Category Archives: What’s In The Lab

What’s In The Lab: Revolutionary War Medicine

Written by Grace White, Special Collections Conservator

I recently had the pleasure of treating a group of the Philip Turner Papers from the History of Medicine collection held in the Rubenstein Library.  Philip Turner was a Surgeon General for the Continental Army during the American Revolution, and this particular bundle of papers contained military hospital returns for 1778.  The 30 papers record soldiers’ injuries and illnesses such as dysentery, fever, scurvy, rheumatism, inoculations for smallpox and occasional battle wounds.

21 before after

The papers had been crudely stitched together with thread, making it nearly impossible to lift and read any one page.  The bundle had also been folded and creased, and there was evidence of water damage with stains, mold and many tears and losses.

I removed and saved the thread and began my treatment of the individual papers.  I surface cleaned them all to remove dirt and loose mold spores, and then I washed them with water and solvents to kill any remaining mold and to reduce staining and acidity.  Finally I mended and flattened the papers and housed them in a folder.  They are much safer for researchers to use now, and their visual appearance is also much improved.  These kinds of projects are so rewarding.

before and after

As a side note, one interesting discovery I made was that several of the papers are watermarked with a crowned “GR” for George Rex, the king of Great Britain and Ireland.  Using imported British paper was probably not uncommon in the colonies, but the Georgian watermark is an irony for papers of the revolutionary army.

GR watermark

It’s Been A Busy Week!

Is it just me or does this papyrus look like Bart Simpson?

It has been a very busy week in Conservation. We are neck-deep in helping with the move of the special collections to swing space. The flat files moved this week, which was a very big job indeed. Everyone in the lab has been helping either with the physical move, preparing materials for transport, or providing security as the materials are shifted to swing space.

The last complicated portion of the move project for us is to finish preparing the newspapers in both the special collections stacks as well as the older Perkins stacks. Erin is the project manager for the Rubenstein newspapers and has been working closely with Tedd, our student assistant Kelly Noel, and with Rubenstein staff to get the fragile volumes ready to move. Tedd just surpassed his 3,200th box! Considering how big some of these newspaper boxes are it is a testament to his ability to “get it done!”

The papyri project is moving forward. We have almost finished boxing the “regular sized” items. This week we pulled the oversized papyri. Everyone in the lab has been helping to create new enclosures for this collection. It is hard to believe this project started one year ago this month. We have already received very positive feedback on our housing strategy, and that always feels good.

tape removal
Meg works on tape removal in the fume hood.

Meg has been working on getting the next batch of items ready for exhibit. Her projects involve a lot of tape removal and subsequent stain removal. This is a fairly laborious process. Not only will these materials be more aesthetically pleasing for the exhibit, they will be repaired in a much more sympathetic and stable manner.

Grace has been working on a lot of scrapbooks lately. The one she finished this week had a lot of fold-outs that were mis-folded and damaged. It took a lot of patience to get through it, but it is now ready for its binding to be repaired. She finished several projects last week, so this week she is starting on new ones. One is particularly fabulous, but we will save that for future post.

Jennifer has been working double time pulling materials for Tedd and keeping track of all the work we are doing for the renovation project. As our registrar she keeps our lab log accurate, and for that we are all eternally grateful. We also got a batch of materials in from the Digital Production Center (DPC) that needed attention, so she has been doing a lot of paper repair this week. Erin has also been repairing items and getting them ready for digitization. She has been working closely with Josh Hager, who works on the Content, Context and Capacity project, to repair some manuscripts that were stuck together. They now look great and are ready for imaging.

French serial
Want to read a play in French?

Mary completed this really interesting serial set of circa 1830-40’s French plays. They were in terrible shape when they came in. She rebound them using the Princeton 305 technique, which is fantastic option for tight-joint bindings. Mary also presented two Care and Handling training sessions to student assistants in Circulation. She trained about two dozen students on proper handling methods and what materials they should set aside for Conservation.

Me? I’ve been helping move the flat files, I finished prepping the Gothic Reading Room materials, I’ve worked on all sorts of “management-y” things (emails, paperwork, receipts, etc.). I did some mold removal on one box of J.B. Matthews papers and have four more to go (in this batch…there are dozens to do). Basically I tried to keep the wheels on the conservation bus turning for one more week as my staff gets all this amazing work done. I am very lucky to be surrounded by such talented and dedicated people.

Happy Friday everyone!






















What’s In The Lab: A Magical And Foreboding Book

Written by Erin Hammeke, Special Collections Conservator

I was sorry to see this item go back to the stacks last week! A German book of magical secrets, Clandestine Hausvaterliteratur (Jacob Biernauer; 1818) is a recent acquisition to the History of Medicine Collection. It contains information on astrology, superstitions, ghosts, spells, and recipes for poisons, gunpowder, and blond hair dye, amongst others.

The vellum cover was likely added by a previous owner of the text who may have inscribed the cover with a foreboding skull image. The cover was quite animated when it first came to us and, reacting to a dry climate, the skin contracted and became wildly distorted. Additionally, its corners had been chewed, likely by rodents. Here it is, before and after treatment.

Before Treatment

After Treatment


Quick Pic: Before There Was Power Point

audio visual materialsNow ubiquitous, presentations that combined audio, images and text were once revolutionary and cutting edge.

Before we could do it all on a computer, multi-media presentations were put together with a mixture of photographic slides, a script, and audio tapes that contained not only the taped narration but cues to advance the slide tray. The best systems did this automatically with the inclusion of magnetic blips that “talked” to the slide projector to make it advance by itself…it was magic!

