgarza@tsl.state.tx.us or 512-463-5514.

Visit from the Shandong (China) Provincial Archives

This week, a delegation of archivists from the Shandong (China) Provincial Archives visited the lab as part of a broader TSLAC tour.  In the lab, the archivists viewed Texas historical documents and several examples of typical book and paper treatments.  Working through a translator added new complexity to a brief discussion of reattaching spine coverings and deacidifying paper.  We hope this group enjoyed their visit, and we appreciated their international perspective.

Shandong (China) Provincial Archives Tour

Shandong (China) Provincial Archives Tour Group

Animated Engravings in Light and Shadow

A brief diversion today, from paper conservation into printmaking and its descendents.

Those with an interest in graphic arts may realize that the ways of producing images are as varied as the ways of interpreting them.  One historical method of creating book illustrations and fine art prints is engraving.  In an engraving, an artist uses a fine, sharp stylus to carve tiny lines into a metal plate.  To print the image, ink is spread into the carved lines and the plate is tightly squeezed onto paper, leaving a positive image of the carved-out areas on the plate.  It’s often said that sculptors make excellent printmakers because of the sculptural process of creating the printing plate.

This engraved image shows how fine lines rendered in ink allow control over grayscale.
Engraving Detail
Detail from the above engraving.

Today, I want to share an ingenious adaptation of engraving in the photographic world, in which light (or shadow) replaces ink.  During Paris’ artistically rich interwar period, Russian / French engraver Alexandre Alexeieff and his American partner / wife Claire Parker invented an image production device called the pinboard.  The pinboard consisted of a fine mesh pulled taut on a vertical square frame.  Tiny metal pins were inserted in the interstices of the mesh, creating a dense surface of 100 pins per square centimeter (that’s right, one fragile pin per millimeter.)  Light was then cast across the front of the mesh at an oblique angle.  As each pin was pushed through the front of the mesh, it cast a shadow whose length could be controlled by the length of the exposed pin.  One pin’s shadow created a mark equivalent to one engraved line.  Just like in engraving, the size and density of the resulting lines allowed for detailed control over grayscale.  A pair of artists working on both sides of the pinboard could use a variety of tools to sculpt their desired image into the dense cluster of pins, which Alexeieff described as velvet-like.  A photograph taken of the resulting pinboard image would yield results much like an engraved print.

Alexeieff and Parker took their process a step farther by taking multiple, successive exposures of pinboard images to create pinboard animations.  Their work was painstaking and deeply detailed; the first animation lasted eight minutes and took two years to create.  Only six full pinboard animations were created in their lifetime, bookended by settings of the music of Modest Mussorgsky; their first in 1933 to the symphonic poem Night on Bald Mountain, and their last in 1972 & 1980, to the first half of Pictures at an Exhibition. 

Below is an excerpt from Alexeieff and Parker’s 1963 adaptation of Gogol’s The Nose (from Facets Video.)  Note that the work looks like an animated engraving.  Note also that each line in each still image was generated by the shadow of one tiny pin.


Alexeieff and Parker’s pinboard is a fascinating interpretation of print concepts in the photographic world, and an example of how image production methods evolve incrementally over time.  I stumbled across this amazing work by way of a chance DVD rental, a testament to the value of browsing your local library or video store rather than relying solely on the recommendations of your favorite online provider.

Salaries in the Bad Old Days

One interesting component of our Confederate muster roll collection is a record of the wages of Confederate soldiers.  A range of wages seems to have been available within each regiment: $11 per month for a private, $20 per month for a first sergeant, and a few intermediate salaries for lesser sergeants and corporals.

Right now, I happen to be reading Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain’s fond remembrance of his years piloting steamboats just before the Civil War.  That conflict was a death knell for the steamboating era, which was already in decline due to the technological advances of railways and tugboats.  Twain records vastly different salaries in the pre-war years: steamboat pilots made a minimum of $100 per month.  After labor organized, a few made up to $700 per month.

As an exercise, let’s equate the professional level of a Confederate Army first sergeant and a steamboat pilot.  (Respect for authority aside, perhaps these men were not completely different – both were trained specialists and mid-level professionals responsible for many people during defined tours.)  We can note that the sergeant in 1863 made anywhere from five to 35 times less than the steamboat pilot in 1860.

Hardly an auspicious beginning for a Gilded Age.

