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  1. Conservation Conversations // Tools of the Trade

    March 19, 2015 by Athena Moore

    As anyone who works with their hands can attest, tools are the key to good work. They also happen to be one of the most satisfying to seek out, collect, and choose favorites from.

    Nearly all tools used by conservators will be easily recognized by bookbinders and are particularly suited to their respective tasks.


    First, there are brushes:



    We use them every day: to adhere materials, to tone cloth and Japanese paper, to apply water strategically or smooth out fibers on a bit of tissue. For PVA and mix I really love using round Anza brushes (second image) and for paste, especially detailed mending, I go for any kind of flat filbert. Toning brushes are one-purpose too, since the risk of them being a tad dirty is always there. We use über beautiful Japanese brushes to apply size and tamp down linings (they’re fairly expensive so we share one large, very nice set). Static-dissipating brushes are used to clean dust from surfaces, hake brushes to remove loose material from bindings, and this clever little guy in the stand is used to pick up all the debris that gets caught in my bench corners (turns out, his true purpose is to clear away baguette crumbs!).


    Two other forms of tool that I find myself having quite a few of and utilizing pretty much every day are folders and spatulas.


    In my personal studio I have probably more bone folders than any other single tool, but at work I show more restraint. A bone folder with a point is useful for scoring lines and forming endcaps, while a nice flat bone folder is great for creasing sections or consolidating a spine. Teflon folders come in handy when smoothness is key or there’s concern over too much burnishing. A flat, super thin Teflon folder is especially good for floating material apart in a bath or removing adhesive with local humidification (be super careful if you choose to shape your own Teflon folders – breathing in the dust is dangerous!).

    Spatulas are a must. Stainless steel ones are great for working with wet materials, since there’s no risk of rusting and the edges are duller and therefore less likely to tear through potentially fragile paper. Casselli spatulas can be used to remove dry adhesive or accretions, to separate uncut pages when necessary, or to carefully unfold corners and edges. The large ones can easily be shaped (and re-sharpened!) to your preference on a sharpening stone and come in handy for muscling tough spine glue off.

    Some tools are not only super handy, but also super beautiful (thanks, Starrett).


    Best for taking and transferring measurements…


    …and for actually measuring with numbers, obviously.


    Dahlia sprayers are the absolute best for spraying out an object for humidification!

    Some tools seem to be suited for something else entirely:


    Scalpels are great for cutting previous sewing or paring edges of leather or paper, Bakelite folders are especially good for securing cloth around board edges, the bamboo comes in handy when separating sized leaves and folios from Hollytex safely, the butter knife makes an excellent cord-frayer, and the nail file is a handy little sander.

    Some tools and equipment appear to be better suited to a kitchen…


    From left to right, we have a fry stirring wok for making paste, blender for thinning paste, and SodaStream for iron gall phytate treatment.


    And the ever-present Pyrex custard dish, used for basically everything – predominantly paste, in our case.

    …or a doctor’s office…


    These are syringes sans needles for holding reserve paste.


    And cotton-tipped applicators for testing ink solubility.


    Also an assortment of ace bandages for holding previous spines in place during re-backs.

    And then there are weights:


    and more weights…


    and things that aren’t technically weights, but sure get used as such:



    We really like to hold things in place, so essentially anything heavy will do.

    Just like bookbinders, conservators have got to be resourceful. Labs tend to be equally outfitted with purpose-designed tools and cleverly re-purposed miscellaneous. It’s easy to get carried away with having just the right device for the job, but we’re faced with “make it work moments” every day. Anything you need is probably there, it just may take a bit of ingenuity to figure it out.

    And finally, for when just the right thing is eluding me, my emergency “tool” kit:


  2. Conservation Conversations // My Modelin’ Career

    February 26, 2015 by Marianna Brotherton

    Recently, an album of letters came into the lab. Each letter, envelope and card had been adhered into a notebook, and had become brittle, creased, and difficult to handle. The notebook’s covers were both off, and its binding was in disrepair. Designing a thoughtful and safe treatment proposal for this piece will be complicated- the different aspects; historical, structural, economical, and intent of use will have to be weighed and balanced. To remove each piece of memorabilia will be difficult and time consuming, but would create the opportunity to mend and rehouse the pieces. However, a lighter touch is always better, and focusing on stability alone would preserve more of the original structure and composition. To treat this album well, it will be necessary to have an understanding of the current structure and adhesion, and the possible detriments these may cause; a consciousness of different potential structural solutions; and clear expectations for the future needs and use of the album and its contents.

    Although I won’t be working on this treatment, the different concerns and possibilities associated with it piqued my curiosity. In researching different ways similar albums had been treated, I came across “A Photo Album Structure from Philadelphia, 1865” by Betsy Palmer Eldridge [Book and Paper Group Annual 21 (2002)]. It is an excellent description of a structure which, as Eldridge describes it, “can be used in the restoration of Victorian photo albums or in the construction of new stiff-leafed albums.” However, what I appreciated most about her article was the investigation and research her curiosity fueled. Although there were plenty of advertisements and descriptions about the albums, there were no detailed directions. Eldridge has constructed a method on how it is put together, and describes each step in her article. The best piece of advice I have yet been given is to pursue this curiosity- especially in the form of creating models. Working backwards, recreation, and developing ideas through writing are perhaps the best ways to fully know anything. This is especially true of books, who’s working action and composition is difficult to discern if fully intact. An historical model presents us with three-dimensional access to its structure and intended function, while also serving as an invaluable form of documentation.

