Conserving and Preserving, This Month and Beyond

My shortage of January posts can be attributed to my thorough immersion in the planning stages of a significant effort to digitize TSLAC’s collection of cassette recordings of the proceedings of the Texas Senate, from 1972 – 2006.  These recordings document the laws and the lawmakers that shaped our state.  Listen to a sampling of the topics and colorful personalities in the collection here.

My work in the last month draws attention to the contrast between preservation strategies for books and paper vs. audio media.  For example, in January, most of the time I normally would have spent working with my hands at the workbench was instead spent working with the computer at my desk.  Conservation strategies for books and paper more frequently involve physical repair; for audio media, they more frequently involve transfer to new media, or, in my case, planning for that transfer.  While I’ve advocated in lectures and research for the artifactual value of audio media, practical realities dictate rapid transfer in the face of chemical decay and format obsolescence.  Digitization is just one reality for books and paper; it’s often the only reality for audio.

What’s interesting is that our decisions about whether to preserve original media route books and paper into the practice of conservation, while they route audio media into the practice of preservation.  Conservators are trained to work physically, and to use both science and craft knowledge to sustain cultural materials in their physical form.  Preservation administrators – note that extra word in the title – are trained to manage environment, storage, exhibition, people, money, etc., to sustain cultural materials in viable forms.   In theory, it’s much the same; in practice, it’s all different.

My feeling is that as the print and digital worlds continue to negotiate their territories, conservation and preservation approaches will continue to unify.  In libraries and archives, one sees many examples of this: conservation treatment supports digitization projects; then, digital access drives increased physical use and, presumably, wear.  But no one person can know all facets of such disparate practices.  That’s why hybrid library-conservation-preservation training programs like the one at the University of Texas were so important, and why we can hope they may be again in the future.

In the meantime, I’m glad for the opportunity to help prolong the lifetime of the Senate tapes, and I look forward to returning to the book and paper workbench in the near future.

Artifactual Value, Part II (or) What a Difference a “b” Makes

Last week, this blog highlighted a case study in artifactual value from Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, an account of late-19th century Chicago based on archival research.  This week, we’ll detail a similar example from closer to home.

In TSLAC’s documents from the Confederacy, I often note evidence of recycling.  Sometimes this evidence takes the form of non-traditional papermaking materials (see previous entry, “Barn Floor Paper.”)  Other times recycling is apparent in remnants of previously printed materials, as in an example from this week:

Confederate document with recycling

This Confederate military document features recycled pieces of previous documents, such as the printed “b” seen here.


I have long suspected that such recycling, especially in non-disposable military records, was an indicator of economic stress in the Confederacy.  Informal conversation with colleagues supports this hunch: a conservator working on Union materials at another institution notes that their paper consists of comparatively high quality stock.  Here again is an example of artifactual value.  The physical paper on which these wartime records were kept offers historical information beyond the written records themselves.

I recently found further support for this interpretation of Confederate paper in Cathy Baker’s 2010 book, From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials, and Conservation.  Baker connects economic conditions in the South with scarcity in papermaking materials like rags, cotton, and bleach:

Just before the War, the South was largely dependent on the North for most supplies and equipment for its twenty-four papermills.  The chemicals needed to bleach rags for white paper for the Confederate government’s use or to process straw and raw cotton for news paper were only occasionally obtained from abroad through the Union blockades.  Few clothes and linens found their way into rag bags, and even if they did, they were often used for bandages instead of paper. 

-Cathy Baker, From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials, and Conservation, The Legacy Press, 2010, p 18.

Baker goes on to quote an 1863 newspaper account of an Alabama papermill, which struggled to maintain production without critical supplies like felt and wire mesh:

The energy displayed by Mr. Winter in keeping his mill running is worthy of all commendation.  He showed us fine tapestry carpet which he took from his floors as substitutes for felt, without which his mills are entirely useless… The want of wire cloth has forced Mr. Winter to convert his machine… (which) very seriously curtails his operations in the amount of paper turned off.

Memphis Daily Appeal, 6/13/1863, in Cathy Baker’s book (as above,) p 294.

That small “b” photographed above conveys a message about the Confederate economy much more succinctly than the words in this blog entry.  This is the power of artifactual value.  With access to primary, archival materials, researchers and the public have a chance to read more than what’s written on the page – they can also read the physical record left behind by historical forces.

For more on why it’s important to support public access to archives, see Christina Manz’s post on the closure of the Georgia Archives in TSLAC’s Library Developments blog.