We recently got this kit into the lab for boxing. As someone who once created presentations like this, I can tell you Power Point is so much easier to use (some would say too easy…blinking cartoons flying in from stage left, anyone?).

Pumpkinhead Bears, Dragons and Dracula – Oh My!

Murray Ghost Waiter
Are you being served?

The Edwin and Terry Murray Collection of miniatures, aka The Most Fun Project In The Lab Ever, came in recently for enclosures. These lead figurines come from various role-playing games including Dungeons and Dragons. Over on Devil’s Tale you can read more about the processing of this collection.

The miniatures arrived in a variety of boxes as if the boys and girls had just finished playing with them. Opening the boxes felt like Christmas morning, I couldn’t wait to see what was inside. I think everyone in the lab got tired of me saying “Look at this one!” every five minutes but I couldn’t help it.

Murray original boxes
Murray miniatures as they came to the lab.

The figurines range in size from less than an inch to ten or more inches. You would think that these would be fairly robust being metal, but lead is soft and a lot of them are very fragile. Many have been painted and we know for sure some were painted by the Murray brothers themselves.

The figurines needed protection from rubbing against each other and plenty of cushioning to keep them from jostling around. They are also very heavy as a collection, so they needed to be boxed in a way that they could be lifted without throwing out your back.

Murray figurine
Wrapping each figurine.

My strategy was to wrap each in tissue and place them in modular artifact boxes. Each tray has twelve compartments, and each compartment holds on average four to six figurines depending on their size. The very large figurines were put into custom-built trays. I did my best to keep like-themed characters together so people interested in animals or dragons or warriors should be able to find what they are looking for. Admittedly, users may find this system cumbersome but if these start receiving very high use, I can revisit my boxing decision in consultation with Research Services.

There are many, many pictures on our Flickr site that shows more of the boxing process and some of my favorite characters including the above mentioned Pumpkinhead Bear and many, many dragons (my favorite creatures of all). Be sure to check out the skeletal dragon, she has amazing detail and is so very fragile. She also has a broken wing but it is there with her in her box.

After boxing (left) and before (right).

I’m a little sad to see these leave the lab because it was so much fun to work on. But I know that they are now well protected and will be there for anyone to use in the future, maybe even me.




Quick Pic: President Few’s Death Mask

William Preston Few death mask
Death Mask of William Preston Few from the collections of the Duke Unviersity Archives.

Here lies the death mask of Duke University President William Preston Few (1910-1940).

His head is in the lab having recently been on exhibit. It’s existing enclosure wasn’t providing adequate protection for the delicate plaster, so Jennifer is building an enclosure for it.

It’s creeping us all out.


It Takes A Village To House A Village

The Doris Duke Archives recently sent us this “Tiny Thai Village” for boxing. Read about its history on The Devil’s Tale.

The TTV came in a small box with all of the models inside. Obviously a box half the size of a Twinkie would disappear in the stacks and make access difficult. While these models aren’t fragile per se, they are delicate and the little houses had no real protection.

Our goals for the final housing were three-fold

  • The new enclosure had to be big enough to go to the stacks
  • Each little house needed its own compartment for safety and security
  • You needed to be able to lift out each model with your giant fingers

Experimental Box-making
I thought this would be easy, but it took a lot of trial and error to figure it out. I grabbed a standard Metal-Edge box meant to house cabinet cards and started experimenting. Here’s what I did:

  • Created a tray with a compartment for each house
  • Built up the inside so that the models would be level with the top of the box
  • Inset the original box so it was at the same level as the models
  • Lined the lid with Volara to provide a cushion should they get shaken
  • Labeled the box with big “Fragile-Do Not Tilt” labels

The Final Box
While each model can still move around in its compartment, they don’t knock into each other and you can still get your fingers in to take them out. You can also quickly tell if one is missing since each compartment should be occupied.

Although I would likely do something a bit different if I were asked to house this again, I think this enclosure achieves the goals and will provide more protection than the original box.

What’s In The Lab: Peeling Eyeballs!

By Erin Hammeke, Conservator for Special Collections

The History of Medicine collections continue to delight us in Conservation as we work to stabilize some of the most-used items. I just finished repairing Bartisch’s Ophthalmodouleia, das ist Augendienst:…, a work on Ophthalmology printed in 1583.

This item was recently featured in the exhibit, Anamated Anatomies. In addition to depicting some interesting and seemingly painful eye treatments and surgeries of the 16th century, the book contains two pages of hand-colored anatomical flaps.

I repaired a page that depicts the anatomy of the eye in layers. Like many of the flap books we have examined, the flaps were fragile and showed signs of damage from use. The eyeball flaps had received several previous repairs, including a fairly early shellac seal repair.

For this treatment, I removed one of the previous repairs that was poorly placed and causing damage to the outer flap, and I re-repaired it using tissue and wheat starch paste. I also stabilized the remaining flaps and flattened mis-folds using a light application of wheat starch paste.

Beef Wine For Your Health

Duke was giving out H1N1 flu shots today and quite by coincidence I found this ad in a bound set of Women’s Penny Papers (1889-1890). This book is going into the British Women Writers exhibit that is being installed on Monday afternoon. Since the paper and binding are fairly fragile, I’m making a custom-fit book cradle so it can be exhibited safely.
It’s also serves as a good reminder to take care of yourself as the semester winds down and the holidays begin. Get plenty of rest, eat right and stay healthy over the break. Otherwise you will be having beef wine for your holiday meal.