    While interning at the Wunsch Lab at MIT, Jana Dambrogio showed me a few models she had made of books she had studied. Not only did she replicate the binding structure, but all of the individual flaws and characteristics of the books as well. Each dog ear, tear, and hole was now documented in a book she could later handle and contemplate. This kind of work is an important lesson in patience, detail, and critical thinking. It slows the hand and creates time to ask questions. What am I trying to repair? What is the causation of the damages I am looking to reverse or minimize? Is every dog eared page an accident, or do they represent an historical figure’s notation? [Read about the Huntington Library’s famous fold here]


    Not all dog ears are important notations, but every now and then there comes a crease I wouldn’t flatten

    As a conservator, it is not my responsibility to lend gravity to an individual book; I must treat, and conserve each book with equal propriety, reverence, and respect. But it is my responsibility to stabilize a book for future use and understanding. By documenting what a book looked like before treatment I not only hold myself accountable for what I proceed to do with it, but I am also acknowledging its history and experience of time.

    Documentation is our way of preserving  as much of a book as possible, and creating a model of a working, physical manifestation of its history and experience not only aids researc8de6cc3a99ae9a7b7fdb193c364c6ccdhers and historians, but future conservators and bookbinders alike. I found this tactic to be especially useful when I was rebinding “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.” The front and back boards were missing, and the paper was torn and discolored. Imitating both the book and its defects forced me to mentally disbind and rebind the book before acting. I had to lend importance to each flaw in order to ascertain what the damage was, how it occurred, and what it could teach me about the structure and its experience.




    First, I tried sewing the model all along, following the lines of an educated guess; but when I tried to mimic the tears and loose sections it became apparent that a different method had been employed. With trial and error, I was able to recreate the original sewing, finding explanations for most of its defects. 63ccc9a06a929a62b6b10d50ccd94c64Once the book was rebound between new covers, its original functionality was restored, but it no longer told the story of its physical experience. Its history, however, is preserved in the form of photos, its treatment report, and of course, its model.

    During the repair of a large book of tracts, disbinding was not a prudent option. I was faced once again, with a structure that was unfamiliar to me, and I found this made it difficult to decide upon a sympathetic treatment plan. The front board had come off, the paste down was lifting, and the spine piece was missing. The parchment slips were split at the point of hinging; half remained sewn along the spine, while the other half stuck out from between the board edge.682c0e41048c34ae90a4e7bd90304b2b

    I was curious about the end papers and the board attachment. Remembering the advice Jana had given me, I made a replica of the cover, end sheets, and the first sewn section.




    I spent all day trying to make sense of its many layers, and to discern where the attachment’s strengths and weaknesses were. By the end of the repair, I had not only reattached the board and reinforced its weak points, but I had learned a new type of binding as well.

    In an interview posted by the American Museum of Natural History, Ichthyologist Scott Schaefer addresses the need to preserve the physicality of specimens:

    Q: With a growing jurisdiction, since collections increase every year. Why is it still important to bring back physical specimens?

    A:  “Because they often represent the only tangible snapshot we have of life on Earth. You might say, “You can sample the genome of a specimen. You can take a photograph of a specimen, won’t that be sufficient?”

    Well, the answer is no. It might be adequate. Those might be excellent photographs. That might be one kind of representation, if you talk about a genome sequence, for example. But it isn’t necessarily sufficient to answer all the types of questions that could potentially be asked about that biodiversity at that place and at that time…”

    [Read the entire interview here]

    Having information on a specimen will never be the same as having the specimen on hand. In order to get to all the nuances that Schaefer describes, to fully represent the snapshot of our bibliographic experience, it is necessary to have books, and to have original bindings. BUT as we conservators know, sometimes a book crumbles just by looking at it, and so we must compromise some originality for the sake of prosperity. When a book has aged beyond use, it is, I believe, best to gather as much information about it as possible, providing the greatest insight with the least amount of damage. And while I would prefer to be able to casually flip through everything in Special Collections, I won’t be the one to turn the stacks into a pile of red rot.

    Original is best, (but I think Schafaer might agree) that when pressed, a clone comes in at a close second.

  3. Conservation Conversations // On Assuming and Assumptions

    February 5, 2015 by Marianna Brotherton

    I have been thinking about a recent treatment I did on An Historical Collection of the Most Memorable Accidents, and Tragical Massacres of France quite a bit lately. More than the mere drama of the process, I was really taken by the experience of nixing some old assumptions of mine. Conservation is a relatively new science, and while we work on preserving artifacts that are hundreds of years old, we really only have a few decades worth of treatments and methods to study and improve. There are ways of simulating the aging process in a lab, but nothing is as affirming as standing the true test of time. But until enough time passes, and those ahead of us can OK our treatments (or kick them to the curb, liquid leather I’m looking at you!) we have little more to go on than our assumptions, scientific or otherwise. It is therefore important to revisit these assumptions often, and to feel confident and comfortable in them.

