All posts by Henry Hebert

See one. Do one. Teach one.

By Rachel Penniman, Conservation Specialist

In conservation there are so many different materials to learn about and each one has specific and unique properties that can impact how we approach a treatment. It’s impossible to know everything about every material. So any opportunity to cross-train or broaden a skillset can allow a conservator to better manage a wider range of objects.

Rachel Penniman

About a year ago I had the opportunity to attend Sheila Siegler’s Parchment Conservation workshop offered by the International Preservation Studies Center. It was a weeklong intensive on the history and preparation of parchment, parchment identification, and various treatment techniques.

A sample of true parchment (left) versus ‘parchment paper’ (right) through the microscope
A sample of true parchment (left) versus ‘parchment paper’ (right) through the microscope

We often get items made from parchment in our lab and I was especially interested in learning more about treatment methods for this finicky material. In the workshop I learned new methods for flattening and drying and came back to the lab eager to put those new skills to use.

Stretching a parchment document after humidification
Stretching a parchment document after humidification

Last week I had the opportunity to pass on some of those skills to North Carolina Museum of History Object Conservator Jennifer French. She had a parchment document in her collection in need of flattening and was looking for advice on how best to manage it. Our lab has previously collaborated with NC Museum of History when Textile Conservator Paige Myers visited our library to provide advice about a silk banner in our collection and we were happy to return the favor. I took a field trip over to Jenifer’s lab and we got to work.

Parchment document with planar distortion.
Photo credit: Jennifer French

The document was very cockled and uneven making it difficult to handle and house. Using a vapor chamber we created a high humidity environment to soften the parchment and ease out some of those wrinkles. While the parchment humidified we prepared our materials for drying. The humidification was a slow process so we had plenty of time to talk shop, sharing tips and tricks for an assortment of other treatments.

Humidification chamber in action
Humidification chamber in action

Once the parchment had been humidified for many hours the larger wrinkles were relaxed and it was much flatter already. We transferred the document to dry between felts and blotters under plenty of weight (those heavy conservation books come in handy).

Parchment document in weighted blotter stack

A little over a week later Jennifer checked on the document and found it had flattened considerably. It still has some areas of minor undulation but it’s so much better, and more than good enough to be handled and rehoused.

Flattened parchment document
Photo credit: Jennifer French

For now the parchment will stay under weights until Jennifer and I meet up again to create an enclosure that will ensure the parchment stays safe and flat in the museum’s storage.

This kind of cross-institutional collaboration on projects was not only great fun but a rare opportunity for hands on information sharing and skill building. As conservators we get by with a little help from our friends.

Raving about UV Fluorescence

Late last week our lab hosted a 3-day workshop, taught by Jennifer McGlinchey Sexton, on Tools and Techniques for UV / Visible Fluorescence Documentation. Colleagues from libraries and museums around the country joined three DUL staff members to learn about the necessary equipment and to develop practical skills in capturing UV/visible images for use in conservation.

A great deal of the discussion centered around equipment. We looked at several kinds of UVA lamps that are currently on the market and talked about the filtering necessary on both lamps and cameras to reduce infrared and visible light. We also went over some methods for testing the quality of the lamp.

 Capturing UV/visible images can be challenging and while standards have been widely adopted in recent years for conservation imaging under normal illumination, the same is not so true for UV documentation.  Jennifer described several workflows for setting the white balance and selecting the best camera exposure settings using either home-made or standardized fluorescent color targets.

We had converted both our normal photo-doc space and the “dirty room” (our mold remediation and chemical storage space) into imaging work spaces, so the workshop participants were able to break up into two groups and practice. It was very useful to have two spaces and enough equipment that everyone could try the process several times and ask questions.

This workshop was a great opportunity to learn exactly how to add UV/visible to a conservation program’s documentation capabilities. It gave the participants a grounding in both the functionality of the equipment and a framework for consistently producing high quality images. For the Duke library staff who participated, this workshop also added some perspective to the work we have done in the last year or so with Multispectral Imaging.

We are so thankful to Jennifer McGlinchey Sexton for teaching, to Tess Bronwyn Hamilton for assisting, and to FAIC for sponsoring such a great experience!

Tooling Workshop

As custodians of cultural heritage, we are always trying to learn more about the collections within our care. We see many leather bindings come through the lab for treatment that have been decorated in some way. Tooling of leather bindings can be quite complex, and it can be difficult to get a sense of the skill or time required to create those kinds of decorations without trying it for oneself. One afternoon this week, we all gathered together to learn some of the basic techniques for blind and gold tooling by hand.

Henry talks through the process and demonstrates tooling.

