Nov 222016


Beyond the Book is joining Northwestern University Libraries’ main blog and all new posts will be found HERE.  The library blog gathers updates and interesting stories from all of our Distinctive Collections, as well as information about exhibits and library news. Preservation-specific posts will be tagged and easily accessed HERE. So many great things to check out, now in one place!

Sep 012016

Ever wondered from what animal your parchment came? Researchers at the University of York in the UK want to know. They started the Books & Beasts project, which is a study to identify the animal origin used to produce a parchment document. It involves a minimally invasive method for sampling; white vinyl erasers (the type used in conservation to surface clean dirty documents) are gently rubbed against the parchment. The eraser crumbs are gathered in vials and sent to the University of York. The samples are analyzed through protein mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF) of the collagen molecules extracted from eraser waste. Other participating institutions include Yale, the New York Public Library, Harvard, and MIT.

After hearing about this project, I approached administration and was pleased that they shared my opinion that the risks to the objects were few, participation in the project would complement the collection, and that the time and monetary costs dedicated to the project would be acceptable.

Sarah Fiddyment and Matthew Collins at the University of York were enthusiastic about Northwestern’s possible participation, especially as we have documents from the West Indies that might yield some interesting results. They sent some information about the project and a kit with 72 tiny vials for samples. They explained that if a single leaf is being studied, only one sample is needed, however if a book or multi-page item is studied three samples are typically taken, more if the parchment is not visually similar throughout. A log of item identification information (date, country of creation, etc.) of each document is kept for each sample.

The University of York’s website has posted updates and information about the process: Getting Under the Skin of a Medieval Mystery and a Vellum Gallery.

Sigrid Perry of Special Collections worked with us to identify 53 objects to be sampled as part of this project.  These materials included several New World documents, which are less represented in the study. Collection of each sample, recording the needed information and photographically documenting the location of the sample took about 15 minutes per item. Several members of the Preservation Working Group participated in the project including Katie Risseeuw, Basia Stanek, Scott Devine, Ann Duncan-Gibbs, Patti Swanson, Carlynne Robinson, and Tonia Grafakos.

While collecting little bits of eraser crumbs only sounds fun to conservators, having a chance to dig through the parchment collection materials could give anyone that materialist thrill of history. All are available in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections.

Although it took a while to collect the samples and record all of the information, the only monetary cost for this project was mailing the samples back to England. We should get the results back during the late fall. The skins sampled are likely to be calf, goat and sheep, but could reveal intriguing patterns of animal selection and skin preparation.

An in-depth article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America by Sarah Fiddyment, Matthew Collins, and may others, provides more information about analyzing and identifying vellum through this testing: “Animal Origin of 13th-century uterine vellum revealed using noninvasive peptide fingerprinting.” Find it here.


An Avant-Garde Approach to the Exhibit of Objects in the Charlotte Moorman Archive

 Posted by  Conservation Treatment, exhibition preparation, Exhibits, Outreach, Preservation Management, Uncategorized  Comments Off on An Avant-Garde Approach to the Exhibit of Objects in the Charlotte Moorman Archive
Apr 292016

Northwestern University Libraries’ Preservation and Conservation department was caught up in a seven-month whirlwind of activities in preparation for the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art’s current Charlotte Moorman exhibits, “Feast of Astonishments,” curated at the Block Museum, and “Don’t Throw Anything Out,” organized by Special Collections Curator Scott Krafft.

Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art publicity poster for "A Feast of Astonishments"

Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art publicity poster for “A Feast of Astonishments”

Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections holds Charlotte Moorman’s extensive archive which includes thousands of items: correspondence, posters, films, objects, notebooks, answering machine tapes, photographs, and artifacts from the many avant-garde art pieces that she performed. Currently, 243 of these objects are exhibited at Northwestern’s Block Museum and will travel to New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library and then onto Salzburg’s Museum der Moderne.

Some of the most problematic materials for display were a pair of motorized propellers, a doorbell-operated electric bikini, and three masks used by Moorman when performing Nam June Paik’s “Opera Sextronique.” Six violins shattered by Moorman when performing Paik’s “One for Violin” were also tricky. The objects are not considered “art” themselves, but rather props for or evidence of performance art. Because of this status, the exhibit curators did not want traditional looking mounts. Afraid it would take away from the ephemeral nature of the items, the curators preferred that the objects just lay inside of the cases.

