What’s in the Digital Production Center?


Yesterday we started digitizing our collection of Ethiopic scrolls. Last year these were sent to Conservation for rehousing. They had been rolled up tight and were difficult if not impossible to use. Conservation created large cores out of buffered corrugated board wrapped in buffered paper (photo left). The larger cores will help relax the tightly wound scrolls which should make them easier to use.

Now they are in the Digital Production Center (DPC) to be imaged. DPC is working closely with Conservation as these are pretty tricky to handle and to photograph. The scrolls are made of either vellum or leather which stretches and gets distorted when stored under less than ideal conditions (that would be prior to them coming to RBMSCL of course). That is a nice way of saying these things are not at all flat nor easy to photograph.

First, we had to create a mechanism to hold the scrolls in place under the camera while at the same time allowing us to unwind them from start to finish (photo left). We are using two corrugated cores, Ethafoam strips and magnets to hold everything in place. Since the scrolls are too long and distorted to image unrolled in one shot, we have to photograph a few inches at a time.

The process goes like this: the conservator unrolls about eight inches of scroll, the camera operator takes an image and makes sure the image is in focus or as close to it as a very wavy piece of vellum can be. If the image is a little blurry, he adjusts the camera and shoots another photograph. If that image passes quality control, the conservator unrolls another section and the process continues until the scroll is imaged from top to bottom. We can take between 8 and 15 images per scroll depending on the length and condition of the vellum.

Our first day went well and we learned a lot. It can be a slow, painstaking process because of the condition of the materials, luckily we know a little something about working efficiently under these conditions since we do it every day. We love challenging projects like this one because we get to work collaboratively, handle amazing materials and really put our skills to the test.

There are a few more images on our Flickr page as well as our FaceBook page if you are interested in seeing more of the scrolls.

What’s In Conservation? A Map the Size of London (almost)

What’s 6-3/4 feet high by 13 feet long? This London map printed in 1747 by John Rocque of course! Originally issued in 24 panels, this map is a very detailed map of the city complete with pubs, churches and other points of interest. It came to our attention through a cataloger in RBMSCL who needs it opened and flattened so he can describe it.


This arrived in six rolls, each roll having four, 40 by 70 centimeter panels attached to a linen backing (pictured above). The first step was to meet with the curator to discuss treatment options. Everyone decided that separating each panel would make it easier to catalog and store, and ultimately much more usable as an object. As these were originally printed in panels we all felt that separating them was acceptable.

After getting the go-ahead we carefully cut the panels at the “seams” leaving each panel adhered to its linen support. Next we dry-cleaned the front and back of each panel to remove surface dirt. Each roll will go into a humidification chamber (pictured left) to relax the paper and fabric so it can be unrolled and flattened between felts and a heavy weight. Once flat, we will repair the damaged areas and create a housing for them as a group. Then back they go to cataloging and ultimately the shelf so that you, too, can request to look at them.

The Superbowl of Books: EBF V


This weekend many of us will gather together with friends and family members to celebrate the great eating tradition that is Superbowl XLIV. If you find yourself in need of something to think about between watching the commercials, I recommend contemplating your entry to that other great eating tradition, the Edible Book Festival.

EBF V will take place on April 1, 2010, from 2-3:30 p.m. in the Gothic Reading Room. Everyone is welcome to participate. There are two rules:

The book must be made out of food products.

All edible books must be “bookish” through the integration of text, literary inspiration or, quite simply, the form.

Other than that the sky is the limit and the definition of “edible” is up to you. There is plenty of inspiration at the International Edible Book Festival website and our very own EBF I-IV images. We especially encourage students of all ages and grade levels to make something for the festival.

Bring your entries to the Gothic Reading Room by 1:45pm on the day of the festival so you have time to fill out the entry form. If you have questions, feel free to contact us. See you on April 1st!

“Roots” by Jamie Bradway [text and covers made with root vegetables, tied with licorice]

What’s In Your Disaster Kit?


A confluence of events including the upcoming May Day events, Preservation Week, this weekend’s weather and the subsequent adventure getting to work today prompted me to check the supplies in my personal disaster kit.

Good thing I did, the batteries for my flashlight are nearly dead, my old goggles have developed some weird oily/sticky film (those are not going near my eyes), and my respirator’s strap has broken. Those will all get replaced. I got a small first aid kit for Christmas, that would be a good addition. I also need to put a pocket disaster plan in there (Duke library staff can get one from the Preservation Department). And where did the pair of warm socks wander off to?

As we make our way towards hurricane season I’d like to remind everyone to check the supplies in both your personal kit and in your library’s disaster supply closet. Restock or replace what is missing or damaged now. Don’t wait until there’s a problem to find out your batteries are dead or your warm socks are missing.

New Preservation Exhibit

Come visit the new Preservation exhibit, Mixed Blood: Conservation Work and Decision-Making in Support of the Study of Racial History. Curated by Mary Yordy, this exhibit highlights materials held by the Duke University Libraries pertaining to the study of mixed racial heritage. Crossing multiple disciplines and reflecting cultural influences that are international in scope, items from these collections are used heavily and frequently by students, faculty, and scholars. Within this exhibit, the materials show the necessity of conservation work and preservation care to ensure the long term use and availability for future scholars. Located in Perkins LL1, outside Room 023.

Duke Magazine Highlights Conservation


Aaron Kirschenfeld of Duke Magazine wrote a nice piece on the Verne and Tanya Roberts Conservation Lab that appears in the January/February Duke Magazine. An online version is also available.