At the most basic level, tooling is accomplished by pressing a heated metal tool into a dampened leather surface. Only a few pieces of equipment are required: brass tools set in wooden handles, a heat source, a cooling pad, a sponge, and suede for cleaning the face of the tool. The process is not complicated, but there are a lot of variables to consider and it takes a great deal of practice to get the right results.

Phebe and Sara tooling plaquettes.

After a short demonstration of making simple lines, everyone got to try it themselves on plaquettes (small pieces of binder’s board, covered in vegetable tanned goatskin). Most of us drew inspiration from the common decorative styles from the 18th century book trade, making concentric panel designs with tooled flowers at the corners.

With some blind lines in place, we each tried some gilding. A shellac-based solution called “fixor” is painted into the tooled lines and allowed to dry. Then, working on a leather cushion, sheets of gold leaf are cut down to size.

Phebe cuts gold leaf to size for gilding.

If all the previous steps in the process were done correctly, the gold sticks in place and looks very clear and bright. If it doesn’t go so well – then you just start over and try it again.

Becoming proficient at finishing takes many thousands of hours of practice, so we couldn’t really develop much skill in just a few hours. But there is something valuable in just trying a craft for oneself. Not only can you learn more about the kinds of marks or characteristic changes that occur when it all goes wrong, but you develop a deeper appreciation for craft done well.

Poster Assessment

As part of her 8 week summer internship, we’ve been trying to give Phebe some experience in the different kinds of collections care activities that Conservation Services regularly undertakes. This week, we took a break from enclosures and treatments to talk about collection assessment.

The Rubenstein Library holds a collection of papers from Bobbye S. Ortiz, which includes several folders of eye-catching 20th century activism posters from around the world. This collection has seen increased use recently from undergraduate classes and exhibits. As parts of the collection have been called down to the reading room, we have become aware of some condition and housing issues. This seemed like a good opportunity to both introduce condition assessments and prioritize the needs of an increasingly popular set of library materials.

After talking through the kinds of data that we would need to collect in order to develop treatment workflows for the collection, we built an assessment tool using Google Forms. The form feeds data into a shared spreadsheet with each submission. We have found entering information into a form to be a little more user-friendly for an item level assessment than trying to directly fill in a row on a spreadsheet. It also allows us to easily make use of controlled vocabulary, so that the data can be effectively sorted later.

With our assessment instrument in-hand, we gave it a test run through 15 or so of the posters in the collection. As part of this process, we could go through each question in-depth, and show specific examples of object characteristics that we intended to capture with the form. Pretty quickly we realized that we needed to add a field or change the format of fields, but the tool makes that very easy to do.

There are over 100 posters in this collection, but Phebe has been making good progress over the last couple of days. When the assessment is complete, we can coordinate with the curators and Rubenstein staff to plan systematic rehousing or conservation treatment for the items that need some sort of intervention.

Internship Update

We collectively realized yesterday that we are close to hitting the half-way point of our first HBCU Library Alliance Summer Internship. How did that happen so quickly? I guess time flies when you are having fun!

In the last few weeks, we have continued introducing our intern, Phebe, to common materials and repair techniques that we use to maintain library and archives collections. For example, she has been contributing to the digitization prep workflow by dry cleaning manuscripts and performing simple paper mends with Japanese paper and wheat starch paste, as well as heat-activated, pre-coated Japanese papers that we make in-house.

We have spent some time outside of the lab, touring different library departments in order to show how conservation supports wider library initiatives. Touring the Digital Production Center and speaking with the staff has helped to put the digitization prep workflow into better context. Winston Atkins, our Preservation Officer, also came by this week to give an overview of collections care activities, like environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, and disaster planning and response.

Sara Neel, Phebe Pankey, and Conservator Rebecca Smyrl examine an artist book at Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

With so many great cultural institutions in the Triangle, we have been able to introduce Phebe and our new staff member Sara to a number of other conservators in the area. In addition to visiting the special collections conservation lab at UNC-Chapel Hill, we organized an informal conservator meet up here in Durham. Our colleagues in the area work with very different collections, such as museum objects, paintings, and musical instruments. We don’t get to see them as much as we would like, so this was a great excuse for everyone to gather together.

Welcome To Our New Intern: Phebe Pankey

This week the Conservation Services Department was joined by our first ever HBCU Library Alliance Summer intern, Phebe Pankey! Duke is one of five library conservation labs participating in this program to host an eight-week internship in preservation and conservation this summer.

Phebe is a junior at Winston Salem State University and has been involved in libraries most of her life through volunteering and community activities.  She is excited to learn more about conservation and this internship is a way to continue developing and expanding her library skills.

Phebe has jumped right into the lab workflows, learning to construct some of the quicker enclosures like CoLibri sleeves and 4-flap boxes. She has also been gaining experience with basic paper treatments, like humidification and flattening.

Phebe works with Conservation Specialist Rachel Penniman on humidification of paper.