    First Assumption: There is little to be done to a sad, sewn, dirty text block.

    Conserving a book not only means stabilizing it structurally, but preserving its history as well. To cut sewing is to severe a tie with a bookbinder of the past, and to alter the character of the book and its future. Even when the sewing is replicated exactly, we loose a piece of the history that we are striving to hold onto.  Also, this particular book was rather large, and cutting the sewing just to wash and resew it was not an ideal way to spend the week.

    Second Assumption: If the text block seems solid, and there are no apparent breaks, the sewing must be perfectly intact.


    Three generations of book conservators looked at this text block and confidently assumed, based on their collective experiences and knowledge, that this book was over sewn and intact. One of the most beautiful aspects of working with Special Collections is the craftsmanship that goes into every piece – you can survey hundreds of books bound in the same tradition, but every one of them will reflect quirks of their individual binder(s). You can never be certain that a mistake wasn’t made somewhere in the process, that a new technique wasn’t being developed, or that a specific structure was ever intended to fully mimic another. We can make generalizations and assumptions about collections, but we really must treat each object as its own.

    This particular book I was working on was printed in 1598, and the paper is just stunning. However, after 400 years anyone would have a few cobwebs to clean out, and it was discussed that a good wash would have really done it some good.

    Third Assumption: You cannot wash a whole book.


    Photo Credit: Suzy Morgan

    For the most part, paper and water are actually good friends, especially when introduced in a controlled manner. And while Cellulose and H20 may go way back, the thought of a soggy book remains horrifying. I have always assumed, as perhaps the above poster brainwashed me into thinking, that it should be avoided at all costs. However, this assumption of mine was quickly dismissed when washing the text block in its entirety was suggested. With a quick search of the CoOl archives, Bill Minter‘s description of this very idea popped up. As he mentions, this treatment is rarely prudent, but just because the right opportunity doesn’t present itself often doesn’t mean it isn’t a possibility to consider.

    In any science, especially when one is new to the field, it is easy to assume that the methods you were taught are the only methods that should be employed. But stopping once in a while to question and consider your techniques, especially the most simple, is important. Why is paste sticky? What amount of abrasion does a latex sponge cause? What parts am I actually trying to put back together? For me, washing an entire book was so out of the ordinary, and such a foreign treatment that I was forced to stop and think about every step along the way. Ideas I had held as truths started to feel less certain – if I put paper in water might it dissolve and turn to pulp?! Will the pages stick together if they’re washed or dried on top of one another? Is there dirt IN the pages? I had never had cause to consider such things when I washed a book in leaves; I was taught this was an appropriate method, and that I could expect certain outcomes in certain situations. Of course I knew that every book was different, and that spot testing was important, but I didn’t ask why A always equaled B, or pondered the possibility of irrational results. When we assume something is tried and true, we don’t feel the pressing need to think about it actively. I took it on blind faith.

    But we went ahead with Bill’s directions anyway- we set up a “fish tank”, had our interleaving ready, and our wind tunnel built.


    I took a deep breath, and lowered the oldest book I have ever worked on into what I assumed could easily be its watery grave. But, science held out and the paper reacted just as it would have in sheets. I was not left with a 5 gallon bucket of paper slush.


    However, we did discover that the sewing wasn’t actually intact. The first few sections had been over sewn, but the rest were held together only by the remnants of sewing and adhesive. Sections started sloughing off as the water developed that satisfying ocher.


    Fourth Assumption: Assume the book is intact, and continue with the experiment anyway.

    We carried out the rest of Bill’s methods with the sections stacked together as a single textblock. 5d34051ee3e249947b696df455a3cf7aWe were all curious to see how the book would dry, and how the paper would respond to a week long stint in the Motel 8 of wind tunnels. Continuing in this manner gave me time to consider and investigate the methods of washing, drying, and flattening that I had learned. And although it turns out that washing and drying intact is not actually faster, it is still just one more possibility.

    All in all, this book was just rife with learning opportunities…

    Fifth Assumption: If you find you’ve sewn a section in upside down, you must take the book apart and start again (even if you’ve already laced your boards on).

    After deciding that this assumption was NOT the direction I wanted to go in, I took a step back from the project and considered it from every angle I could muster. We decided that if I cut the sewing (gasp!) around the incorrect section, I could then turn it about and resew it through the newly lined spine. This was not an ideal situation, but it was an opportunity to think about the book structure, and all the implications of altering it.

    Sixth Assumption: Once you’ve covered a book in full leather, and it has dried overnight, you do not get any more redo’s.

    Yet another learning opportunity! I had covered this book the first time in a skin that made everyone in the lab raise an eyebrow. It was a very strange shape, and looked a bit wonky. However, we assumed it would come out just fine in the wash. Never had I been so disappointed to come into work the next morning. The leather was puckered and wrinkled in all the wrong ways, and simply did not seem salvageable. Perhaps there were design opportunities in this glaring mistake as a bookbinder, but as a conservator, there was nothing to be done.