Barn Floor Paper

An ongoing project here at TSLAC is the treatment of our large collection of Confederate muster rolls.  These documents provide a fascinating snapshot of men enlisting in the Confederate army, often stating their age, hometown, and personal supplies brought into service.  The muster rolls come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, with myriad paper, media, and condition issues.  Specifically, I’ve noticed one unusual type of paper that composes perhaps 10% of the collection.  An example of this dark brown paper is below:

Muster roll, silked, before treatment.

Muster roll, silked, before treatment.

In my mind, I’ve come to refer to this as “barn floor paper,” because it would appear to be made from sweepings off the barn floor.  Given the stresses and disruptions in manufacturing in the Confederacy, this isn’t so difficult to imagine.  A close-up may reveal more detail:

Muster roll, detail, during treatment.

Muster roll, detail, during treatment.

The paper is very coarse, with a variety of fibers visible throughout.  It is poorly sized, if at all, which creates challenges in removing existing mends without disturbing the fibers.  After treatment, wash water is a deep, molasses color, though the color of the paper itself remains quite dark.

Muster roll, close-up on heading "Pay Roll," during treatment
Muster roll, close-up on heading “Pay Roll,” during treatment.

Do any readers have knowledge of or experience with this paper?  Do you know what it was made with, or have your observed it in other collections?  I’m curious to know whether its homely composition reflects difficulties in economics and supply chains in the Confederacy, as I imagine.  Or, perhaps this paper was made this way quite intentionally, for a particular purpose.  As with so many record-keeping supplies, I’d argue that purpose definitely wasn’t preservation.

The Art of the Title

Materials in our state library and archives collections typically bear matter-of-fact titles like Senate Journal of the 28th Legislature or Executive
Documents of the House of Representatives.  But occasionally, one title stands out from its expository neighbors.  I take special note of the following cantankerous title, especially during this season’s contentious state legislative session:

"Unconstitutional Laws Exposed" by Chas. B. Pearre, 1872
“Unconstitutional Laws Exposed” by Chas. B. Pearre, 1872
For more information, we visit a prime example of a typeface-rich, 19th century title page:
"A Review of the Unconstitutional Laws of the Twelfth Legislature of Texas, and the Oppressions of the Present Administrations Exposed," by Chas. B. Pearre, Attorney at Law, Waco, Texas

"A Review of the Unconstitutional Laws of the Twelfth Legislature of Texas, and the Oppressions of the Present Administrations Exposed," by Chas. B. Pearre, Attorney at Law, Waco, Texas

 I wonder what Mr. Pearre’s website would look like today.

A Question of Value

Preservation and archives personnel are periodically called upon to answer the general public’s questions about personal or family belongings.  Along with patrons’ regular concerns, I have lately noticed a new and perplexing question: 

“What is the historical value of my item?” 

This is a significant and complicated inquiry that deserves a good answer.  Two main issues puzzle me, and I’d like to consider them separately:

  1. What does this question actually mean?
  2. What useful answer can I provide?

1.      What does this question actually mean?

My hunch is that seeking “historical value” is to seek a connection between personal and canonical history.  Individuals usually have a strong sense of the sentimental and family value of their photos and newspaper clippings.  But does that emotional connection have meaning for other people, or within a broader historical context? 

The historical value question often has a companion, either explicit or implied: “Don’t you want my materials for your archives?”  I wonder if we might reinterpret that question as, “Doesn’t my specific experience somehow represent our collective experience?” or more generally, “How do individual stories compose the larger historical narrative?”

Further complicating things are differing definitions of “value.”  A conservator looks at a newspaper clipping and sees brittle newsprint and printer’s ink: not very valuable.  A patron instead sees a family experience: extremely valuable.  Where do we draw the line between the physical thing and the story it represents?

2.      What useful answer can I provide?

The critical thinking beneath the “historical value” question is deserving of encouragement.  But with patron inquiries, encouragement generally implies a specific, actionable answer.  Open-ended answers, like, “You’ll have to research that for yourself,” usually de-motivate busy people.  Herein lays the challenge of answering this question.

To my knowledge, there’s no such thing as a contract historian-for-hire who accepts referrals the way an appraiser would.  For family items, my best institutional referrals are our local city history center and the state archives where I work.  But these options may require substantial follow-through from the patron, and archives staff realistically have minimal time for questions about personal collections.

Perhaps a better strategy would be to assemble a reference list of books on regional history that might offer useful contexts in which to place personal belongings.  Handouts and brochures always seem to be well-received, and a reading list might make an encouraging take-away.

I welcome comments about this issue.  Questions about historical value, however that’s defined, seem to offer a golden opportunity to engage inquisitive members of the public in historical and archival research.