This letterpress book has been on our shelf for a very long time, too long admittedly. Mea Culpa. Letterpress books can be challenging. This one has paper as thin as Kleenex (TM) and as brittle as any mid-century newsprint. The iron gall ink has degraded and taken the substrate with it, leaving lots of tears, holes, and losses.
James Redpath was the Head of the Haitian Bureau of Emigration in Boston. I would tell you more about these letters but you literally cannot turn a page without breaking something. After a lot of consideration and consultation with Rubenstein Library we have decided the best thing to do with this item is digitize it so researchers can actually use it without destroying the original.
But before we can digitize it we need to flatten out some of the heavy creases to uncover the writing, and do some very minor stabilization so we can turn the pages without tearing off chunks of text. The goal is digitizing, not a full treatment. This book will still have page tears and losses when it leaves Conservation, but putting in hundreds of hours of conservation time to repair every tear, sinking letter, or loss isn’t practical or feasible. We want to get it ready for the camera, and help our camera operators handle it as safely as possible while they are turning the pages.
It feels good to have digitization in our toolbox as a way to increase access to this item. It will go from completely unusable to readable. What better outcome for a primary resource that is so fragile?
Before coming to Duke, each drawing had been mounted to foam-core board with double-sided tape and then shrink-wrapped. I can see why this packaging method was done. While it does reduce the risk of mechanical damage from handling and shipping, the tape and sealed package are not the most stable environment for long-term storage. Curators and conservators always assess items with our Exhibitions Coordinator before they go on display. Because the items going on exhibit needed to come out of their shrink wrap anyway, the team made the decision to rehouse the whole collection.
I was able to carefully cut and remove the shrink wrap from each package. The few drawings with friable media (like pastel or charcoal) actually have it applied to the back of the thin drawing paper, so there was little risk of disruption from the static charge of the plastic film. I was able to separate each drawing from the backing board by heating a very thin metal spatula with a hot air pencil and passing it between the drawing and the tape carrier, however, residual adhesive still remained on the verso of the drawing and needed to be removed prior to rehousing (image below, left).
The double-sided tape appears to have been applied fairly recently and had not yet penetrated the paper or crosslinked. I was able to remove it without disturbing the paper fibers by gently rolling the adhesive off with a crepe eraser (image above, right).
These drawings will now be stored in either clear polyester L-sleeves or paper folders, depending upon the drawing media. The collection had been placed into two metal edge boxes, but removing the foam-core backing has significantly reduced the required storage space. We can now fit them all into one box. While the shrink wrap package probably seemed like a good idea at the time, I am glad we were able to rehouse the drawings before they were visibly affected by it.
This month on the 1091 Project we discuss old repairs, when to remove them and when to leave them alone. Sometimes the decision to undo an old repair is an easy one, sometimes not, and sometimes it really is a conundrum because there are valid arguments to be made on both sides. Let’s look at some recent items that have been brought to our attention, and be sure to check out Parks Library Preservation’s post.
Old Repairs: The Good
A “good” repair is one that is sympathetic to the original object in both form and function. It may not be immediately obvious that something has been fixed, but it shouldn’t be so transparent that it hides the fact that damage occurred. In a perfect world, a trained eye would catch it upon close inspection, but the lay-person might not realize it unless you pointed it out.
The repair on the lower right corner of one of our Fugitive Sheets (top left) is a prime example of a good repair. The color of the newly incorporated paper matches the existing paper very well, and the border was even simulated to provided as to not disturb the eye with a break in the printing.
You can see a similar repair in one of our Bleau Atlas volumes (top right). Here you can see a well-crafted fill that includes the application of new media to fill in the illustration where that information was lost. We may not do that level of infilling today, but you cannot deny it is an effective repair that if removed may effect the way the object is interpreted.
Old Repairs: The Bad
I think nothing says “bad repair” like packing tape. We’ve talked about this before, but it is good to reiterate that self-adhesive tape of almost any kind is very damaging to books and can be difficult to remove.
Because of the damage these sorts of tapes cause, it easy to decide to remove the tape and give the book a more sympathetic and reversible repair.
“The Open Polar Sea” is the sort of prior repair that makes it a little more difficult to decide what to do. This repair was clearly done with care and it is still holding. It is not reversible and will likely result in some scarfing when/if we remove it.
The real issue is how much time do we spend undoing these repairs? There are so many in our stacks. If the repair is holding up and not causing further damage, is it better to spend our limited time and resources on these knowing that they ultimately will do damage to the book, or do we work on items that are in more immediate danger of losing materials if they are not repaired? I tend to lean towards the latter, but the argument is worth having, and the decision changes based on a lot of factors (ye olde “value, use, risk, resources” discussion).
Old Repairs: The Past (With Provenance)
The four pictures below represent prior repairs that we would likely not choose to remove because they are
not significantly harming the original
still functioning as repairs
traditional to a time or type of material
tell a significant story about the life of the object
If one of these repairs were to fail, then we would address the problem in a more modern way, that is by using stable methods and materials that would not harm the original materials either physically or chemically, that would be visually sympathetic to the original structure and components, and would be reversible later if the repair failed.
Deciding on removing an old repair is both objective and subjective. The decision is based on your knowledge of the physical and chemical nature of the original materials as well as the repair materials. It also helps to know the collection and the provenance of the item. Luckily we have great working relationships with all our curators and together can make sound treatment decisions when we come across these sorts of quandaries.