    However, paste is reversible. Duh. And there were plenty of new skins to choose from. So after much debate and inner conflict, I decided to test just how reversible it was. Again, not an ideal situation, but I was able to remoisten the leather and lift it off its new boards. It was certainly a set back, but not nearly as detrimental as I had first thought it to be. With a little bit of sanding, and a new paper lining, the boards were fit to be covered.


    e3929a5f6bf5b62f854d43415c26dad5   540dcc1e4b9644bd51b203fba906336d

    But, after much preparation, research, collaboration, and thinking outside of the box, I was somehow able to take this book from drab to fab, and to reassess my ways of thinking in the process.

  4. Conservation Conversations // A Bit on Paper Mends

    January 18, 2015 by Marianna Brotherton

    Book conservation is a field much like any other; the more we know, the more we learn just how much we don’t know. Specialization is our attempt to foil this conundrum by focusing our view, and therefore narrowing the range of potential “know-ables.” In conservation this can come in the form of “parchment specialist” or “leader in the field of 14th century wooden board bindings.” This type of focus allows one to delve more deeply into the history of the specific topic, and to explore more thoroughly the different conservation problems and treatments that may arise. But with each magnification of topic, more possibilities come into focus, not less.  Ask a Palynologist, and he’ll tell you there’s an entire universe of intrigue in a single speck of dust.

    So how is it done? How does one ever stop themselves from spinning down the rabbit hole of questions and answers long enough to actually produce something? Or, gasp, feel like they KNOW something?

    Conservators take it one page, and one problem at a time.

    So, let’s take a look at just one problem: paper. The ripped, torn, stained, creased, wadded-up-in-a-ball-and-left-for-dead kind of paper. You denizens of Forgotten Attics and Soggy Basements take heart! Conservators CAN put you back together again.

    The first step in mending any sort of paper is to mechanically clean the surface with latex spongeIMG_2785s, rubber eraser crumbs, cosmetic sponges, brushes… The list of implements goes on, but the concept remains singular. REMOVE LOOSE SURFACE DIRT. As you can see, one swipe of the sponge quickly leads to a hefty pile of spent latex, and one impressive jar of hair, dirt, dust, and many other unmentionables. [note: photographs are examples of three distinct pieces, and are adjacent for effect only.]


    Once the paper is thoroughly cleaned of any loose debris, a mental Venn Diagram of all possible procedures must be conjured. If, after weighing the pros and cons of washing (Yes, paper may be washed in filtered and deionized water, pH preference of 7.5)  the conservator deems it best practice for the object, its provenance, and the desires of its owner to perform this treatment,

    he must carefully take note of any water-soluble marginalia, inscriptions, plates etc. I have heard lore of a conservator, who after much spot testing and deliberation, fatefully watched an ‘I’ float off a page to the surface of the water bath. It is always best to err on the side of caution, so be thorough in your spot tests.

    But if, as in the case of this inscribed fly-leaf, the paper really would do for a bath, a wonderful substance called cyclododecane can make an otherwise unfit washing candidate washable. The wax-like material is melted, and applied to areas one wishes to become temporarily hydrophobic. By painting over the letters written in ink as in the photo, we can choose exactly which parts of the paper we wish to remain dry, and any part of the paper not covered in cyclododecane will respond to our aquatic treatment. Within a IMG_2744period of roughly 24 hours, the cyclododecane will sublime off the paper, leaving behind only the unaffected, unwashed ink. Then after washing, one is able to flatten and dry the paper between felts and weight. This particular fly-leaf not only lost any wrinkles or creases it previously had, but it brightened in color, added a degree of softness, and regained a sense of drape as well.

    For papers we deem unfit to wash, but who could still benefit from a good ironing, a more localized approach can be taken.

    Take this mountain fold. If we paint a line of thin wheat starch paste across the top of the fold with a dainty brush, the paper fibers will expand and relax, and with the small addition IMG_2790of a blotter-reemay-weight sandwich, you will find the fold to have flattened out. I find wheat starch paste to be preferable to water because there is a bit of added control in the spread of moisture, and the paste adds just a dash of strength to the weakened area. [Note: tide-lines, and other horrible and unimaginable affects could be consequence to this treatment. ALWAYS spot test before introducing moisture into paper.]

    When working with paste, I have found it to be handy to keep a small glob near the first knuckle of the non-dominant pointer finger. The paste is not only near to application, but your body heat has warmed it slightly, which can be used to create a thicker, drier paste.

    I have also found it handy to work on a clean surface, not merely for the sake of avoiding contamination of the object you are working on, but because it makes quick work to paste up a piece of tissue directly on the table surface. It can also be helpful to paste up on a piece of remay affixed to gray board, as Bill Minter suggests, when one is really concerned with controlling moisture levels.