Conservation for Exhibit

Several items are in the lab this month in preparation for TSLAC’s Civil War exhibit this fall.  At many institutions, exhibit materials compose their own workflow for conservation.  This month’s items represent the strengthening integration of conservation with our growing exhibits program here at TSLAC.

Conservation work for exhibit usually combines item stabilization with aesthetic improvements and display planning.  The goal is to have the item looking its best and displayed in a non-damaging way.  Just what kind of work might this generate?  I’m glad you asked!

Military Board Blotter

Military Board Blotter for exhibit, before treatment.

The loose paper covering on this 1860s military board blotter will be re-adhered to decrease the risk of further tearing and to improve the volume’s aesthetics.  The paper tabs at the book’s head contain significant information; rather than being removed, they will be tucked down into the volume.  Most importantly, the book’s opening will be chosen from among the pages most relevant to the exhibit, with preservation in mind.  The selected opening will create as little stress on the binding as possible over several months of display.  The book will also be fitted with a cradle to further minimize stress at that opening.

Harper's Weekly Engraving

Harper’s Weekly hand-colored engraving of the Battle of Galveston for exhibit, before treatment.

This 1863 hand-colored engraving from Harper’s Weekly illustrates both the Battle of Galveston and the effects of tape repairs.  Treatment will attempt to reduce the staining left behind by this previously applied tape.  Stain reduction is a case-by-case effort dependent upon many unknown variables, such as the materials in the paper, the materials in the tape’s adhesive, and how those materials have aged and interacted in varying conditions over time.  Here, the age and condition of these stains may limit the treatment’s effectiveness; the tape’s plastic carrier and adhesive are long gone, leaving the stain to set for many years.  Special care will also be taken not to disturb the hand-coloring with solvents.

Regimental Return

Regimental Return for exhibit, before treatment.

Several items, such as this 1862 regimental return document, simply require flattening and basic mends.  This will improve exhibit appearance and also stabilize the documents to guard against further damage during handling and storage.  There are many items in this condition at TSLAC and other libraries and archives.  For them, exhibit serves as an additional selection method to bring them into the lab.

You can see these items and others on display in TSLAC’s lobby starting September 24.   Also unique to this exhibit will be a display devoted just to conservation – stay tuned for more.


Choosing Stabilization

When discussing conservation, it’s easy to lavish attention on flashy, full treatments that bring tattered items back from the grave.  A far greater number of treatments, however, simply aim for basic stabilization.  Oftentimes, restricted time and resources drive treatment compromises focused on just the most urgent needs.  Several examples are in the lab this month.

Item 1: Personnel of the Texas State Government from 1892 has serious condition issues.  Both boards are detached and the spine covering is missing.  The spine lining and the sewing have failed.  Worse, the paper is brittle and torn at its exposed edges and along the spine.  Many leaves are detached, and the book has been stored in a repurposed box that doesn’t fit well.  

item before treatment

Personnel of the Texas State Government, 1892, before treatment

Full treatment: Extensive paper mending would be required, especially in the spine region, which must be strong enough to support sewing.  The book would be re-sewn and re-lined, the boards would be re-attached, and a new spine covering would be created to match the boards.  This treatment might absorb half of the contributing department’s allotted conservation time for the month, with many other needy items in the queue.

Actual treatment: The most immediate concern is that paper fragments break and scatter every time this book is opened.  Accordingly, approximately 25 of the most damaged and vulnerable leaves will be mended.  A new box that fits the book will reduce shifting and resulting breakage.  This treatment will take just a few hours and does not preclude more extensive work in the future.

Items 2 and 3: The Climactic Conditions of Texas, also from 1892, is a relatively rare item existing in two copies here at TSLAC.  Both items have been side-sewn, a sewing style that requires the paper to be extremely flexible.  Unfortunately, this paper is brittle and acidic, and has broken where stressed.  Additionally, both copies are bound in improvised cases made of office supplies and other low-quality materials.

items before treatment

Climactic Conditions of Texas, 1892, two copies, before treatment

Full treatment: Both items would need to be disbound and re-sewn in a style that better distributes the book’s flexing action between the paper and the sewing.  Paper would be mended along its broken flex lines.  The spines would be lined, and new cases would be built from acid-free materials in a style aesthetically sympathetic to bindings of the late 19th century.  This treatment would take slightly more than half of the contributing department’s monthly conservation time, leaving many other items waiting for attention.

