Volunteers Assist with State Supreme Court Case Files

This month, TSLAC Conservation highlights our volunteers. With their help, we are preparing 19th century State Supreme Court case files for digitization and improved researcher access.

Legal documents like the case files were typically stored in tri-folded packets and tightly sandwiched into drawers. After many years, the paper strongly retains its folds, making physical access very difficult. A series of grants from the Texas Historical Foundation has enabled TSLAC to address these documents’ physical condition and scan them for digital access.

Thick, folded packets present obstacles to researcher access.

Thick, folded packets present obstacles to researcher access.

TSLAC archivists first humidify and flatten the packets. For many case files, this is all the work that is required. Archivists then earmark any flattened case files in need of conservation treatment. That’s where our conservation volunteers come in.

Anne selects a flattened case file for conservation treatment.

Anne selects a flattened case file for conservation treatment.

Volunteers Anne and Lidia carefully separate case file packets adhered at the top with animal hide glue. They use a methyl cellulose poultice to soften the glue, release the leaves, and remove remaining adhesive. Some packets have two adhered leaves; some have 70! Anne and Lidia also mend badly damaged leaves with Japanese tissue and reversible wheat starch paste. The resulting, stabilized leaves are ready for reading room access and for scanning.

Lidia applies a methyl cellulose poultice to a previously water-damaged case file.

Lidia applies a methyl cellulose poultice to a previously water-damaged case file.

TSLAC thanks our volunteers for their hard work and dedication toward making these documents accessible!

Testing Tek-Wipe

Tek-Wipe is a new treatment material that has been much discussed by conservators during the annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation and beyond. TekWipe is a reusable substitute for the blotter paper typically used in washing treatments. Conservators have used Tek-Wipe to dramatically reduce stains and tidelines in paper, as recently discussed in an Iowa State University Library blog.

TSLAC Conservation was curious whether the detailed methodology of the ISU blog could be successfully repeated. In February, one sheet of a Confederate muster roll exhibited unusually pervasive staining and tidelines. A Tek-Wipe washing component was added to our ongoing muster roll treatment procedures in order to observe its effect on the staining.

Muster roll sheet before treatment.

Muster roll sheet before treatment.

The treatment began typically for our muster roll project. The item was humidified and sprayed with a 50/50 water/ethanol mixture due to iron gall ink corrosion. It was then placed in two successive 10-minute water baths, the second one conditioned to pH 8.5 with calcium hydroxide. The treatment procedure was then adjusted to incorporate Tek-Wipe. The item was sandwiched between damp blotter, Tek-Wipe, and spun polyester for two hours, as detailed in the ISU blog. After the first hour, the pre-existing silk lining was removed from the document. The item was then dried in open air and with blotters. Japanese tissue fills and mends were applied with wheat starch paste, and the item was stored in an archival plastic sleeve.

Muster roll sheet after washing with TekWipe and water baths.

Muster roll sheet after washing with TekWipe and water baths.

This after-washing photograph shows that the Tek-Wipe treatment had a negligible impact on stains and tidelines. Why might this be? Many of the stains in this collection are oil-based and ink-based, rather than water-based as seen in the ISU methodology. It’s possible, then, that stains of this nature remain unaffected by water-based TekWipe washing. Further testing might identify a different solvent that has a greater impact than water. Such solvents would require careful testing to ensure media stability.

Until more formal, repeatable studies occur, informal observations like these can add to the conservation field’s growing knowledge of Tek-Wipe treatment procedures. With further testing, documentation, and information sharing, methodologies can evolve to meet treatment needs.

Keeping the Paper in Newspaper

The Daily Texan, the University of Texas’ 113-year-old student newspaper, recently had a close brush with death of sorts.  On March 1, faced with declining advertising revenues, the paper’s managing board, Texas Student Media, voted on whether to reduce the paper’s print schedule.  Summer publication has already been reduced to once weekly.  The proposal had produced substantial outcry from students, alumni, and community members, who felt the print publication should not be cut.  The eventual decision was to leave the print schedule as-is – for now – and instead to cut staff salaries, dip into financial reserves, and enhance the publication’s online presence.  Printing and distribution has already been outsourced to the nearby Austin American-Statesman.

