Treating a 1950s TSLAC Scrapbook

Scrapbooks pose unique challenges in conservation. They often feature a wide variety of rapidly deteriorating modern materials and adhesives. Full treatment is typically difficult to justify among other priorities, so strategies of stabilization, digitization, and reformatting are often pursued.

TSLAC’s recent conservation work included an exceptional scrapbook, a 1950s-era volume that documents our own agency. This handmade book features correspondence and handouts of the era, along with special pages that highlight institutional departments and functions with photographs and whimsical construction paper cut-outs. The rubber cement used to adhere many of these attachments had failed. Fortunately, these pages had been previously stabilized in archival plastic sleeves to keep the pieces together.

This scrapbook was an unusually strong candidate for conservation for two reasons. First, a limited number of leaves involving a limited number of materials required intensive intervention. Second, the handmade item’s unique documentation of agency operations made it a rare artifact of special value to TSLAC.

During treatment, detached photographs and paper cut-outs were re-adhered with wheat starch paste. Placement was determined according to existing adhesive staining. Reconstructed pages were returned to their sleeves, and the full binding was housed in a new, oversize phase box for flat storage. Before and after photos offer a window into 1950s TSLAC operations and period design aesthetics.

Before: Legislative Reference

Before: Legislative Reference

After: Legislative Reference

After: Legislative Reference

Before: Reading Room

Before: Reading Room

After: Reading Room

After: Reading Room

Before: Archives

Before: Archives

After: Archives

After: Archives (note “Repair and Restoration,” lower right)

Before: Processing

Before: Processing

After: Processing

After: Processing

The Circle of Life

Much time is spent in this blog considering craft and materials, such as how historical papers were once made from macerated household rags.  For a quick break this Friday, I’d like to share a bit of verse that hangs in the TSLAC conservation lab.  My copy comes from Dard Hunter’s 1943 classic, Papermaking.  Though its actual origins are unknown, its sentiment is timeless.

RAGS make paper,

PAPER makes money,

MONEY makes banks,

BANKS make loans,

LOANS make beggars,



-Author unknown, circa 18th century.

Evidence of Use

Lab work requires lab maintenance, and accordingly, this conservator found herself cleaning the sink last Friday.  TSLAC’s lab sink is a three-barreled, stainless steel giant re-purposed from an earlier preservation workflow, and as I had been negligent in cleaning it for some months, the process called for fairly extensive scrubbing.  As I got my workout, I observed how the sink’s dirt deposits indicated its use: how the center sink gets used the most; where the faucet drips; where I wash adhesive and paint from brushes.  It occurred to me that the things we regard as clean have also been rid of any evidence of use.  Clean things give little indication of their own past.


Much of the sink’s evidence of use is presumably now reformatted in this sponge.

Hand tools and lab equipment are equally good at recording their own use.  (For more on this topic, see Jeff Peachey’s blog.)  I found a great example in the lab’s board shear.  This large cutting device was made of cast iron sometime in the 19th century, and was refurbished and repainted before coming to our TSLAC lab.  Nevertheless, note the bumpy texture on its arm as opposed to the smooth texture on its handle.  Now-unknown hands did a lot of work at this machine.


Board shear arm

Board shear arm with bumpy texture.


Board shear handle

Board shear handle with smooth texture. Repeated use changes the physical characteristics of materials, even tough ones like cast iron.

Conservators often consider evidence of use in their treatments, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether wear is more detrimental or informational.  Wear patterns also document our everyday lives – consider, for example, what the bottoms of your shoes say about your posture and gait.  I often imagine an art exhibit comprising the blotters and boards used and reused in conservation treatments.  As these materials document conservators’ repetitive movements over time, they develop organic dirt and wear patterns that make statements similar to the early artwork of Richard Serra or Vito Acconci.  The softer the substance, the more quickly it records wear, creating a kind of internal clock for each material.


Different materials record time differently: already, the sheen on my keyboard’s plastic space bar nearly matches that from the cast iron handle of the board shear (above.)

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. 





A Pirate Diary and its Inky Mystery

I recently completed a condition report on an extensively fire- and water-damaged book believed to be a diary of the legendary Gulf Coast pirate Jean Lafitte.  There are many layers of complexity to this item, whose authenticity has long been questioned.  Its condition is poor; its maker’s identity is unclear; it has unexplained structural features that could indicate alteration; and its subject was himself a near-mythical figure whose life story is difficult to pin down.  Discussing this item in full is beyond the scope of a single blog entry; it was nearly beyond the scope of a lengthy condition report!  However, I would like to address one intriguing issue that demonstrates how the information in books goes beyond the written word and into the physical artifact.

Lafitte Diary

The Lafitte Diary is a puzzling artifact with extensive physical damage.

First, to dispel the romantic notions that inevitably arise regarding a pirate diary, physical evidence suggests that this volume incurred much of its damage during a 1960s-era house fire, rather than a daring rescue from a sinking ship.  Water damage frequently accompanies fire damage due to efforts to extinguish the flames.  Tidelines and cockling typical of a water event appear throughout the volume.  However, a stranger phenomenon is observed in the writing, as the brownish-black ink shifts to unexpected purple and red colors.

