Category Archives: In the Conservation Lab

In the Lab: Autochrome Lumières

Duke Libraries is digitizing our collection of four autochrome lumières from the Semans family papers and they recently came to conservation for pre-imaging review. Autochromes are an early color photographic process. Our autochromes depict Mary Duke Biddle and Sarah P. Duke and date to about 1910. The color in autochromes lumières is uniquely produced with a color filter layer comprised of fine potato starch grains that are dyed different hues (commonly green, orange-red, and blue-violet) and adhered to a glass plate with lamp black applied to fill the interstices. The undeveloped color filter layer, if viewed under magnification, resembles color pixels and is reminiscent of a pointillist painting.

Autochrome of Sarah P. Duke in a diascope
Autochrome of Sarah P. Duke in a diascope

The autochromes are viewed with transmitted light and are often housed in a hinged viewer called a diascope. The photographic plate, along with a ground glass diffuser, is attached to one cover of the diascope and a mirror in the other. Light passes through the diffuser and autochrome and the viewer sees the reflected image of the photograph in the mirror. The dyes used to produce autochromes are extremely light sensitive and we are taking great care not to expose our materials to excessive light during the digitization process.

Post contributed by Erin Hammeke, Senior Conservator for Special Collections, as part of our ongoing “In the Conservation Lab” series.

In the Lab: The Charleston Courier, 1815-1851

My most recent project in the conservation lab has been a set of 32 newspapers, issues of the Charleston Courier from 1815 to 1851.  Some time in the past, they had been damaged by water, mold, insects, and dirt.  All of them had tears, and many also had large losses and were exceedingly fragile.  When they arrived in the lab, I could tell immediately that they were going to require a lot of work, but that they would also be fun and rewarding.  While modern newspapers are made of wood pulp which quickly degrades, turning brittle and yellow, old newspapers were printed on rag paper made from textile fibers like cotton and linen, and thus they are much more resilient and pleasant for a conservator to work with.

Charleston Courier newspapers before treatment
Charleston Courier newspapers before treatment

I knew I would need to do aqueous treatments, so, after cleaning off the surface dirt, I tested the inks to make sure they would not be soluble in water.  While the black printing ink was stable, most of the papers had a collection stamp in turquoise ink that was sensitive to water.  However, I was able to find three ionic fixatives, chemicals that are used to make certain dyes insoluble.  I tested all three, and one (Mesitol NBS) turned out to be exactly what this ink needed.  I used a brush to apply a small amount to the blue inked area, working over the suction platen to pull the chemical all the way through the paper, and then my newspapers were ready to wash.

Fixing soluble ink
Fixing soluble ink

Each newspaper was immersed in a bath of deionized water.  Extensive discoloration and degradation products were washed out, turning the water peachy yellow.  I changed the water in each tray until it stayed clear, signaling that washing was complete.  It was rewarding to see what a visual and physical difference there was between the washed and unwashed papers.

Aqueous treatment to remove discoloration and degradation products.  The upper left tray shows the extent of discoloration removed from a page in its first bath.
Aqueous treatment to remove discoloration and degradation products. The upper left tray shows the extent of discoloration removed from a page in its first bath.
Comparison of newspapers before and after washing
Comparison of newspapers before and after washing

After washing and drying, I had many hours of mending to do, and many little puzzle pieces of newspaper to put in place.  For my mends I used wheat starch paste and very thin Japanese papers which are almost transparent so as not to obscure the text on the newspapers.  I did not fill all of the numerous losses, but I made the newspapers more stable for researchers to handle.