    Once the paper is flat, we may descend into the third level of mends: Tear Repair. I once thought that all rips, tears, and cuts were to be treated equally, and with the same large, band-aid of a tissue slapped over it. Lucky for me, this was just another beautiful point in my career when I was faced with the reminder that “I know nothing.” Paper mends should be light, delicate, invisible upon first glance, while somehow miraculously remaining strong and steadfast. The chivalrous “Mr. Knight” introduced me to a majority of these tactics, my favorite treatise being, ‘On How To Treat A Scarf Tear: Or, A Look Into The Impossibly Simple Procedure of Just Gluing It Back Together.’ Many tears occur in such a way that a “lip” is created between the two sides. With a little bit of paste painted daintily along the tear and some light pressure, the two edges of paper can happily sit one on top of the other. Tear Repaired.


    If your “lips” happen to be dirty a dark line may appear, looking much like a crack across your paper. It will be noticeable, no matter how strong your repair may be, and it will drive you crazy. I have found that it is possible (though highly aggressive) to lightly and with much care, sand the edges of the “lips”, thereby reducing dirt and repair visibility. A second, less invasive, reversible method is to tone the mend. A new favorite material of mine is Toasted Cellulose Powder. Baked in the toaster oven for a range of several minutes, IMG_2794 you’ll have yourself an array of creams, whites and browns. This powder, being of the same “stuff” as your paper, will blend nicely when affixed with a small amount of paste or methyl cellulose. Sometimes, simply rubbing the fine powder across the mend is enough to discourage the eye from seeing the tear immediately.

    A cleaner tear, or cut, does not have the advantage of overlap, and therefore has little or nothing to affix itself to. In this case, often all that is necessary are a few fuzzys pulled from the edge of your tissue. Laying these long, muscular fibers along the cut bridges the gap in a similar manner as the “lip” in a scarf tear. Another dainty swathe of thin paste across the mend followed by a blotter-reemay-weight sandwich, and you’re good to go.


    BAD FILL. But historical, so cool.

    And finally, I bring you Fills. A fill is a piece of tissue replacing the original, missing paper. The most common fill I have come upon is that of the Lost Dog Ear. The vulnerable position of the page corner, met with the human desire to bend things, creates a most obvious breaking point in a piece of paper. When filling in a loss, it is best to be foppish about it. When time allows, tone your tissue with water colors, a shade or so lighter than the paper you are working on. It will be wise to select a tissue, or combination of tissues, that are equal or slightly thinner in weight to the object. A heavier tissue will create strain on the original paper and will only do more harm than good. Remember, paper mends should be ethereal, and only the smallest possible amount of tissue should be used.

    IMG_1439 If working on a corner or an edge I like to make my fill slightly over-sized, and will cut to size later. Tear the tissue so that the fuzzys are present, and then against the backdrop of a light, snip off any extra or overzealous fibers with tiny scissors. You want enough of the fuzzys to remain so that they can be overlaid onto the edge of the mend, but not so many that they stick out in an obnoxious fashion. Here we can daintily paint on our wheat starch paste directly on the table surface. I prefer to paste out only the edge of the tissue that will be overlapping the mend, and then apply pressure quickly with a piece of reemay between the teflon folder and tissue. I have found that this mend will dry IMG_1457quickly, and only a little bit of weight is necessary. I like to turn the paper over, and add a second layer of the same tissue, overlapping the first mend every so slightly from the verso side. Here, it is good to paste up the entire piece, so that it sticks both to the paper being mended, and the first layer of tissue. A mixture of types of tissues and weights can and should be used to match the mend, the kind of paper being mended, taking into account the condition the original paper is in. Each repair is unique, and requires an arsenal of paste thicknesses (thin paste is more flexible than thick paste, but thick paste can be tackier) and different tissue types.

    To find any hidden tears, run the edges of the paper lightly through your pointer and middle fingers, using only the slightest pressure to reveal any tears you may have missed.

    Document your work in written and photographed documentation. I’ve been taught to photograph in both normal and raking light for flat work (raking light really shows off creases and folds). A light table can be useful for highlighting rips and tears (I’ve read on other conservation blogs that there are apps for phones and tablets that work as cheap, portable light tables).

    And last but not least, don’t forget to make your GIF!

  5. Conservation Conversations // About Equipmemt

    December 30, 2014 by Jeanne Goodman

    Book conservation labs are an interesting hybrid of a paper conservation lab and a bindery. Much of the equipment in a bindery you could find in a book lab, but not necessarily the other way around. Book labs can also be divided by activities, when space allows. Some processes are dirtier then others (such as sanding, red-rotted book repair, mold vacuuming) and need to be kept separate from clean spaces (washing sink, paper repair areas).

    Of the many considerations when deciding which equipment should be acquired and in what order, I would say the first is to identify and prioritize the needs of the collection you are conserving. If there is a large collection of over-sized maps, the documentations washing sink should be of a size to safely accommodate slightly bigger then the average size of those maps. Some equipment, such as a leafcaster, are highly specialized and you may not acquire one until much later when the right project or the funds become available. Other considerations to muck up the works are: square footage of the space available to you, budget, floor neighbors, budget, space infrastructural needs (water source, ventilation, outlets, noise suppression), availability of equipment…..and BUDGET.

