1091 Project: Master Studies Workshop: Conservation of Transparent Papers

This month on 1091 we take you to Iowa State University Libraries to the home of Parks Library Preservation! In July both Melissa and I had the opportunity to take a master class in conserving transparent paper with Hildegard Homburger, a conservator in private practice in Berlin, Germany.

Presented by the Friends of the American Institute for Conservation and hosted by Iowa State University Libraries Preservation Department, this class brought together a mix of mid-career and advanced paper and book conservators from museums, libraries and private practice. The sessions combined lecture and hands-on instruction and allowed plenty of time for practice and asking questions.

Our instructor, Hildegard
Hildegard Homburger, instructor, demonstrating tear repairs.

Hildegard is an expert at conserving these materials and is a generous instructor. On day one we covered the history and manufacture of transparent papers including its unique chemistry. In the practical session we learned to mend tears and losses with aqueous adhesives and how to humidify, dry and flatten these papers to minimize distortion. I think we are all converts to the hard-soft sandwich! On day two we learned mending with synthetic adhesives, how to dye mending papers and how to line fragile transparent papers with Japanese tissue.

During the sessions Hildegard shared not only tips and techniques, but discussed previous projects and how she would do them differently now compared to several years ago. That very much impressed me. We all continue to learn throughout our careers, and it’s easy to forget that what we know now is a result of years of practice and evolving knowledge. Sharing her experiences, and walking us step-by-step through her thought process helped broaden our understanding of how to approach these papers in particular as well as our work in the larger sense.

I tend to think of transparent papers as being mainly architectural tracings, but artists have used transparent papers for printmaking and drawing, and I have seen similar papers in medical flap books and 19th century copy books. Because of its manufacturing process, transparent paper can be tricky to work with. It is very thin, often brittle, very reactive to moisture, and of course transparent so you don’t want to use repair techniques that would make it opaque. I now feel much more comfortable and capable of working with the transparent papers in our collections.

Beth (left) and Kim Nichols practicing heat set repairs with a variety of synthetic adhesives.

For more images from the workshop check out the Iowa group’s Flickr page.  The Smithsonian also hosted two sessions of this workshop and Nora Lockshin has posted about their sessions. Tahe Zalal attended the second session at Iowa State and posted photos.

Don’t forget to head over to Parks Library Preservation to read about Melissa’s experience. Thanks to Hildegard, AIC, Iowa State University and all the participants for making this a wonderful experience.


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?).

Enabling Project: Swirl Books

We are finding many challenges in preparing our materials for the upcoming move. Erin Hammeke, Special Collections Conservator, shares the following find from her work as the project coordinator for the ledger project.

Stock ledger on the shelf.

As part of the enabling project we are working in our ledger collection to prepare these materials for the move. The Mooresville Mill manufactured cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics in Mooresville, North Carolina, from the late 19th century to the mid-20th. When the company’s stocks were sold back, they were cancelled and glued onto the stubs bound into a ledger book. The stock certificates were also glued in, leaving the book with a fore edge 2-3 times the thickness of the spine. We started calling these ‘swirl books’ because of their exceptional shape. These items really seem more akin to sculpture than book bindings.

We consulted with the head of collection development in the Rubenstein Library and we agreed that treatment would be too time-consuming of an option before the move. We decided to house the swirl books as they were. Needless to say, these items posed unique shelving and housing challenges to us.

Our technician, Tedd Anderson, bravely met the challenge. For each ledger, Tedd created a wedge to accommodate the shape of the original so that they would fit  inside a custom phase box. They can now be shelved safely and are protected from further damage. These will go in our conservation treatment request database for future treatment.

phase box insert
A wedge compensates for the shape of the ledger.
finished boxes
Finished boxes on the shelf.

1091 Project: Making Treatment Decisions

This month on the 1091 Project we talk about how we make treatment decisions. Treatment decisions are based on a conservator’s experience with materials, knowledge of treatment options, and understanding of the object as it relates to the collection.

Treatment Goals

Conservators must balance the item’s value to the collection, how and how much it has been or will be used, and to what extent the binding and its contents are at risk for further loss or damage. For any item in the lab we have a few overarching treatment goals:

  • Save as much of the original as possible
  • Use reversible repair methods as much as possible
  • Use high quality repair materials and adhesives
  • Repairs should not be stronger than the weakest part of the original
  • Create a sympathetic repair that does not obscure the fact that it was done (conservation vs. restoration)
  • The repair should facilitate use of the item

From there we ask:

  • Can we do it?
  • Should we do it?
  • How should we proceed?