Actual treatment: Having multiple copies can broaden treatment options.  In this case, the full treatment will be pursued for Copy 2, which is in better condition and requires less paper mending.  Copy 1 will have approximately 15 of the most damaged pages mended, and will be fitted with a box to minimize future damage.  Rare items like this often warrant fuller treatments.  Here, we will also have a stabilized backup copy that could be more fully treated in the future if needed.

Factors like condition, rarity, use, and available resources combine to determine responsible conservation decisions.  In these examples, choosing stabilization treatments left time to treat other needy items.  In this way, conservation can focus deeply on single item treatment or more broadly on collections care.

Three books for treatment.

These three books will be treated with the time saved by choosing stabilization in the examples above.

Treating a Civil War Map

In July, I’ve been treating a hand-drawn Civil War map from the Sam Houston Research Center in Liberty, TX.  The document was glued to a backing board with historical annotations describing Burr’s Ferry, a site where Texas anticipated that Union forces would attempt to enter from Louisiana.

The hand-written annotations on the backing board raise several perplexing issues about the map.  First, the annotations indicate that a battle took place at Burr’s Ferry in September 1863.  However, other historical resources indicate that while a Burr’s Ferry invasion was expected, it never actually materialized.  Of further interest, the map itself seems not to depict Burr’s Ferry at all; it shows a region about 80 miles to the southeast, near modern day Melville, LA.  Though informative in their own way, historical labels and descriptions can sometimes raise more questions than they answer.

The darkened, brittle map was spot-glued to its backing board.  Over time, it had fractured around the glued regions and large sections had been lost.  Subsequent caretakers had responded by applying tape extensively across the front of the map and enclosing the item in Mylar.  Accordingly, this treatment offered many opportunities for physical and aesthetic improvement.

The first priority was to remove the map from its acidic backing board, which was exacerbating discoloration and brittleness.  The first step toward this was to remove the tape.  Fortunately, the tape was commercial Filmoplast of relatively recent application, and it was able to be removed mechanically.

Tape Removal

Removing Filmoplast tape

The glue holding the map to the board was water-soluble, and likely animal-based.  Local humidification through a vapor membrane was partially successful, but proved too prone to leave board fibers attached to the map.  Greater success was achieved with direct application of deionized water in a fine, aerosol mist.  Very slow, careful work was necessary to avoid damaging the map and to minimize disturbance to the backing board.

Backing Board Removal

Removing map from backing board.

Next, the map was washed and deacidified to reduce brittleness and discoloration, and to add a pH buffer to guard against ongoing deterioration.  Because the map was severely fractured, I used a flat, controlled washing method called blotter washing that relies on capillary action to pull degradation components into thick, dampened paper.

Fractured Pieces

The brittle, fractured map required careful blotter washing to avoid further damage.

After drying, the map was lined with an opaque Japanese tissue to hold the pieces together and fill the losses.  The tissue was toned with diluted acrylic paint to approximate the color of the map after washing.  The variety of shades in the mottled paper necessitated simply aiming for a neutral middle color.  I adhered the lining to the map with a reversible, water soluble wheat starch paste, working on a light table to align the many tiny, fractured pieces.


Preparing the map for lining on the light table. Losses seen here will be filled with the toned Japanese tissue lining.

The archivists and I agree that it’s worth keeping the backing board with its puzzling annotations.  Next week, I will surface clean the board and apply a deacidification spray to help control future brittleness and breaking.  I will also create a mat to support the map and assist in future exhibition.  Now that the map is more secure and stable, perhaps a future researcher can shed additional light on this document.

Historical Equipment, Historical Documentation

Visitors to the conservation lab here at TSLAC often comment on our historic bindery equipment, much of which dates from the 19th century.   The board shear, backing press, and standing press are all working examples of how conservation reaches back to historical craft trades to create treatments that are sympathetic to an item’s earlier appearance and function.  One example of this lab equipment is the copy press, discussed in a previous post from Summer 2011.

copy press

Many copy presses like this one have been repurposed as small book presses in binderies and conservation labs.

Since items like the copy press still function as everyday, working equipment in the lab, it’s nice to have an occasional reminder of their historical origins.  One such reminder came from a book in the lab for treatment this month, the 1879-80 San Antonio City Directory.  Much like modern day phonebooks, city directories featured advertisements for local businesses, including this delightful spotlight of a copy press:

Stationer's advertisement with copy press

Stationer’s advertisement with copy press, 1879-80 San Antonio City Directory (click for detail.)

