Tag Archives: Conservation

‘From Caricature to Comic Strip’

On Monday we helped install the new exhibit in the Perkins Gallery. “Abusing Power” is curated by Neil McWilliam, Walter H. Annenberg Professor in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, and several of his students in his course “From Caricature to Comic Strip.” It coincides with another exhibit now at the Nasher Museum called “Lines of Attack: Conflicts in Caricature,” on display until May 16, 2010.

We love working with Meg Brown, Exhibits Curator for Perkins Library. Conservation creates many of the book supports you see in the exhibit space. We also help install the exhibits, being sure the items are well supported and in good condition for viewing. It’s great to work collaboratively in this way, and so much fun to see the new exhibit take shape. I especially enjoy seeing all of the students, faculty and staff stop to see what is happening in the space and what’s coming next. Frankly, I just love getting out of the basement and into the thick of things for a change.

I invite you to come by and see the wonderful display of 19th Century materials and learn a little about the evolution of caricatures as an art form. Be sure to check out Devil’s Tale for more on this exhibit. The online images from the exhibit were made in the Digital Production Center.

The Scribe Project

Starting in summer 2008, Duke Libraries Digital Collections Program has partnered with the Carolina Digital Library and Archives at UNC-Chapel Hill to pilot test their Internet Archive Scribe scanning station. Since then, we’ve digitized nearly 300 titles on the UNC-Chapel Hill Scribe, including Duke’s yearbook The Chanticleer from 1912-1995, Utopian literature, Victorian women’s literature, advertising publications, and other materials. All are freely available on the Internet Archive page for Duke University Libraries.

Conservation is helping with this project by inspecting items before they are sent out for imaging. We preview those books that seem particularly fragile to determine if they can be scanned safely. If the paper is too brittle or if the binding is too damaged we may not let it go. Saying “no” is fairly rare, however, as part of our mission is to make the collections accessible.

Once the books come back from the Scribe, we construct custom four-flap boxes (aka “tuxedo” boxes) for the items we flagged earlier. It just so happens that today is Boxing Day, so the books from this last shipment are in the lab getting fitted for their tuxedos.

Jill Katte, Coordinator, Digital Collections Program, contributed to this post.

What’s in the Digital Production Center?


Yesterday we started digitizing our collection of Ethiopic scrolls. Last year these were sent to Conservation for rehousing. They had been rolled up tight and were difficult if not impossible to use. Conservation created large cores out of buffered corrugated board wrapped in buffered paper (photo left). The larger cores will help relax the tightly wound scrolls which should make them easier to use.

Now they are in the Digital Production Center (DPC) to be imaged. DPC is working closely with Conservation as these are pretty tricky to handle and to photograph. The scrolls are made of either vellum or leather which stretches and gets distorted when stored under less than ideal conditions (that would be prior to them coming to RBMSCL of course). That is a nice way of saying these things are not at all flat nor easy to photograph.

First, we had to create a mechanism to hold the scrolls in place under the camera while at the same time allowing us to unwind them from start to finish (photo left). We are using two corrugated cores, Ethafoam strips and magnets to hold everything in place. Since the scrolls are too long and distorted to image unrolled in one shot, we have to photograph a few inches at a time.

The process goes like this: the conservator unrolls about eight inches of scroll, the camera operator takes an image and makes sure the image is in focus or as close to it as a very wavy piece of vellum can be. If the image is a little blurry, he adjusts the camera and shoots another photograph. If that image passes quality control, the conservator unrolls another section and the process continues until the scroll is imaged from top to bottom. We can take between 8 and 15 images per scroll depending on the length and condition of the vellum.

Our first day went well and we learned a lot. It can be a slow, painstaking process because of the condition of the materials, luckily we know a little something about working efficiently under these conditions since we do it every day. We love challenging projects like this one because we get to work collaboratively, handle amazing materials and really put our skills to the test.

There are a few more images on our Flickr page as well as our FaceBook page if you are interested in seeing more of the scrolls.

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.

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.

Preservation Lunch ‘n’ Learn

Join us as we watch “Don Etherington: A Sixty-year Odyssey in Bookbinding and Conservation.” Mr. Etherington has worked tirelessly as a conservator, educator, writer and leading voice in conservation theory and practice. He has been a teacher and mentor to many conservators working in the field today and has led an enormously interesting life from apprentice bookbinder to proprietor of Etherington Conservation Services (now part of the HF Group).

This video is part of the Syracuse University Library Brodsky Series for the Advancement of Library Conservation. Follow this link for more on the series and past speakers.

December 10th
Perkins Library, Room 217
Noon-1:15 pm
Bring your lunch.
All are welcome.

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.”

Preservation Is Interdisciplinary

Academic research has become more and more interdisciplinary. Whether you are studying the Brain and Society, or you are Engineering World Health, it is not enough to stay in your ‘silo’ for four years and hope for the best. That is true for the Preservation Department as well.

We work across the Duke University Library system to preserve materials from all subject areas so they can be accessed by patrons on campus and around the world. We have worked on model airplanes and pink dragons from the Hartmen Center, football programs from the University Archives, Louisa Whitman letters to her son Walt Whitman from the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collection Library, and of course thousands of items from the circulating collections.

The Preservation Department is breaking new ground in the types of services it can provide for the Library. The newly named Verne and Tanya Roberts Conservation Lab has equipment that enables us to do conservation treatments on paper based materials such as books and manuscripts. With the equipment in the Digital Production Center we can now help provide easier access to non-print media such as photographs and moving images.* Our strong tradition of caring for paper-based materials has expanded to include providing access to collections through the digitization process. We take an interdisciplinary approach to our work so that you, our patrons, can do the same.

*See Duke Digital Collections for more online collections.