However, we were concerned that the handling of these fragile multi-piece materials would be safer and easier if mounted. We needed innocuous exhibit mounts for non-traditional objects that would also keep the items safely in place during travel. In addition, the collection had not been fully processed so the objects would not have appropriate storage housings once back at Northwestern. Creating one plan that would encompass exhibition, travel, and storage needs was a little avant-garde.

After creative brainstorming, multiple mock-ups, and consultation with curators, we had a plan. We sewed the objects onto padded panels and then used the panels to secure the objects inside their boxes.   Mounting panels 1” larger than the objects were constructed using Tycore boards, topped with Volara® foam, and covered in cotton cloth.

The objects were sewn on using various colored and transparent threads and some discrete Volara® supports. The storage boxes were stable enough for travel but compact enough to fit on the shelf.

When we unveiled our work to the Block Museum staff, they were suitably impressed by our craftsmanship and inventiveness. And frankly, so were we. For the Charlotte Moorman exhibits, we ventured into a level of exhibit preparation new to us. We gained new skills, enjoyed working closely with each other, and shared in the avant-garde spirit of Charlotte Moorman.

Jul 222015


Moscone Conference Center, San Francisco

Moscone Conference Center, San Francisco

Recently, the American Library Association held its annual conference in San Francisco, CA. The Preservation and Reformatting Section (PARS) of ALA sponsors interest groups and programs. While attending various sessions, I noticed several talks had a similar theme: community-based preservation outreach. These presentations described programs or projects that seek to provide preservation education to organizations and individuals who have little resources and are often within under-represented communities. I was particularly mindful of the subject matter because a colleague and I organized a similar session for this conference. Jessica Bitely, Director of Preservation Services at NEDCC, and I are co-chairs of the Promoting Preservation Interest Group and our session highlighted audiovisual preservation efforts geared specifically at small institutions and individuals.

The Promoting Preservation session first featured 2 speakers from the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), Lauren O’Connor, Preservation Resources Fellow, and Kelly Haydon, Preservationist. Their dynamic presentation, “BAVC Resources: Empowering Communities in Audiovisual Preservation,” laid out the ways BAVC interacts with local arts and cultural organizations, artists, and individuals to provide the basic preservation education, digitization, and access to resources. They discussed BAVC’s Preservation Access Program and the upcoming AV Compass tool.

The NEA-funded Preservation Access Program’s purpose is to make preservation more accessible. There is a “preservation disparity,” as larger institutions have an infrastructure and knowledge base to implement these concepts, but individuals are left with very little. Even offering basic information about storing and preserving digital files is already more information than most already have.


The critical aspect of BAVC’s job is explaining preservation to those outside our professional field. They shape the importance of these items to the groups they are working with as “Media = Memories.” This makes a physical object take on a deeper meaning. Lauren and Kelly used the Rodeo Ex Machina Dance Company as an example; video tapes were found in a basement and are the only record of the works by the modern dance company, in existence from 1976-1982. A Preservation Access Program grant funded digitization of the tapes.

Through a Mellon Foundation grant, BAVC is currently building AV Compass. This web-based resource will contain a suite of educational tools for individuals and small institutions. The purpose of AV Compass is to provide an educational resource that speaks to people outside of the AV preservation field –  to identify media, understand risks, and take responsibility for their collections. It is not just enough to make a preservation plan, it’s important to be able to articulate that plan.

Siobhan Hagan discussing regional AV archives during the Promoting Preservation Interest Group.

Siobhan Hagan discussing regional AV archives during the Promoting Preservation Interest Group.

Siobhan Hagan, Audiovisual Archivist at the University of Baltimore, also spoke at the Promoting Preservation session representing the Regional Audio-Visual Archives (RAVA) Committee through the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), of which she is co-chair. RAVA Committee’s responsibilities are to “enhance communication and collaboration between regional archivists and explore initiatives that bring greater attention to the value and challenges of regional audiovisual materials.” Siobhan mentioned how broadcast archives of local TV stations exemplify unique collections needing help. RAVA’s tumblr blog contains many other interesting examples. Conveying the value of the content held in these archives is incredibly important for advocacy

Siobhan discussed the committee’s efforts to firstly identify all the regional AV archives and then reach out to determine the overarching support and resources needed. This was done through a survey to find regional archives and gather information about organization types, formats held, needs, and more. The survey is designed start the conversation that will lead to a more in-depth survey and future collaborations for grant funding and resource sharing.