Clearly the Daily Texan’s print woes are not fully resolved.  For a conservator, and for those invested in the physical manifestations of print culture, an especially interesting quote appeared in the Texan’s editorial “Keep the Daily Texan Daily” on February 19, 2013:

Other college newspapers that have cut their circulation, such as the Red and Black at the University of Georgia, have not found themselves liberated by shedding their daily print product and transforming into a weekly newspaper. According to the Red and Black Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Fouriezos, print pick-up rates have declined dramatically and web traffic has suffered, too. ‘Take the paper out of their minds every day, and it’s no longer a part of their daily habit,’ he said, adding, ‘People can ignore an online product just as much as they can ignore a print product. Online readership is not a given.’

–The Daily Texan, 2/19/13

Just how much is paper part of the newspaper’s identity?  How do the physical and digital versions of media drive interest in one another?  How can libraries and archives best preserve the record of this turbulent transition?  We welcome your comments.

Meanwhile, for those of you wondering about the recent Travis Letter exhibit, we’ll have information and commentary as we process environmental data collected at the exhibit site.  Stay tuned in coming days and weeks.

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.

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.


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.

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.

Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson

One of the most enjoyable things about conservation is the unpredictability and variety of the work.  Today, I’d like to paint a brief portrait of one especially interesting piece of correspondence I recently treated.

Houston Introduction Letter Before Treatment

Sam Houston Introduction Letter - address information visible in upper left.

This 1823 letter is Andrew Jackson’s introduction of Sam Houston to Thomas Jefferson.  My work on the letter coincided with reading H.W. Brands’ Lone Star Nation, an engaging refresher on Texas history even for those who had it drilled into us as schoolchildren.  The timing couldn’t have been better, because Brands’ book puts a very human face on the friendship and mentorship between Jackson and Houston.

Young Houston first met General Jackson while serving under his command in the War of 1812.  Houston followed Jackson into Tennessee politics, becoming a congressman from 1823 – 1827, and governor from 1827 – 1829.  After resigning his governorship when his marriage crumbled in 1829, Houston eventually began his life anew in Texas.  Jackson continued to support him, especially regarding possible US annexation of the region.

Thus this 1823 letter coincides with the 30-year-old Houston’s election to the House of Representatives, a time in which a newly-minted congressman would have eagerly sought new introductions to influential people.  It’s no wonder that Jackson, himself bound for the presidency from 1829 – 1837, would have helped his protégé enter Washington life.  The introduction was timely; Jefferson, already an 80-year-old man in 1823, died in 1826.

The Houston Introduction Letter had some unusual condition issues when it appeared in the lab.  At some point in the past, the letter had been cut into 15 separate pieces, primarily along pre-existing fold lines.  These sections had then been adhered to thin pieces of silk, as was a past preservation practice.  Strangely, small gaps had been left inbetween the cut sections, leaving a grid-like appearance.  Investigation revealed the lining had been adhered with a combination of water-soluble paste and non-archival white glue, much like commercially marketed Elmer’s (see previous entry, “Problem Solving in Paper Conservation.”)

Sam Houston Introduction Letter Before Treatment

Transmitted light shows gaps between cut sections.

It’s impossible to say where, when, or why these previous steps were taken.  They might have happened even before our institution acquired the document.  However, they highlight the importance of reversibility, a central tenet of modern conservation practice.  Because of items like the Houston Introduction Letter, we know that current practice may not remain best practice forever, and we strive to learn from these past mistakes.  Accordingly, ethical conservation treatments comprise changes that can be undone in order to minimize their permanent impact on historical items.
Sam Houston Introduction Letter During Treatment

Mending cut pieces together after removing silk lining.

During treatment, I removed the silk lining, de-acidified the paper, and mended the pieces back together, closing the distracting gaps.  Age and wear have rendered those gaps still partially visible, but overall the treatment improved legibility and reduced visual disturbance.  And, if a future custodian finds that those cuts were historically important (for example, if Jackson had made the cuts himself,) my mends can be reversed and the letter returned to pieces.

Sam Houston Introduction Letter After Treatment

After treatment, the gaps have been closed as possible.

Here’s to a long life for this document of a fascinating confluence of people.

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.