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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Please help us welcome our newest staff member, Sara Neel. Sara recently graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Art History and a minor in French (which has already come in very handy). Sara worked in the KU Libraries Conservation Lab from 2015 until graduation this year. She has studied abroad in Italy and France;, and recently gave a paper at the Missouri Western State University & The Albrect-Kemper Museum of Art Second Annual Undergraduate Art History Symposium titled “The Assembly of the Tejaprabha Buddha: Removal, Restoration, and Religious Reduction.”
So far this week she has gotten her bench in order, helped edit some lab manual documents, learned to make corrugated “pizza-box” enclosures, and discovered that the Parking Office is really far away from our building. We are so happy she is here!
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.
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!
Duke Today has a new story out about the collaborative work that staff from Conservation, the Rubenstein Library History of Medicine Collection, and the Shared Materials Instrumentation Lab are doing to house, scan, and eventually 3-D print our ivory manikins. Check out the story here. And watch this very cool video of the process.
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.
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.
A 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!
Today we hosted a delightful group of grad students from a class that Liz Milewicz, Head of Digital Scholarship Services, is working with. They declared Conservation to be “The Best Tour Ever.” We kind of agree. Here we are looking at Kenneth Arrow’s Nobel Prize medal.We recently had the preparators from the Nasher Museum here to fit the Nobel medal for a custom display mount. We know this medal will get a lot of use so we are having a special display mount made for it. The Nobel Prize is something almost everyone has heard about but rarely do you get a chance to see one up close. It’s a special object to have in the lab for show-and-tell.
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.