May Day! Disaster Recovery!

Each spring, the preservation community celebrates Preservation Week and MayDay with special events that promote the preservation of cultural heritage. This May, TSLAC Conservation joins our State and Local Records Management Division in offering a free webinar, “Disaster Recovery and Salvage for Government Records,” on Thursday, May 22, at 10 AM Central Time. View course information at:

Though the course addresses some specific needs of government records managers, registration is open to all. Basics of physical recovery will be discussed along with legal obligations for state government. Learn about safely drying books, paper, photographs, and electronic media, as well as preparing for hazards such as flood, mold, and insects. Institutional recovery contracting and decision-making will be covered, with a special focus on Texas state and local records. This unique, collaborative course is newly updated from its 2012 debut as part of our 2014 preservation activities.

Insect damage

Insects thrive in warm, moist environments. They can cause extensive damage to record-keeping materials, as seen on the spine of this book.

Microphotography and Fiber Assessment

I recently had occasion to test the mettle of our microscope equipment here in the lab, and I’m pleased to say it rose to the challenge.  Sarah Sokolow, a graduate student at the University of Texas School of Information, asked if we could take some microphotographs of the silk textile in a wedding dress held in TSLAC’s collections.  Sarah explains a bit more about her project:

This semester I am conducting a preservation needs assessment of particular historical artifacts from the collections at TSLAC. The historical artifacts that I am focusing on are costumes and accessories that belonged to Lucadia Pease (wife of former Texas Governor Elisha M. Pease) and Mirabeau Lamar. In this assessment I am focusing on the current condition of the artifacts and methods to improve this condition with recommendations for better storage. Also, I am researching different methods to exhibit these artifacts where they will not be harmed in the exhibition process.

The lab’s microphotography capabilities have been used only sparingly, so this project yielded an excellent opportunity to experiment with them.  At first, I anticipated using the microscope on its boom stand to photograph the textile in situ.  I sent Sarah the following test shot:

Textile Photo Test

Textile photo test with ambient light.

Sarah replied in that she actually needed a higher level of magnification in order to compare our photos with those in the Fiber Reference Image Library (FRIL) maintained by Ohio State University.  With that reference, I realized we were seeking microphotography on the level of individual fibers.  This led to an entirely different strategy.

Microphotography for fiber analysis requires making a slide from several small fibers and examining that slide with transmitted light, rather than simply the ambient light in the room (as in the photo above.)  I moved the microscope back to its transmitted light stand and prepared to make a slide.  When Sarah arrived, we removed a small, loose thread from the dress (approximately 5 mm long,) teased apart its fibers, and enclosed them between a microscope slide and cover with water.  The resulting images are detailed enough for comparison with similar silk fibers in the FRIL.

Silk Fibers 1

Silk fibers viewed with transmitted light.


Silk Fibers 2

Silk fibers viewed with transmitted light.


Such close examination of individual fibers can help conservators identify the fibers’ type and origin.  Sarah hopes our photos, in comparison with those in the FRIL, will help her characterize the dress’ condition in order to make future storage recommendations.  We look forward to her report and hope the conservation lab can continue to provide technical support for future research projects. 





Thoughts on Conservation after the AIC 2011 Meeting

I just returned from the 39th annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation, which took place in Philadelphia June 1 – 3.  I’m always surprised by the size of the AIC meeting.  Conservation is a relatively small field that’s difficult to get into.  Arts and humanities budgets are shrinking, especially in the public sector.  And many conservators aren’t reliably funded for travel.  Given all this, I often wonder: “Where do all these people at AIC come from?”

One reason for the strong attendance at AIC must be the pervasive drive toward self-education among conservators.  It shouldn’t be any surprise that people drawn to work in libraries, archives, and museums would value lifelong learning.  But I think there’s a healthy streak of humility and anxiety here, too: no single person can know all things about all materials, and the ever-present risk of damaging a historical artifact provides strong motivation to keep learning and stay humble.  The composite historical /craft-based /scientific nature of the conservation field was a strong component of the panel discussion about training programs held on June 2 and reported upon in the new AIC blog, among other places.  My feeling is that the AIC annual meeting is so well attended for the same reason that discussions about training are so difficult: because we all realize no one set of experiences yields the perfect conservator. 

Another reason so many people go to AIC may be the fact that during the rest of the year, many of us practice in relative isolation.  Those who aren’t lab singletons, either in private practice or within an institution, often work within very small departmental groups.  The need for learning doesn’t always mesh well with this style of practice, and Parks Library Preservation noted that the educational benefits of community are likely one reason behind the growth in conservation blogs.  Isolation is a real challenge in a semi-academic field like conservation, and with so much to learn, nobody wants to waste time reinventing wheels.  This is true in designing workflow, in creating documentation, in conducting research, and in the most practical aspects of treatment.  (For instance, I’m certain it wouldn’t take even a very clever person to refine my method of emptying oversize mylar washing trays, which is really a moderately controlled exercise in spilling water on the floor.)

Overall, I think the need for knowledge combined with frequent isolation creates a strong desire for a professional community.  And while the digital world offers some powerful tools toward this end, still nothing replaces in-person learning and face-to-face conversation.  Why do people invest so much time and money to attend AIC every year?  Because the investment is worth it.