In the 19th century, “stationery” went far beyond the notecards of today to include a wide variety of writing and record-keeping supplies.  As seen in this advertisement, a stationer might offer account books, writing utensils, ink, and even playing cards.  The impressive selection at H. Barbeck’s store even seems to include musical instruments and cutlery!  However, despite this charming image, I have never personally seen an angel operating my copy press in the modern day.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Thoughts on Outreach and Advocacy

Last week, I attended the 40th annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation, held in Albuquerque, NM.  It’s always good to reconnect with colleagues and with the conservation field at large, and this year was no exception.

The theme for this meeting was “Connecting to Conservation: Outreach and Advocacy,” and much discussion was devoted to social media and blogs like this one.  In an inspiring keynote address, Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, former director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, encouraged conservators to advocate for themselves politically, raising the profile of the profession by demanding improved funding and recognition at the local and especially the national level.  The effectiveness of this plea was its immediacy, encouraging the conservation field to empower itself and advocate for its own needs.

Many other sessions underscored conservation’s advocacy for related causes, such as libraries, museums, the arts, and education.  While online outreach allows the creation of targeted, digital interest groups, the move toward publicly featuring conservation treatment demonstrates the power of first-hand observation.  Professional outreach is equally important; my talk, “Toward an Ontology of Audio Preservation,” generated thoughtful discussion on the topics of authenticity and reformatting at the Electronic Media Group session.

There has been a concerted effort in recent years to bring conservation out of hidden, basement labs and into the public eye.  When carefully balanced against workflow needs, this trend can elevate the profile of the profession and its host institutions alike.  Of course, much of this promotion is driven by fundraising needs within perennially underfunded arts and humanities institutions.  Ideally, our outreach function as conservators is to find ways in which fundraising and educational goals go hand in hand.  That way, libraries, museums, and the conservation field can elevate each other’s profiles together, and development directors and conservators can shake hands and be happy partners.

Informal Research on Washing and Deacidification

Since last August, I have been pursuing an informal treatment study on batches of Civil War-era documents undergoing washing and deacidification.  Today, I’d like to share some informal, preliminary results.  First, a very cursory overview of some relevant conservation chemistry.

Paper inscribed with iron gall ink, like these Civil War documents, frequently undergoes two types of degradation.  One type is caused by the presence of acid in the paper.  The second type is caused by the presence of iron ions in the ink.  Both types of degradation weaken paper, causing it to discolor, become brittle, and break.

Washing and deacidification treatments address the first problem by neutralizing pH and adding alkaline buffer.  In recent years, chelation treatments have been developed to address the second problem.  These treatments lock up iron ions and make them unable to continue damaging paper. 

I frequently pursue washing and deacidification in the TSLAC lab, and I have been considering introducing a chelation workflow, as well.  To help make that decision, I decided to evaluate the effectiveness of my current treatment by measuring acidity and iron ion presence in the Civil War documents before and after treatment.  Surface pH is measured with an Extech handheld pH meter, and iron ion presence is evaluated with iron gall test papers developed by the ICN conservation program in the Netherlands.  I classify the test paper results from 0 (no iron ions indicated) to 4 (iron ions strongly indicated.)

Given published research, I expected that washing and deacidification would affect paper pH strongly, but would have a negligible impact on iron ion levels.  My preliminary results are surprising.  Average pH increase was more modest than expected: it changed from 4.40 before treatment to 5.56 after, for an average change of 1.16.  Average reduction in iron ion presence was more pronounced than expected:  rankings changed from 1.7 before treatment to 0.4 after, for an average change of -1.3.  Not only does the after-treatment paper remain surprisingly acidic, but it also shows a surprisingly marked reduction in iron ions given that chelation was not pursued. 

These results are very informal, and testing continues monthly.  Myriad explanations can be imagined, not least including inaccuracies inherent in surface pH measurements.  (The unsuitability of destructive sampling is a frequent challenge in conservation research.)  Perhaps additional baths are needed to improve pH.  Perhaps without chelation, the iron ions become more diffuse during washing, creating risks less localized but more pervasive.  I’d be very curious to hear other conservators’ thoughts and interpretations as I consider future washing, deacidification, and chelation treatments.

Problem Solving in Paper Conservation

When I talk to new acquaintances about conservation, I receive an alarming number of immediate comparisons with the National Treasure films, capers that blend American history, conspiracy theories, and Hollywood glitter.  I assure these acquaintances and all current readers that these movies have very little in common with the field of conservation.  But in the spirit of adventure films, I’ll begin today’s post with a quote from the fictional, swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones:

“Snakes.  I hate snakes.”

