Category Archives: Conservation

The Elves Have Left the Tugboat (or Thoughts on Binding Music)


Conservation does a lot of pamphlet binding for the Music Library. You would think that music scores would be fairly easy to work with, but then you would be wrong.

Scores come in a variety of sizes from miniature to over two feet tall. They often come with CD’s or multiple parts that need to go into a pocket. They can be folios printed on two sides that have been folded down the middle and stapled, or they may be printed as single-sided sheets that need to be put together in some way so the sheets don’t get separated. Scores can be adhesive bound, stapled through the fold, spiral bound or comb bound. Sometimes they are paginated, often they are not. Then there are the random arrangements wherein the musician decides on what order to play the piece.

There is nothing straight forward about getting music scores ready for the shelf. Reading music helps, and paying attention to the frontice material is a must.

Last year 30% of the pamphlets we bound came from our Music Library. Every now and then we get a title that we all fall in love with. If you have ever played Dead Elf Tugboat, we would love to hear from you!

What Good Is A Box?

A brittle book from the general collections came in today whose binding is holding on only by its spine lining. The paper and sewing are brittle and several pages are loose. It failed even a single fold of a (very very tiny) double-fold test, so it is too brittle to repair. No problem, we’ll make a box and give the librarian the option of having a digital or paper surrogate made.

What caught my eye, however, was the note she wrote saying “Please repair spine, don’t put in a box since that won’t help.” Until we decide to make a surrogate, boxing actually does help:

  • It keeps a fragile book with loose pieces contained in one place
  • It provides protection from wear and tear
  • It reduces light exposure
  • It alerts a reader that this is a fragile book
  • It keeps a brittle book in the stacks and available for the next use (this book can still be used, as long as the patron is very careful…we trust that they will be)

We try to repair everything that comes to us but sometimes we just can’t and we need to do something else. Creating a protective enclosure is one of those things we can do to keep a brittle book in the collections.

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.

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.

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.

Collections + Conservation = Access

Often conservators are portrayed as the people who say “no” (not to be confused with the Knights Who Say “Ni”). Those of us in the Roberts Conservation Lab take a different approach. We are here to ensure the collections are in good physical condition so that they can be used by current and future patrons. We work closely with library staff to select damaged materials that need our help, and treat them quickly so they spend as little time as possible away from the stacks.

Some of the more interesting items that have come to us lately have been part of digital imaging projects. The work we are doing in support of these projects helps bring hidden collections into the open, and allows fragile items to be digitized so they can be accessed electronically. This not only saves the originals from additional wear and tear but allows better access to the materials. The Broadsides Project and the Whitman Collection are two such projects. We work with our colleagues in the Digital Production Center to make sure these items can go through the digitization process and return to the shelf in as good or better condition than when the project started.

On the rare occasion we feel an item cannot be safely used, we work closely with collection managers to find an alternative way to get the information to the patron. We want you to be successful in your research and enjoy your experience with our collections. We are here to say “yes.”