    Just for fun, I am going to ignore all that annoying stuff and just give you the coveted lab equipment that made my list. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I stuck to things that you would find in a lab but not a bindery.

    Encapsulator. Used to create custom polyester sleeves for flat paper items. Not air tight as to create a micro-climate, the sleeve protects a fragile item by giving it support from both sides by a clear polyester film and leaves all physical attributes and information completely visible. Unique to the conservation world, this machine was invented by Bill Minter, another book conservator. How it works: an ultrasonic welder attached to a brace bar with a motor that it allows it to travel back and forth along the bar as the welder welds two sheets of polyester film together around the paper object. The item/polyester sandwich is held in place on the table by a blanket of magnets which also pushes out any air and keeps the item flat.

    Suction table. For controlled use of moisture and/or solvents to a localize area of flat paper during conservation treatment, especially useful with items that have friable or fugitive media. Invented by Marilyn Weidner in 1972, another clever and inventive conservator, this unique piece equipment will be found in most paper labs. How it works: The table work surface is a perforated aluminum top which draws air down providing a uniform suction over the entire work surface. Clean, dry blotter is placed between the item and work surface as treatments are performed.






    Vacuuming mold from books

    Fume hood. Used to protect workers from solvent fumes and exposure to mold spores. Conservators will place  mold contaminated items inside to vacuum and for treatment. Also a place to perform small treatments with solvents if you do not have a fume trunk. Not unique to conservation, fume hoods and trunks are found in chemical and bio labs that use solvents. How they work: fume hoods (or cabinets) are typically enclosed on five sides and have a sliding glass opening at about standing work height. They can be either ducted or recirculating, but both work the same by drawing in air from the open side of the cabinet and expelling the air outside the building or made safe through a system of filtration and recirculated into the building. (wiki answer)

    Documents Washing Sink. Just how it sounds, a giant sink for washing paper. The sink is typically custom sized to the space and standing working height with a special water filtration source. The large flat area is necessary for not only washing and humidifying large paper items, but can also be used to hold multiple trays to wash and humidify smaller items.






    Before treatment

    Photo documentation. The equipment used for photo documentation vary from extravagant use of space (separate room with multiple copy stands, backdrops, dedicated lights and tech) to more humble situations (plexi glass on stacked crates and roll of grey paper mounted to the wall), but all will have a dedicated camera, typically a high quality DSLR. Photos are taken before and after treatment and are included in the written treatment report that accompanies all conserved items. Documentation of items being conserved is an industry standard and a dedicated photo documentation area in the lab helps streamline the process to make it less time consuming.

  6. Conservation Conversations // Doing Nothing

    December 24, 2014 by Henry Hebert

    Action is often the focus of conservation literature and it is natural to discuss a treatment as a kind of narrative. Picture it: a cultural artifact, such as a book or painting, comes into a conservation lab in poor shape. The condition may be a result of poor materials, improper storage, or disaster, but the conservator, as protagonist and primary agent of change, intervenes to bring the object back to some ideal state. The story can be more routine, such as preparing objects for digitization, but it can also be kind of heroic, like salvage efforts following a disaster. Based on anecdotal evidence, it may appear that the conservator’s job is to quickly act in times of need.

    The images often presented as part of a treatment discussion corroborate this notion. Conservators take photographs of objects (like the ones below) before and after treatment as a component of documenting the work being carried out.

    The Huguenots and Henry of Navarre, Vol. II (1886)

    The Huguenots and Henry of Navarre, Vol. II (1886)

    In my own experiences of presenting examples of conservation work to members of the public, I often show treatments that resulted in the most dramatic changes in appearance for obvious effect.

    The initial urge to act when confronted with cultural objects in need can be both seductive and dangerous. Like one of those animal cruelty commercials with Sarah McLachlan singing in the background, a broken book makes me feel like I should do something. As a library conservator very early in my career, however, I often find myself questioning whether I should act at all.

    Inappropriate treatment decisions can lead to irreparable loss of evidence or information. A characteristic of an object that may not be obvious to me or a curator, might be very important to a scholar in the future. And while I make every effort to ensure that my work is reversible, I must recognize that sometimes there is no going back. Of course, there are many factors to consider and each situation may be different. I often find myself looking back over the core documents of the AIC, namely the Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice, and at times come to the conclusion that the most appropriate thing to do is nothing at all.

    The conservation professional performs within a continuum of care and will rarely be the last entrusted with the conservation of a cultural property. The conservation professional should only recommend or undertake treatment that is judged suitable to the preservation of the aesthetic, conceptual, and physical characteristics of the cultural property. When nonintervention best serves to promote the preservation of the cultural property, it may be appropriate to recommend that no treatment be performed.

    I like to think about being part of the “conservation continuum” mentioned in the Guidelines for Practice – particularly in the context of previous repairs. At some point during a typical workday I’m often silently cursing some person from the past, who (with probably the best of intentions) executed the worst repair ever. In some cases, like these examples of stitching in medieval books, those repairs can be evidence of use and valuable to a researcher. More often in a research collection, however, the repair was done just a few decades ago by a library employee. For those that are damaging and particularly difficult to remove (like tape can be), I sometimes think that the object would have been better off if the shadowy perpetrator from the past had just left it alone completely!