Apparently, a few years ago Aaron heard through the grapevine that there were people in Trent Hall doing interesting things to books. That, of course, was us when we were off site waiting for our beautiful new lab facilities to be constructed. Thanks to Duke Magazine and to Aaron for allowing us to share what we do with the Duke alumni community.

P.S. The now-famous banana book makes an appearance in the print version.

Of Birds and Bindings

As a conservator I tend to break books down into their parts: paper, thread, adhesive, ink, binding style. Each of these components requires careful consideration before proceeding with a treatment. It happens every day, we look at a Blaeu atlas, or a Whitman manuscript and we get to work repairing them. Sure, these are marvelous items, but the bottom line is that we need to put them back together so our patrons can use them. Then you encounter something that reminds you just how special your job really is.

John James Audubon’s Birds of America came up on our condition survey list this week. These double-elephant folios are truly magnificent. Each volume is over 100 centimeters (39 inches) in height and very heavy, heavy enough that it takes two people to move them. I followed my survey form, recorded the binding information then the text block information, wrote down the damage I saw and determined what priority we should give them.

Then I did something I don’t normally do, I took a few minutes to admire these books for what they are. The masterful drawings, the tiny details that inform us of how these creatures live, the beautiful colors of these birds. I thought about the skill it took to draw these animals, to print the plates, and to bind these big volumes.

I feel lucky to have the opportunity to handle these books, to be a small part of their history, and to work for an institution that trusts me to do right by the collections. The funnest part was working with the RBMSCL staff to choose the new openings. If you are in the vicinity of the Mary Duke Biddle Room, stop by and see our feathered friends.

Happy Boxing Day

Traditionally, Boxing Day is celebrated on December 26th. Often cited as having British origins, it is the day the wealthy give to those less fortunate. December 26th is also St. Stephen’s Day on the Christian calendar, and Wren’s Day in Ireland. If you are looking for some nice music to go with these two celebrations, look no further than the Elvis Costello song “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” from the Chieftans album The Bells of Dublin. Hopefully, things are going a little better in your household today.

In the Conservation Lab we celebrate boxing day twice a month. We started this tradition in 2006 as a way to focus on making custom enclosures for the Rare Books, Manuscripts and Special Collections Library. On the first and third Wednesday of the month everyone in the lab works on making boxes. We started with the early manuscript collection and have since moved on to other areas of the collection in need of enclosures. Last fiscal year we made just over one thousand boxes for boxing day with a total of over 2,500 since we started boxing day. For a few examples of items we have worked on, head over to our Flickr page.

As the year winds down and we look forward to 2010, we wish you all a joyous Kwanzaa, and a very happy and peaceful new year. Stay safe, keep healthy, we’ll see you all back on campus soon.

Christmas Comes Early to the Digital Production Center

Remember when you were a kid counting the days to Christmas and the closer Christmas got the longer the days seemed to be? When Christmas finally showed up I was just like most other kids on Christmas morning…up at 5 a.m. waiting for my parents to wake up so I could open the presents Santa had left. I didn’t realize at the time that Santa was exhausted and had just gone to bed a few hours before I woke up. I must learn to be patient my mother would say.

Well, that patience has paid off and Christmas arrived a little early this year in the Digital Production Center. In November, after a month of testing, the Library purchased a Phase One camera system. This camera is built for speed and achieves a similar quality to the camera it replaced. Then, in early December we purchased a Zeutschel 14000 A2 camera system which is also built for speed, replacing the slower flatbed scanners. The space age look of this camera system reminds me of a Transformer from my childhood days. And to top it all off we have recently purchased a SAMMA Solo video digitization unit. This unit allows us to digitized analog video, which is something we were not able to do in the past.

It’s like Christmas morning in the Digital Production Center putting everything together and trying to figure out how everything works. While we are experiencing some growing pains we are excited with the challenge of mastering the new equipment. We have been focusing on developing new workflows to accommodate a much faster production rate and adjusting to new software that automates some of the process.

With two new full time staff members we will be able to use the new equipment to it’s fullest potential. With all that is new in the Digital Production Center we will be much more efficient and able to focus on the Libraries Strategic Plan to provide more digital content.

Thanks Santa!

Written by Mike Adamo, Digital Production Center

Cross-Training: Not Just for Exercise

One of the benefits of working for Duke University Libraries is that it provides staff with flexible work options. This comes in handy if you are interested in what goes on in another department or, like me, working full time while attending library school.

My department supports collaborating with other groups and fostering partnerships. This past year I have been able to take advantage of cross-training opportunities by working one day a week in the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture . Some of the highlights of my work at the Center included answering reference questions, processing collections and instructing undergraduates about using the wealth of primary source material from the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library and Bingham Center collections.

Cross-training in this women’s archive taught me new skills and allowed me to share knowledge from my Conservation background while interacting and building relationships with those in the library with whom I had not worked with previously. And it was really fun. My adventures in cross-training led me to work with students taking courses like Writing 20, attend events at the Women’s Center, and even do a zine workshop for girls attending Girls Rock Camp NC in Durham and Chapel Hill. Throughout my encounters, I was able to rely on my Conservation experience such as when handling delicate, fragile manuscripts and setting up special collection items for class instruction.

While at times it felt like exercise juggling full time work in Conservation, interning at the Bingham Center and attending graduate school, this fantastic experience broadened my understanding and knowledge of what goes on not just in the library, but across campus and in our community.

Duke University Libraries Preservation