Aligning tears to prepare for mending
Aligning tears to prepare for mending
Mending materials: wheat starch paste and lightweight Japanese paperMending materials: wheat starch paste and lightweight Japanese paper
Mending materials: wheat starch paste and lightweight Japanese paper

While working on the repairs, I was often confronted with fragments that would say something like “General / troops / fired” on one side and “congress / voted / article” on the back, and thus I would find myself reading the papers to know where the pieces might belong, which is something I rarely get the chance to do beyond a quick perusal.  The earlier newspapers had battle reports, as the war of 1812 was still going on.  The articles were fascinating, and the advertisements even more so.  Many were similar to modern ads:  houses for rent, job postings, theater listings, lost and found, dubious medical cure-alls, and sales of merchandise, often accompanied by decorative printed icons.  Some were a little more unusual and interesting, like an ad for “Daguerreotype Paintings” or a woman offering her service as a wet nurse.  But I was surprised to see ads for slaves, either for sale or wanting to buy, and many alerts for runaways.  The runaways were the most intriguing as they gave personal details of the individuals, and I found myself wondering what happened to them, applauding their escape and hoping that they found a better life.

Advertisements including a young girl for sale and a runaway slave
Advertisements including a young girl for sale and a runaway slave

When the mending was finished, I housed each of the newspapers in a clear Mylar sleeve so they can be handled with greater ease and safety.  Even after treatment many of them are still fragile, but now they can be handled and used by researchers with much less risk of damage.  And I hope they will be used, as they are fascinating!  To see more images of treatment and examples of interesting advertisements, see our Flickr page.

Newspapers before and after treatment
Newspapers before and after treatment

Post contributed by Grace White, Conservator for Special Collections, as part of our ongoing “In the Conservation Lab” series.

In the Lab: Boxing Challenges

heschelrockblogSome of our recent interesting conservation projects have involved housing.  Not only do we repair damaged books and paper items in the conservation lab, but we also make many boxes and enclosures to house them, and occasionally our box-making expertise is called upon for rather unusual items.

For example, from the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers: a rock.  Little is known about this small piece of rock except that it is a souvenir of a trip that Heschel made to Israel.  The rock was originally wrapped in a newspaper.  Tedd Anderson made a four-flap enclosure for the newspaper and a box to house both the rock and the newspaper enclosure.

Rachel Penniman has been working on a set of Charles Dickens’s publications, the original short segments of his novels that came out in serial form.  These serials had been housed in custom boxes that someone must have made for their personal collection.  Although the boxes were attractive with leather spines and stamped titles, they were not safe for the serials. The boxes caused creases and abrasions each time one of the pamphlets was removed or reinserted.  Rachel made individual enclosures for each serial issue, and the enclosures were housed together in larger boxes, one for each title.  Access to the serials is now much easier and safer.


The Digital Production Center (DPC) is in the process of scanning glass lantern slides of scenes of daily life in China made by Sidney Gamble in the early 20th century.  Many of the slides are hand-colored, some have existing cracks, and all are very fragile because of the glass support. Erin Hammeke has been working to stabilize their housings.  Each slide is housed in a labeled four-flap paper wrapper, and in the case of cracked slides, she adds a piece of mat board as an extra stiffener.

lanternslides crackedblog

The conservation department creates housings for circulating collections as well.  Mary Yordy has an upcoming housing project for the fascinating new book S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.  The book is beautifully made to look old and well used with notes in the margins and numerous loose paper inserts.  Mary is planning to make a box for the book that will prevent loose materials from falling out and getting lost, and the book will be kept in the locked stacks.  While we chose to leave the inserts untreated and as published, the Preservation Lab at the Public Library of Cincinnati/University of Cincinnati decided on another route with this title. 

s book comboblog

More images of these and other housing projects can be seen on Flickr.

Post contributed by Grace White, Conservator for Special Collections, as part of our ongoing “In the Conservation Lab” series.

Preserving a Cork-Covered Scrapbook

I’ll soon be meeting with Conservation staff to discuss the preservation issues surrounding a few collections I’ve cataloged recently, including this one, a scrapbook I felt I had to catalog before it absolutely fell to pieces.

rothholz cover
It is likely that Marianne “Nan” Rothholz created this unique cork cover for her scrapbook that contains 69 letters, 22 V-mails, 6 postcards, and 37 black-and-white photographs.