    The conservation professional must strive to select methods and materials that, to the best of current knowledge, do not adversely affect cultural property or its future examination, scientific investigation, treatment, or function.
    – Item IV: Code of Ethics

    Angry thoughts about my library forebears inevitably turn toward a role reversal, in which some future conservator is silently cursing me as they are reversing my work. As materials and techniques advance, we can only assume that some of our activities will be looked upon as barbaric or ham-handed eventually; however, making appropriate decisions based on analysis, research, and testing will keep this to a minimum.

    The conservation professional shall practice within the limits of personal competence and education as well as within the limits of the available facilities.
    – Item IV: Code of Ethics

    In the end, if I’m not 1000% confident that I understand the materials in question and can complete the treatment myself with the tools at my disposal, I’m ethically bound to leave the item alone. I can look for someone else that is qualified to do the work correctly, or at least investigate other options, such as boxing or creating a facsimile, that are well within my grasp. Fortunately, many library materials can benefit from “benign neglect” in the proper storage environment and will not disappear without immediate action. While confronting the limits of one’s abilities can be hard, sometimes the best treatment option is to hold off until one of those future conservators comes along.

  7. Conservation Conversations // Adhesives in Library and Archives: A Colloquium Review (Part 2)

    December 4, 2014 by Henry Hebert

    The first Biennial Conservation Colloquium was held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in early November of this year. Four conservators traveled to Urbana from the UK and across the country to speak about their research or practical experiences with various adhesives in library and archives conservation. This post is the second in a two-part series, in which I attempt to summarize the major points of each talk. You can read part one here.


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  8. Conservation Conversations // Another Look at Su-Su

    November 15, 2014 by Erin Fletcher

    Earlier this year, as part of the Conservation Conversations column, Lauren Schott wrote an article on su-su, which highlighted the steps to creating this alternative matter for toning materials as part of the conservation treatment. Also referred to as paper dirt or paper extract, I was first introduced to this alternative toning pigment at North Bennet Street School by my instructor Martha Kearsley. Later on, I used it while interning at the Boston Public Library, just as Lauren did the following year during her internship.

    Conservation is a science and therefore it evolves as our understanding of it grows through research, experiments, discussions and time. John O’Regan recently brought the following article to my attention, which he found through CoOL (Conservation OnLine). In 2008, Erin Gordon of Queen’s University wrote Comparing Paper Extract to Traditional Toning Materials. Erin’s introduction to paper extract came during a workshop conducted by Renate Mesmer, Head of Conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The information Renate presented was largely based on an article by Piers Townshend, Head of Paper Conservation at the Tate Conservation Department. Interestingly, this is the same article Lauren cites in her post as further reading on the subject.

    Erin’s paper, as the title suggests, is based on her research conducted for the purpose of her studies in the Master of Art Conservation program at Queen’s University. If you are interested in knowing the science behind paper extract and other toning materials, I suggest you read through Erin’s paper. But those of you who are interested in reading the exciting conclusions Erin found right now, well here it is:

    Paper extract has some positive characteristics. Paper extract is transparent and matches the tone of aged paper exactly. It absorbs into the paper substrate and maintains the paper’s matte appearance. Paper extract is more lightfast than tea and it is the most reversible of all the materials tested. Another advantage to paper extract may be that a colour shift as the repair ages may not be as visible. As shown in the aging trials, watercolour and acrylic both faded. After a few years when the surrounding paper has aged, but the repair has faded, these repaired areas will become quite apparent and will likely need to be re-done. The use of paper extract may prevent this dramatic colour shift.
    These characteristics make paper extract a very attractive material to use for toning. Before choosing paper extract an important result of this investigation must not be overlooked. Paper extract degrades the paper substrate upon accelerated aging. The paper samples became more brittle and were significantly discoloured after artificial aging. According to the analysis done to the paper extract materials and then paper sources of the extract, the main culprit behind the deterioration upon aging seems to be lignin. Half the papers used as the raw material for the extract tested positive for lignin. The GC-MS results found a high abundance of lignin and its degradation products. Although the results show the content of lignin in the paper extract is contributing to the degradation of the samples during aging, there is a notable improvement in folding endurance and discolouration when the alkalized extract results are compared to the non- alkalized extract results. Further research should be conducted to test whether an adequate alkaline buffer can be added to the extract to make it archival or to test whether the extract can be applied to material that has been de-acidified with an alkaline buffer. Extract made from paper that is lignin free should also be tested to compare artificial aging results with the lignin containing sample results. After analyzing the results of this research, the conclusion can be made that paper extract is not the best choice for a toning material, as paper extract has been shown to degrade the paper substrate with accelerated aging. Although having better aging characteristics than tea, a commonly used toning material, the best choice remains to be either watercolour or acrylic paint.
    Gordon, ANAGPIC 2008, 19-20

    So the point of this post, is not to claim that Lauren or anyone using su-su is wrong in their methods (because it might be the most appropriate). But that as professions in the field of conservation, there is a responsibility to understand the positive and negative consequences of the treatments and materials employed (and how those factors may change over time). The pros and cons must be weighed for each object individually, while keeping in consideration its history, its function and its future. Understanding our materials and why we choose to bind, rebind or repair a book in a certain way must continually be reaccessed.

