Tag Archives: conservation treatments

Preserving Our Cultural Heritage Conference, Part 3- Tour and Workshop

And without further adieu, the final chapter in my report from the Preserving Our Cultural Heritage conference at IU: the tour and the workshop.


On Saturday afternoon, I attended a behind-the-scenes tour of the Lilly Library, rare books, manuscripts, and special collections library of the Indiana University Libraries. This tour was given by Erika Dowell, a public services librarian at the Lilly Library.

I won’t dwell on every aspect of the tour or how they do things at the Lilly, but I jotted down some things I found interesting. Until looking at them again, I had forgotten most of it — that’s why we take notes! — but it seems that most of my interest had to do with the reading room.

The Lilly’s collections “are available to all with a research need for them” (see the Lilly’s use policies). To use materials in the reading room, you have to register (they photocopy your ID – good idea!), and you get “buzzed in” to the reading room when your requested materials are ready for you. They don’t require gloves except for photos or metal objects but obviously you should have clean hands — Ms. Dowell said they often wish they had a hand wash station available (another good idea – ah, facilities planning!).

I noticed that there was at least one security camera in the reading room. I have not seen that before in any library where I’ve worked; then again, I’ve worked mostly in public libraries. Some might say it could be considered a “privacy violation,” but I can’t blame them when they’ve got things like a copy of the Gutenberg Bible!

There were a lot of manual card catalogs around, too. In the reading room were over 100 drawers of cards comprising an item-level index of their manuscript collections. Ms. Dowell said these card files are not kept current anymore, but they definitely come in handy. (We have similar card files at the Dayton library – though not nearly as extensive because our collections are not as extensive! – but again, they are not kept up, but do come in handy at times.)

Ms. Dowell also pointed out another card file in one of the staff-only areas; it was a project of some sort that was begun a long time ago but never finished (because card files were “out” once the digital age hit), yet they still keep it because someone worked really hard on that – and again, it could still be useful – it was just never finished or kept current. (This was another one of those “I’m glad it’s not just me” moments!)

I enjoyed the tour very much, and I was extremely impressed and in awe of the collections – their content, their quantity, their significance…just rows and rows of amazing stuff.


By far the highlight of my trip to Bloomington, though, was the Paper Conservation Workshop with Doug Sanders, paper conservator at the E. Lingle Craig Preservation Laboratory. I had heard of the Craig Lab prior to this conference because I refer to their online preservation how-to manual often. (Seriously, their manual is awesome: very detailed step-by-step instructions with tons of photos.) The conservation workshop was actually the deciding factor in my attending this conference. I thought it looked interesting anyway, but when I saw this workshop on the agenda, I had to sign up!

Mr. Sanders had a 3-page handout ready for us when we arrived. The handout briefly described each of the several treatments he would be demonstrating (more on that later) and had space for notes in between: it’s like they knew I was coming! I scribbled all over just about every inch of those 3 pages, plus wrote some notes on a fourth sheet of my own paper… (What? I’m verbose; don’t act like you hadn’t noticed.)

Mr. Sanders did not demonstrate any procedures on books or bound materials. As the paper conservator, he handles unbound and loose paper materials: manuscripts, maps, photos, etc. Here’s a great article about Mr. Sanders and his work. (Check out the other members of the preservation staff – there are nine people who work in the Craig Lab! How wonderful!)

The treatments Mr. Sanders demonstrated for us were:

  • Surface cleaning: to remove surface dirt and accretions from the paper.
  • Washing: to reduce acidity and discoloration, remove stains, deodorize.
  • Alkalization (de-acidification): to add an alkaline deposit to the paper, to neutralize acid and prevent future acid build-up.
  • Mending/infilling: to repair tears and gaps to improve handling and legibility.
  • Humidification: to introduce moisture at a controlled rate to relax paper (e.g., for tightly rolled items) prior to attempts at flattening.
  • Pressing: aka flattening.
  • Housing (e.g., boxes, enclosures, encapsulation): to protect the item while in storage.

The handout also mentioned (but did not describe) these “higher level treatments” that should really be left to a professional conservator with a solid background in chemistry:

  • tape removal
  • backing/lining
  • inpainting
  • fixing
  • consolidation
  • leaf casting
  • vellum/parchment

That is all I’m going to say about the actual treatments. That may come as a bit of a let-down, seeing as I was so excited about this workshop. But I am going to play the “liability” card on this entry, because I don’t want to run the risk of accidentally giving out inaccurate information in regards to actually performing these procedures. Yes, I saw him do it, and yes, I took a ton of notes. But what if I misheard or misunderstood or wrote it down wrong? I don’t want anyone following “my” instructions [or worse, attributing the misinformation to Mr. Sanders] and consequently harming something.

(I tend to think that Mr. Sanders would also appreciate my refraining on the details, as well: At one point while he was humidifying a photograph, I asked him if he could give a general recommendation about when it is safe to do so – because all the books I have say “leave for a conservator” – and after giving his answer [which I’m not going to post here!], he said, “But don’t quote me on that!” Haha.)

One thing I learned during the workshop that I don’t feel dangerous in sharing is the preservation challenge presented by documents written in iron gall ink. (Is it sad that I first heard of iron gall ink when I saw the movie National Treasure? In my defense, I didn’t start my archives master’s degree until after that movie came out.) 

Anyway, back to iron gall ink: Evidently, this ink was very commonly used up through the 1920s because it was so smooth and worked well in quills and nib pens. I won’t try to get into the chemistry of it all – that Wikipedia article I linked to does a good job of that – but because of the iron (yes, it really has iron in it) and other components of this ink, the ink actually eats through the paper it is written on, over time. Mr. Sanders showed us an example of a document written with this ink, and the letters were literally just falling out of it. It was the most bizarre thing. (This web site shows an image of iron gall ink corrosion.)

He said there are new conservation treatments being developed to help curtail this type of deterioration. (Here’s some info on iron gall ink treatment from Library of Congress.)

But just the idea of the ink eating through the paper blew my mind a little bit. We [archivists] spend so much time trying to figure out how to protect documents from all sorts of things – heat, light, water, bugs, people – and here is a type of document in which the writing itself (the very essence of the document) is causing it to self-destruct. I suppose it’s a similar idea to trying to protect documents being damaged by their own acidity, which causes brittleness in paper. Well, I knew the paper could cause the document to self-destruct, but I never thought about the ink!

(Note: After learning about iron gall ink, I was inspired to check a couple of our 19th century collections at the library, to see if the documents showed any signs of this type of deterioration. I am pleased to report that a spot-check — no, I didn’t study every document in detail but I checked several — of the Van Cleve Dover (MS-006) and Brown Patterson (MS-015) collections revealed no apparent corrosion around the letters. However, I did see a little bit of this “haloing” phenomenon; maybe 200 years is still not old enough to have actual corrosion damage yet…hrm. Guess we’ll just have to keep an eye on them!)


I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventures in Bloomington last weekend. I know I enjoyed the trip and the conference, as well as writing about them.