Nan Rothholz began this scrapbook during World War II, when she served as a member of the National Jewish Welfare Board and the Baltimore United Service Organizations (USO). She and her family hosted servicemen, generally medical professionals stationed at Fort Meade, in their Baltimore home. She became especially close to and followed 5 of the men during the final years of the war in Europe, and to me this scrapbook represents her “filing cabinet” for their V-mail, letters, photographs, postcards, and clippings, rather than a traditional scrapbook.

rothholz page
Rothholz recorded personal details about each serviceman in ink, then pasted in their related material around it. The paper in the scrapbook is of astoundingly poor quality, and breaks into pieces as the pages are turned.

Our challenge here will be how to keep related material together yet preserve the individual items, all before these brittle pages crumble to bits. Conservation staff will advise me on this, and perhaps digitization will be considered to help preserve the relationships in material that Rothholz initiated. Both the National Jewish Welfare Board and the USO commended her on her work, and our work will honor her as well.

Post contributed by Alice Poffinberger, Original Cataloger.

In the Lab: Whitmaniana

Recently our next-door neighbors in the Digital Production Center (DPC) had a large project digitizing volumes of Walt Whitman manuscript material from the Trent Collection of Whitmaniana. The digital images are headed for the online Walt Whitman Archive, in part for a digitized collection of Whitman’s marginalia, the notations that he made in and about books and articles he read.

Bound volumes of manuscripts in the Trent Collection of Whitmaniana.
Bound volumes of manuscripts in the Trent Collection of Whitmaniana.

Many of the items were small paper scraps mounted in beautifully bound albums, but the manner in which each item was adhered to the page made it impossible to see what was on the back. Some of the manuscript notes had been damaged by readers trying to lift them, even if they were blank on the reverse. It was decided that conservation would remove the items from their pages to allow them to be digitized front and back, and then we would reattach them to the album pages in a safer manner.


Rachel Penniman working on one of the Trent Collection volumes.
Rachel Penniman working on one of the Trent Collection volumes.

I worked on this project with Rachel Penniman, the newest member of our conservation team, and I collaborated with Alex Marsh in DPC. For this project, Alex scanned 470 pages of material, many with multiple items glued to the pages. Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections in the Rubenstein Library, identified 103 items in 21 albums or boxes to be lifted from their pages.

Rachel and I used moisture to soften the adhesive, being careful to avoid damage to any of the inks. A few items were found to be too risky for removal because of sensitive inks or insoluble adhesive, but for the most part we were successful.

We enjoyed reading the items as we worked on them. Many appeared to be Whitman’s notes on themes for poems and little reminders to himself, some with drafts of lines and corrections, and others simply ideas with no elaboration. Our favorite said simply “Banjo poem.” (Did he ever write his proposed banjo poem?)

banjo page open After Alex digitized all the loose items in DPC, they came back to conservation to be reattached to their pages. Instead of adhering the items at the corners again, I hinged them with Japanese paper to allow them to be lifted safely by readers who want to see the backs.


Post contributed by Grace White, Conservator for Special Collections, as part of our ongoing “In the Conservation Lab” series.


In the Lab: Conservators Don’t Like Tape!

My latest conservation project has been one involving chemicals and special equipment, doing something that we conservators face far too often—tape removal. But fortunately, our lab is well equipped with tools and materials specifically for that purpose.

Adhesive Removal in Progress

In September there will be a new exhibit at the Nasher Museum of Art on empire and cartography, organized by the BorderWork(s) Lab here at Duke. Seventeen maps and books from the Rubenstein Library were selected for the exhibit, but many of them required treatment first. Rachel Penniman, Erin Hammeke, and I have been working to make sure the items will be in safe condition before they make the short journey across campus to the museum.


One item that has required the most work for me is an early 19th century hand-colored manuscript map from South America labeled “Terrenos Incognito” (above, front and back). Although on good quality, strong paper, the map was previously folded so many times that it began to break along the folds, and so some well-intentioned person in the past reinforced the folds with strips of tape on the back. Over time, the adhesive turned yellow and seeped through the paper, leaving stains along all of those fold lines. And not only is the staining unsightly, but the adhesive is also chemically destructive to the paper, making it brittle and more liable to break. So now, as is often the case, I am spending many hours undoing someone’s quick fix that turned out to do more harm than good.