There is an entire chapter to write just about this section, but let’s move on to the process of making a treatment decision for one book from our general (circulating) collections workflow.

Condition Review

Transactions of the Zoological Society of London, volume VI (London, 1869)

This book came to the lab because someone used packing tape to repair the damaged spine. The fragile leather binding tore off the book as a result.

The binding is a hollow-back binding in quarter leather with tight joints. The leather is weakened and failing; the marbled papers over the boards are abraded; the corners are worn; the spine and boards are off the text block; and the spine has been heavily taped with fresh packing tape, the carrier and adhesive are present, and the adhesive is very sticky.

The text block is made with wove paper and is borderline brittle and oversewn; the paste downs and flyleaf have detached; the spine adhesive and linings are intact; the sewing is intact except for the first and last few pages; the printer’s ink is stable; there are foldouts, some of them are misfolded with damaged edges; several pages at the front and back have multiple tears.

Treatment Options

Can we do it?
The two biggest problems with this book are the tape and the oversewing. If removed, the adhesive on the packing tape will take the fragile, thinly-pared leather with it resulting in a time consuming repair. Oversewing creates a very inflexible spine that restricts the opening and puts tremendous stress on the first few pages, resulting in breaks at the bound edge that are difficult to repair because of the stitching. The fastest, most economical and most practical option may be to replace the binding, but the oversewing will continue to be problematic.

The borderline brittle paper worries me. Because they are stronger than the substrate, repairs can provide a breaking edge for brittle paper. Although this paper is slightly brittle, it still has some flexibility. I think we can repair the page tears and fold-outs but it will take a lot of time.

Should we do it?
The information in this book is likely more valued than the binding by researchers. This book has only five circulations on its record. I could check with the biology librarian whether this may be a faculty favorite, it seems likely that it is.

The new binding and paper repairs will take an estimated 3-4 hours of bench time. I have one technician for the entire general collections workflow (5+ million books). Is this one book worth repairing three or four others that may have higher circulation records? Good question.

We can defer the treatment until its next use. All the parts are here, and though the boards and some pages are detached the book can be carefully used. We could make a protective enclosure (about 15 minutes of time) and put it back as-is if we think that its future use is likely not going to be high.

How should we proceed?
Readers, what do you think? Weigh the issues and options and leave your thoughts in the comments. Head over to Parks Library Preservation to find out how they make decisions.

DIY Book Repair And Its Consequences

DIY Book Repair
DIY Book Repair

This DIY book repair came to the lab recently and Mary thought it would make a good blog entry. Her caption for the image was, “I could have done a better job but I ran out of tape.” We sometimes have to laugh at some of the things we see, but herein also lies a teachable moment.

I tend to believe that most people feel bad when a library book breaks in their hands. They respond by trying to fix it, usually with some sort of pressure sensitive tape. It only takes them a few seconds and it keeps all the parts together.

What our patrons likely do not realize is how time consuming tape removal can be. When I write treatment proposals for projects that involve removing tape and adhesive stains, I generally estimate an hour of labor per inch of tape. Sometimes you get lucky and the carrier pops right off and the residual adhesive and staining is easily removed with a mild solvent. More often the carrier and adhesive comes off and takes the paper, cloth or leather it is attached to with it. This results in even more damage that will need to be repaired, and any remaining adhesive will need to be painstakingly removed either mechanically or chemically.

I’ll talk about how we determine treatment strategies for items like these in a future post. Until that time, if you find that a book falls apart when you use it, please carefully wrap all the pieces in a plastic bag (such as one of our rainy-day bags) and bring it back to the circulation desk. They will send it to conservation for mending.

What Conservators Need To Know

I’m often asked how you become a conservator and what we need to know to do our jobs. Here’s a short list of the skills all good library conservators have:

  • Knowledge of the history of the book and printing
  • An understanding of organic chemistry, especially as it applies to paper, leather, parchment and pigment manufacturing and deterioration mechanisms
  • Knowledge of historic and modern materials (paper, thread, cloth, inks, pigments, skin, etc.)
  • Skills in mending and housing a variety of archival formats (books, paper, audio-visual, felt dolls, early codices, etc.)
  • Understanding of libraries (mission, language, organization, etc.)
  • Critical thinking, decision-making, communication, and research skills, not to mention computer and photographic skills.