Ink shift to purple

The ink shifts to purple.

Ink shifts to red.

The ink shifts to red.

As would be expected for this time period (1845 – 1850,) chemical tests confirm that the ink in this volume is iron gall.  However, iron gall ink does not typically display these color shifts, which indicate that some kind of water-soluble or pH-sensitive dye was added to the ink mixture.  I began to wonder if this added dye could help us address some of the item’s authenticity issues.

Feasible dyes for the time period might have included traditional, organic materials like brazilwood or cochineal.  But in 1856, a major change occurred in the dye industry: William Perkin invented mauve, the first synthetic chemical dye.  Aniline dyes like mauve were relatively easy to make in bulk, and they became extremely popular in the second half of the 19th century.

Mauve is a lavender color not entirely dissimilar from the color shifts observed in the ink in the Lafitte Diary.  If the Lafitte ink tested positive for aniline dye, then we could safely say that the ink was made after the dates attributed to the diary, which might help settle the authenticity debate once and for all.  But there’s a catch: after research and consultation with colleagues, I can’t identify a test for aniline dye!

Should any readers be familiar with such a test, please do pass it along!  And in the meantime, remember that books, as physical artifacts, carry significant information that goes beyond the written word, and that cannot be captured in a digital transfer.  Perhaps one day we’ll find the physical clue that helps us understand the true nature of the complicated Lafitte Diary.

Lafitte Diary

Who am I?

Audio Preservation Conference in Berlin

I was most fortunate to be an invited speaker at the International Seminar on Preserving Endangered Audio Media in Berlin last week.  The conference’s unique focus was captured in its subtitle: “Rethinking Archival Strategies for Conservation of Analogue Audio Carriers.” Oftentimes, due to the rapid degradation of modern media and the obsolescence of playback technology, “audio preservation” is simply taken to mean “digitization.”  But as Paul Banks observed in his Ten Rules of Conservation, “The physical medium of a document contains information” and “No reproduction can contain all of the information contained in the original.” These concepts are true in audio media as well as in books and paper.  This conference addressed the conservation of audio carriers in addition to their content, and in so doing offered a refreshing perspective on difficult issues in new media preservation. 

Why should we care about tapes, records, or cylinders as physical artifacts instead of just source recordings for mp3s?  Several presenters offered perspectives.  Susanna Belchior of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Portugal) discussed how original discs, with their labels and packaging, are helping researchers construct a history of the Portuguese recording industry.  The discs offer invaluable information about when and where the recordings were made.  By pairing these primary recorded resources with available ledgers and account books, researchers can begin to understand how the practice and economics of recording evolved in Portugal.  Belchior also suggested that chemical analysis of the physical discs might yield information about specific shellac or vinyl formulations used by particular institutions or in particular regions.  This talk reminded me a lot of a National Archives talk given at the American Institute for Conservation 2011 meeting in which artifactual evidence in book bindings enhanced existing understandings of book binders and their work in revolutionary America.

Silke Berdux and Nadia Wallaszkovits, respectively of the Deutsches Museum and the Austrian Academy of Sciences, discussed a fascinating preservation project focused on the open-reel tape recordings of electronic music innovator Oskar Sala (here is some basic info in English.)  As an experimenter in the recording studio, Sala used many unconventional techniques, such as switching among tape speeds, changing the number of recorded tracks, and splicing many different tape types together.  Sala’s work reminds me a great deal of fellow electronic music inventor Raymond Scott, on whose materials I was fortunate enough to work at the Marr Sound Archives.  I imagine Sala’s tapes would also share commonalities with those produced by the musique concrete innovators, as well; all of these individuals worked in audio tape as a primary medium.  As a result, the physical tape shows as much about the experimentation process as does the recorded content.  In order to better preserve both the visual and sound information in the Sala archive, high-definition video of the tape was taken during playback and paired with the tape’s digitized audio.  The resulting audio / video file is an elegant preservation solution that captures far more information than would the audio or video alone.  

At the conference’s conclusion, George Brock-Nannestad raised the following (paraphrased) question: How can we argue for the preservation of physical recordings when interest in them as artifacts seems like a fairly niche, academic pursuit?  This is a great question, and one that often bothers me at conferences.  More broadly, how can we argue for the importance of physical things in a world that is increasingly digital and intangible?  I think one answer is this: heritage caretakers, historians, and other allied professionals can conduct research that contextualizes material studies within broader trends in history, art, and the humanities.  For example, what can types of paper fibers tell us about trade routes?  What can binding styles tell us about the economics of a region?  What do tape splices say about the creative process? 

As a final note, I recently purchased a copy of Trade in Artists’ Materials: Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700, edited by Jo Kirby, Susie Nash, and Joanna Cannon and published by Archetype Publications.  Most of the materials discussed in this volume are much older than anything I encounter at the Texas State Archives.  However, I hope the book will offer a model for the type of conservation research described above: a blend of material evidence with history, trade patterns, economics, and the arts.  So here’s to future research rooted in physical heritage, research that makes the argument for preservation implicitly.