Tape Removal

 Before using any chemicals I tried mechanical means to remove the tape. First I had to remove the carrier, the plastic part of the tape that the adhesive is attached to. For that I used a hot air tool to soften the adhesive and an unsharpened dissection scalpel (my favorite tool) to lift the carrier off. But there was a lot of residual adhesive left on (and in) the paper.

Fume Hood and Suction Platen

After testing the adhesive’s solubility in various chemicals, I selected the most appropriate solvent. In conjunction with the use of chemicals I have been using our excellent vacuum pump and manuscript suction device, also officially known as a Stealth Sucker. I work in the fume hood to avoid breathing solvent fumes. I lay my map on the suction platen and use solvent to dissolve the adhesive, then the vacuum action draws it out of the paper. I can only treat an inch at a time and the work is very slow, but the effect is rewarding . Although there will always be some staining visible, the map’s appearance is beginning to improve dramatically. Soon I hope to have it finished, and visitors at the Nasher will be able to appreciate its beauty without the distraction of adhesive stains.

Adhesive Removal, Before and After #1
Detail of “Terrenos Incognito,” Before and After Treatment
Detail of "Terrenos Incognito," Before and After Treatment
Detail of “Terrenos Incognito,” Before and After Treatment

Post contributed by Grace White, Conservator for Special Collections, as part of our ongoing “In the Conservation Lab” series.

In the Lab: The Mad Dog, or, Take Care of Yourself

This delightful manuscript item came to conservation for some minor repairs and housing.  It is an eighteenth-century card game with a sheet of instructions describing itself as “The Mad Dog, or Take Care of Yourself: A Company Play with coloured Plates on 12 Cards in a Paper Case.”

The faces of the cards are delightfully hand-drawn and painted in watercolors.  The instructions describe them thus:

To this play belong 6 principal Cards and a few vacant ones, the latter distinguished only by 2 different colours….  The objects represent:  1. The Courthouse, 2. The Police Officer, 3. The Hunter, 4. The Physician, 5. A man bit by a mad dog and 6. The mad dog itself, represented exactly with all the symptoms of madness.

Cards and instructions for "The Mad Dog," ca. late 1700s.
Cards and instructions for “The Mad Dog,” ca. late 1700s.

The game consists of a person bit by a dog making a complaint to the court, asking for monetary restitution and seeking to have the dog killed, either by the police officer, the hunter, or the physician, all with various fines and rewards.  The winner seems to be the person who ends up with the most money.

mad dog - box beforeblogThe cards and instruction page were in good condition, having only a few minor tears, but the little box was in a poorer state.  It had split at the seams, and at some point in its history someone with good intentions had neatly sewn it together with thread (which I like much better than tape)!  It was interesting to peek inside and see that the box was made of discarded print and manuscript papers layered together.

I removed the threads and hinged the broken sides back together, mended the instruction page, and provided a polyester “sling” for the cards to slide in and out of the box without abrasion.  Then I made a thick new folder to house the case in a recessed opening and the instructions in a polyester sleeve.  The folder will go back into the manuscript box it came from.  This was such a fun little project!

mad dog - folderblog

Post contributed by Grace White, Conservator for Special Collections, as part of our ongoing “In the Conservation Lab” series.

Conserving the Broadside Collection

Conservation is nearing the end of a project that we have been working on since 2009, the broadside collection.  In addition to broadsides, this collection includes thousands of posters, handbills, maps, diplomas, and a variety of paper ephemera.  We in the conservation department have been coordinating with the Digital Production Center (DPC) to enable the safe handling of these materials during digitization.

Many of the broadsides come to us encapsulated in Mylar that has been sealed with sticky tape.  The items must be removed from the encapsulation prior to digitization, and this step also gives us the chance to repair damage that might grow worse with handling during digitization.  Many of the broadsides are extremely brittle, and so there are often tears to mend.