Why start here?  Because Jones’ longstanding antipathy toward his slithering nemeses parallels my professional feelings about an increasingly common foe: the white glue commercially known as Elmer’s.

For repair purposes, archives typically use water-soluble, reversible adhesives like wheat starch paste.  These adhesives are ideal because they allow previous repairs to be undone when needed, such as removing a silk lining from a paper document.  Reversibility is a central concept in modern conservation, but this wasn’t always the case.  Items that were repaired many years ago, or were repaired by dealers or collectors, were often subjected to whatever materials were on hand.

Lately, I’ve encountered a number of documents lined with silk and a combination of paste and white glue.  At first glance, these documents give no cause for alarm.  But once placed in a bath, the linings remain stubbornly adhered in tiny spots all over the document.  Closer examination then reveals small, milky-white spots of glue, swelled by the water, but not fully reversed.

What’s a conservator to do?  Simply put, get creative and use chemistry.  We know that Elmer’s glue, and white glue in general, is much like the common bookbinding adhesive PVA.  And we know that a Teas chart is a tool that maps various solvents according to their solubility parameters.  Let’s find a Teas chart for PVA, and then, through careful testing, let’s see if any of the solvents effective on PVA will work on our white glue.  Bingo: ethyl acetate.

Ethyl acetate seems to work best when the white glue has already been swelled with water.  It evaporates quickly, so it requires quick, localized work.  But I’ve found it to be quite helpful in removing linings and reducing residual adhesive afterwards.  Treated items receive a final water bath to flush any remaining solvent.  I’d be very curious to hear from other paper conservators any experiences, thoughts, or concerns about using ethyl acetate in this way.

One last personal observation on white glue: it only seems to appear on high-profile treatments involving especially famous or valuable items.  And it appears on these items more regularly than even Murphy’s Law would dictate.  My theory is that these highly valued items have been highly valued for many years, and as a result, their past treatments were probably designed to be extra strong.  If someone incorrectly thought that a water-soluble adhesive might be a weak adhesive, then perhaps that person might have added some white glue to their paste for good measure.

Or perhaps I just have bad luck. I’ll watch out for snakes.

Oversize Books, Oversize Spine Coverings

I recently completed a treatment on which I’d be very interested to receive some conservation feedback. 

Here at TSLAC, we have a great many oversize ledger bindings used as account books in various functions of state government.  These bindings often feature rather sculptural spine coverings – stiff, thick board shaped into an aggressive round with very proud false bands and an abundance of gold stamping. 

The difficulty with many of these spine coverings is that they’re simply too large.  As you may be able to see in the following photo, the round of the spine covering extends far beyond the round of the text block.  This creates excessive stress in the joints when the book is opened, and as a result, I usually make these books’ acquaintance when the spine covering has detached.

Oversize Spine Covering

The stiff spine covering extends well into the hinge area.

It’s fairly straightforward to reattach the spine covering and replace lost material in the joint, but oftentimes this just gives new life to the same old problem.  In this case, I tried simple reattachment, but the book would only open about 45 degrees before the board began to collide with the stiff spine covering and impede opening.  I reversed this treatment before the book did so itself and went back to the drawing board.


The board and spine covering begin fighting Round Two; the board will likely win a second time.

In the past, I have tried trimming these spine coverings to a better fit.  But there are drawbacks to this approach – trimming requires a lot of patient hand-cutting and a wealth of blades.  Additionally, as in this case, the spine coverings are often gold-stamped out to their very edges.  I needed another way to more closely align the shoulders of the spine covering with the shoulders of the text block.

Eventually, I landed upon the idea of using a spacer to set the spine covering back from the shoulders.  To achieve this effect, I adhered a closed-cell Volara foam inside the spine covering and then attached this construction to a new hollow tube on the spine.  I then filled the joints with toned Japanese tissue coated with SC6000.

Adhering Volara

Adhering the Volara strip inside the spine covering produces a pleasing ants-on-a-log effect.

The result is a book that can safely open without damaging itself, especially when used in a cradle, as is our reading room policy for these oversize items.  The other result is a very bulky headcap.  This appearance would seem gauche, except that the original construction also appeared overbuilt, and the item’s overall design never relied much on subtlety.

Bulky headcap

Spine covering with Volara spacer and toned Japanese tissue on hollow tube.

I’m very curious to hear thoughts on this treatment.  Has anyone used Volara within a treatment rather than within a housing, as is more traditional?  Any ideas about the long-term wear of a design like this?