But there is one skill that every conservator needs that we use almost every day…

We love our cork floors!


Cat-like reflexes.

These are particularly useful for when you drop your scalpel on the floor.

1091 Project: Training, Not Just For Athletes

Welcome to the 1091 Project, a collaborative blogging endeavor between the conservation labs at Duke University Libraries and Iowa State Libraries. Today we are highlighting the kinds of training we do that supports the long-term preservation of our materials.

Care and Handling Training

Conservation Services provides training in both informal and formal ways. We are often contacted by Technical Services for advice on proper handling or housing procedures for fragile materials. Sometimes we get a call from the reading room requesting our help to show a patron how to turn fragile pages or unfold brittle documents.

Care and Handling Training (2009)

Conservation offers annual Care and Handling sessions for staff and student assistants. We usually offer multiple sessions in multiple locations to catch as many people as possible. For those unable to attend we put PDF’s of the handouts and Power Point slides on our intranet site (Duke NetID required).

In these sessions participants learn how to identify damaged materials and what the process is to send them to Conservation. We also demonstrate proper handling techniques such as shelving spine down, how to safely remove books from the shelf, and packing book trucks and mail bins for transport. Because of the current renovation projects we may not be able to offer on-site training this year. To that end, I’ve updated our handouts and Power Point presentations and will make sure student supervisors know where to find them.

New Directions

We are investigating the use of short videos as a fresh and fast way to get information to our patrons, staff and students. This is our first video in the series. What do you think? What sorts of videos would you want to see or show to your patrons?


Other Training
We do a lot of other training, too:

  • We participate in the disaster preparedness and recovery training sessions offered by the Preservation Department.
  • We work with the staff in the Digital Production Center and the Internet Archives to make sure they are comfortable handling fragile materials during digitization. Sometimes we will actually help during imaging for particularly fragile or delicate items.
  • We train our Conservation student assistants and volunteers on how to repair materials and make enclosures.We couldn’t be successful without them!
  • We train ourselves, too. Each month before our staff meeting we hold a Tips Session. If we discover a neat tool, or come up with a creative solution to a problem, we demonstrate it to the entire lab staff. These session are fun, fast and foster a lot of conversation and brain storming.

Let’s go see what training Parks Library Preservation does. Please share your training regimen or ideas for videos in the comments.

Enabling Project: The Ledgers (with guest star William Morris)

As part of the Enabling Project we have reached the ledgers section. Our ledgers contain just about any type of western-style binding (sewn, posts, mechanical, etc.)  and binding material (leather, cloth, corduroy) you can imagine. They can be very small, or so big they require two people to carry them.

Erin is the project leader on these (pictured here with some of the ledgers). We are reviewing the condition of each ledger to determine whether it needs an enclosure to keep it safe during the move. Our options for enclosures include a Tyvek envelope, customizing a pre-made box, or making a custom enclosure or wrapper.

One of our favorite collections so far is the Sir Thomas Wardle Papers (fyi, William Morris collaborated with Sir Thomas!). These ledgers contain ink and pigment recipes as well as testing observations. One page in particular caught my attention for its cochineal information. You might recall that cochineal has been in the news lately.

This ledger is number F-6862, “Absorption Spectra of Indian Dyes, 1886, Leek, Staffordshire, England.” The binding was made by William Clemesha, Printer, Stationer, and Account Book Manufacturer.

This ledger is a prime example of what we mean when we say that in addition to the contents, the bindings themselves may contain valuable information. Not only do the binder’s tickets tell us something (who made it, where and when), but the way these are put together and the materials the binder used also tells us something about the manufacturing norms of the stationer, textile, leather and paper industries at a particular time and place.

I could go on and on about the treasures we are finding in our ledgers!  There are more images on Flickr, please take a look. You might also be interested in the Rubenstein Library’s images  and their blog posts about the renovation project. We are engaged on all fronts in preparing our collections for the upcoming move.



Duke University Libraries Preservation