The items are organized in folders by state or country, and it is always a surprise to open a folder and see what’s inside.  So many of the items are historically fascinating and visually beautiful!  To the right is a folder from Britain containing government notices and a caricature print from 1798.

The British folder also contained some much later posters from World War II (below).

This folder of items from Brazil contained broadsides from the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932.

Also included in this batch of broadsides were highly elaborate diplomas, some on silk with embroidery and some with wax seals and ribbons.

It’s been fun treating such beautiful and fascinating items.  Take a closer look at them all in the newly digitized Broadsides and Ephemera Collection!

To see more about this project (including a video), check out our posts at Preservation Underground:

Post contributed by Grace White, Conservator for Special Collections, as part of our ongoing “In the Conservation Lab” series.

Boxy Lady

Figuring out suitable storage for historical artifacts in a collection is a daily challenge for archivists in the Rubenstein Library’s Technical Services Dept. Our goal is to provide easy access to the artifacts while protecting them in a safe and secure manner. Many times we can manage this with the standard boxes and padding materials we have on hand. However, there are times when the artifacts, because of their unusual shape or fragile condition, don’t quite fit the standard. This is when we call on our friends in the Conservation Services Department to find the best storage solution.

Such was the case with three artifacts in the Doris Duke Memorabilia Collection. A baseball bat with Doris Duke’ name carved through it, a football to Miss Duke from the coaches and players of the Midgets football team that she sponsored, and a partial weathervane believed to be from Duke Farms were prime candidates for Conservation’s resourceful storage solutions. I didn’t know what to expect, but when the newly boxed artifacts safely arrived back to Technical Services for labeling and barcoding, I was truly impressed at the results.

Is this weathervane from the Coach Barn at Duke Farms the same as the one in the Memorabilia collection? It’s up to researchers to find out!

Because of Conservation’s thoughtful and inventive solutions, these three artifacts are now available to researchers. To view the final results and to read how Conservation created these boxes, see the Preservation Underground blog.

All ready for research use!

Post contributed by Mary Samouelian, Doris Duke Collections Archivist.

In the Lab: Housing Papyri and Early Manuscripts

Two big rehousing projects have been underway in the conservation lab for several months now.  One, the papyrus project, has been mentioned in the conservation department’s own blog, Preservation Underground.

Duke’s papyri collection is one of the largest in the country with approximately 1400 items, each housed between sheets of glass.  Until now, those glass “sandwiches” have been loosely stored in boxes.  The conservation team is now making individual folders for them, made of mat board and padded with Volara (polyethylene foam), each clearly labeled for safer, easier access.

Once a month, everyone in the department joins in to make hundreds of these customized folders which will go into storage boxes to return to the stacks.  Such a big project is a logistical challenge, necessitating lists, spreadsheets, careful documentation, and also cooperation.  As a department, we are becoming a well-oiled papyrus-housing machine.

Papyri housings, before and after
Papyri housings, before and after
Papyrus item in its new folder
Papyrus item in its new folder

A similar logistical challenge has been the early manuscript housing project, of which the papyrus collection is a subset.  As well as books, the collection includes a wide variety of loose materials, from ancient Roman metal tablets, Ethiopic scrolls, pages from Greek Bibles, papal bulls, and oversized sheets from choral books.

Like the papyri, many of these flat items can go in our own customized mat board folders with either a paper pocket or a clear polyester sleeve.  But items that are oversized, three-dimensional, or particularly fragile have required special solutions.  Some examples can be seen below!

Group of Early Manuscripts
1. Breviary, French 15th century 2. Gospel of Mark, Greek 14th century 3. Roman diploma on bronze, A.D. 209 4. Persian illuminated manuscript page 5. Coptic homily, Egypt 6. Catherine de Medici letter
Housings for Early Manuscripts
Examples of housings for early manuscripts

Post contributed by Grace White, Conservator for Special Collections, as part of our ongoing “In the Conservation Lab” series.