At the conclusion of the eight weeks, interns are expected to take some of the skills they have learned back to their home institution to implement a library preservation project, building on the success of their summer experiences with an opportunity to perform meaningful work preserving significant HBCU library collections at their institution.

These internships would not have been possible without the help of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the University of Delaware College of Arts and Science, the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware, and the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library (DE). Thanks also to Debbie Hess Norris and Melissa Tedone at the University of Delaware. We also wish to thank the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation for supporting this internship.

We will continue sharing more about this internship as it progresses, but for now: Welcome to Duke, Phebe!

Another Day, Another Disaster

We had some torrential rain in Durham last night and early this morning staff at Lilly Library on East Campus reported water on the floor in the basement level. Facilities and Conservation Services quickly sprang into action to assess and respond to the needs of the affected collections.

Video tapes and cases set out to dry

Luckily no books were affected. Only some VHS tape cases and paperwork on a desk got wet, so we were able to set them out on tables with box fans and oscillating fans to dry.

Oscillating fans drying damp papersA crew from AfterDisaster also quickly arrived and began removing water from the carpets, opening the bases of walls to allow the sheetrock to dry, and setting up dehumidifiers. One of the dangers to book and paper collections after flooding is elevated relative humidity (RH) for long periods of time. This can promote mold growth, so their efforts will ensure that the RH returns to normal levels quickly.

This is the second basement water event we have had in as many months, but in both cases we followed our disaster plan and our collections came through relatively unscathed. It’s great to work with such a great team!

Preservation Week: Digitization Prep

It’s Preservation Week! Each day we are showing examples of how the conservation department supports the library and its mission. We’ve seen Mary getting items back into circulation, Beth in an important meetingRachel showing off a Nobel prize, and Erin undoing some worm’s evil work. In our final post for the week, we will talk about how Conservation supports training and the digitization of collections .

Helen Lee mends manuscript material ahead of digitization.
Undergraduate student Helen Lee applies heat-activated repair material to mend some manuscripts.

Collection materials are constantly being imaged over at the Digital Production Center to provide greater access to scholars around the world. All those materials undergo careful review by our staff before going under the camera, and some items need stabilizing repairs in order to be handled and imaged safely. The sheer quantity of requested material can easily overwhelm our full-time staff, so sometimes our part-time student employees can help with the quicker repairs. Helen Lee (pictured above) has been working in the lab for the past three years and has been trained in several kinds of paper repairs ideal for digitization prep.  Today, she is using strips of pre-coated Japanese paper, which we make in the lab, to mend tears on archival material. She uses a small heated tacking iron through a barrier of silicone-coated paper to apply the repair strips.

Helen is graduating this semester and we are so sad to see her go! But it is rewarding to see students head off on new adventures and hopefully some of the preservation training she received here will come in handy along the way.

Happy Preservation Week!

Preservation Week: Going Down a Wormhole

It’s Preservation Week! Each day this week we are telling a short story about how the conservation department supports the library and its mission. We’ve seen Mary repairing circulating collection materials, Beth representing in the board rooms, and Rachel working on custom mounts. Today we will take a peek at something a little more… chewed.

book pages with worm holes

Erin Hammeke, Senior Conservator for Special Collections, is currently working on an 18th century Spanish history of North America from the Rubenstein collection, which was badly eaten by insects at some point before it was acquired by the library.

insect damage creating handling challenges for book pages.The insect damage is so extensive in places that the book is very difficult to handle without causing further damage. In order to make this item accessible to researchers, Erin is applying strong, but reversible, mends of Japanese paper to infill each one of the losses. The color of the repair blends nicely with the original paper, so that it does not distract so much from the text.

page after treatment

The conservation treatment of this item will take a considerable amount of time, but it will ensure that a valuable resource is made available to patrons for many years to come. With all the requests for special collections items, either by scholars in the reading room, for our exhibitions, or for digitization, we work closely with our colleagues in Special Collections to prioritize treatment and make treatment decisions.

Preservation Week: Maintaining the Circulating Collection

It’s Preservation Week! In an effort to raise awareness of the need for preservation of all kinds, every day this week we will highlight one of the many ways our staff support collections at Duke University Libraries. Our first stop is the circulating collection.

Today Senior Conservation Technician Mary Yordy is working on a mesmerizing book in need of some help.
Mary Yordy displays a damaged case binding, ready for repair.

This visual album about Barneys New York shows a common problem with modern art books: the flimsy case construction of the binding just doesn’t stand up to the weight of the textblock. While it is down here in the lab, Mary will repair the rear hinge of the book, rejoining the text to the binding and allowing it to function again for many more circulations.

The publisher of this item really went all out with the endpapers and “chameleon” metallic edge treatment!

colorful edge decoration