    I’ve targeted the conservator throughout this post, but I don’t believe that professional bookbinders are free of this task either. As is the case with most professions, we grow as an industry and individual through consistent research, experimentation and discussion.

  9. Conservation Conversations // Adhesives in Library and Archives: A Colloquium Review (Part 1)

    November 14, 2014 by Henry Hebert

    Last Friday, the first Biennial Conservation Colloquium was held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Four conservators traveled to Urbana from the UK and across the country to speak about their research or practical experiences with various adhesives in library and archives conservation. Thanks to generous funding from the UIUC Library and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the day-long event was free to 50 attendees.  In this two-part series, I will attempt to summarize the major points of each talk and hopefully encourage others working in the field to visit us for the next event.

    UIUC Library

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  10. Conservation Conversations // About Spaces

    October 2, 2014 by Jeanne Goodman

    In the first Conservation Conversations, way back in January, Anna brought up the idea of working in a “studio” or “lab”. There is another running joke that is very true about conservators always ending up in the basement. It’s not because the PTB* don’t like us, but when designing conservation spaces, there are a myriad of factors to account for some of which are proper ventilation, water sources, and public access. It all begins with what actual physical space is available. In some cases, a conservation department is added on later in the institution’s history, which can limit the spaces available properly suited for a conservation lab. Hence, basement dwellings. Or the attic. Or that closet that used to belong to facilities.

    Whatever the case may be, re-purposing a space to our needs (as we sometimes do with tools) is not an unusual situation to be in and if we are really lucky, and been really good and the stars are aligned just right, we could also be in on the planning for a brand new space.

    The following are images of studios, labs, and binderies I have had the pleasure to visit along with some solutions and customizations for how spaces can be re-purposed for conservation.

    conservation lab in a historical building

    Believe it or not, this lab is actually located in the basement level of the building, which sits on a hill overlooking a cemetery. This side of the building includes windows that are historical to the structure. Due to this fact and that the windows are original, renovation plans to update the conservation lab had to include them in the designs. Most conservators would give their non-dominant arm for a window (don’t even ask me what we do for more than one window). However, windows are difficult for us in two ways: 1) they can mess with the stability of your inner environment such as temperature and relative humidity. Drastic changes in temperature and weather on the outside are buffered better by insulated walls rather then floor to ceiling windows. And 2) sunlight coming through must be filtered for UV to protect objects that might be staying in the lab while they are worked on. The Solution: modern windows with UV filtering glass were built on the inside of the historical ones allowing for better insulation. A building inside a building.

    private bench for rent in a shared bindery space

    This is a bindery studio located on the 6th floor of a Warehouse Building, that also houses other artists and small businesses. The bindery shares the floor with a photography studio. There are four work benches that are rented by the month and renters pay for their own special supplies. Large equipment like board shears and book presses are shared as well as the overhead for utilities and basic book materials such as bookboard, lining material, text block paper and adhesives.

    example of a university conservation lab

    This lab was added to a brand new space built on University grounds, which enabled the head conservator to have input on many specifications for the space as it was being built. The building is on one level and is shared with classroom spaces and offices. Modifications for this lab were better insulation and HVAC systems to control the environment as much as possible. Due to public access of the building, the lab also has a top of the line security system.

    private artist studio used as a bindery

    This bindery is located in a more traditional building of Artist Studios. Artists rent studio space by the square footage and bring in there own equipment and supplies. This collective also has a shared gallery space on the first floor where artists can have there own shows and work collaboratively with one another.

    paper lab lunder2lunder3

    This lab is located in a Museum and was built in a way that the public could observe conservators as they work. The paper conservation lab is shown here and two of the walls are clear so visitors can walk around the entire lab.

    example of a conservation lab used for teaching

    And last, this space is part of a Conservation School. Here, students learn about treatments and work on individual projects. The school also hosts workshops on conservation, which is when this picture was taken. Three pairs of tables are spaced evenly in the center of the room, each with recessed light boxes. Overhead fume hoods on movable, retractable necks from the ceiling are spaced through the center of the room so they can be adjusted over any workstation including over the large washing sink. Two rooms bookend this larger space, one used for photo conservation and the other dedicated exclusively to book projects. The school also hosts workshops on conservation, which is when this picture was taken.

    These examples represent only a small number of conservation spaces that are out there, but you start to get the picture. If there is a kind of space not represented or if you know of a particularly interesting solution to a space re-purposing conundrum, I would love to hear about it! Please post in the comments below.

    *PTB=Powers That Be. These can be a board of trustees, company president, or someone just known as Your Boss.

    **All pictures used here with permissions of the owners of the spaces. If you would like to know where any individual picture was taken, please email with the request.


  • My name is Erin Fletcher, owner and bookbinder of Herringbone Bindery in Boston. Flash of the Hand is a space where I share my process and inspirations.
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