Speaking in a different interest group session, Annie Peterson, Preservation Librarian at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, described her recent efforts to partner with other institutions in her talk “Strategic Planning for Collaborative Preservation.” Annie realized the preservation needs of local cultural heritage institutions, including her own, far exceeded their individual preservation capabilities. Common obstacles among the organizations included a lack of funding, storage, knowledge of resources, and even collection disaster plans.

Slide from Annie Peterson's talk "Strategic Planning for Collaborative Preservation" given in the Preservation Administrators Interest Group session.

Slide from Annie Peterson’s talk “Strategic Planning for Collaborative Preservation” given in the Preservation Administrators Interest Group session.

With an IMLS planning grant, Annie and others came together to approach the project in 2 phases. The first was performing a qualitative needs assessment, the second was strategic planning. They have accomplished initial goals of raising awareness of mutual challenges, fostering community, and creating an open space to discuss issues and problems. The success of this project so far is a great example of local coordination and collaboration, and hopefully can be used as a model for other underserved regional areas.

In the Digital Conversion Interest Group session, Erica Titkemeyer gave a talk about a grant-funded AV digitization project at the Southern Folklife Collection at University of North Carolina.

The Southern Folklife Collection is "is an archival resource dedicated to collecting, preserving and disseminating vernacular music, art, and culture related to the American South."

The Southern Folklife Collection is “is an archival resource dedicated to collecting, preserving and disseminating vernacular music, art, and culture related to the American South.”

The Southern Folklife Collection (SFC) is “an archival resource dedicated to collecting, preserving and disseminating traditional and vernacular music, art, and culture related to the American South” and hopes to increase research and “public recognition.” The Mellon Foundation grant, called “Extending the Reach of Southern Audiovisual Sources,” supports the preservation and access of audio, video, and film media in the collection. As the Project Director and AV Conservator, Erica detailed the project’s workflows, digitization standards, technological requirements, scalability, access/delivery, and desired outcomes. Browsing the collections is available through audio and video streaming as well as a blog and traditional finding aids. The project is a great example of how a larger institution with infrastructure can sustain this undertaking to preserve regional arts and music heritage.


Frances Harrell is a Preservation Specialist at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, but also a volunteer at a small historic house and society in Boston. She spoke about preservation efforts from this volunteer point of view. The Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club, a community women’s group formed in 1896, worked to save the historic Loring-Greenough House in 1924. Some of the archives of the JPTC have been digitized through the Digital Commonwealth (Massachusetts Collections Online), where they are available as well as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). It was especially interesting to hear Frances describe how an all-volunteer staff affects consistency, prioritizing, and progress on projects. These are some issues a small institution faces while trying to engage in the broader digital world. The strong theme of her talk was how these types historic societies need help and advocacy – from the preservation field and larger institutions that have hosting and digitization capabilities.

The underlying purpose of the projects discussed at ALA is not only preservation outreach, but also an attempt to include minority voices into the larger cultural heritage conversation. This is exemplified by the collaboration between New Orleans institutions, communication with regional AV archives and local communities, and digitizing efforts based in larger institutional infrastructures. Reaching out to small organizations and individuals, teaching them the importance of their collections, and assisting with preservation and access plans are important initiatives that can hopefully find sustainability beyond grant funding in the near future.

May 222015


Last week, Preservation Department staff attended the American Institute for Conservation of Artistic and Historic Works (AIC) annual meeting in Miami, FL. Conservators Stephanie Gowler and Susan Russick presented two 5-minute talks during the pre-conference STASH FLASH Tips Session. STASH – which stands for Storage Techniques for Art, Science and History Collections – is a website where collection care professionals across all fields can share tips on creating safe and appropriate storage solutions for collection materials.

Stephanie and Susan shared examples of how the Preservation Department at Northwestern adapts traditional methods of documentation, housing, and labeling for non-traditional library materials. Today’s blog post will summarize the first presentation, outlining the department’s protocol for housing objects in the library’s distinctive collections. Check back next week for a summary of the second presentation, about using a smartphone app to document condition issues during a collection survey.

As discussed in the inaugural blog post, the collections at Northwestern University Library are changing. More objects are being acquired and curators want them to be interfiled with the books and papers on the shelf. Housings are also changing as new products are available and are being used in new ways. Unfortunately, the library building, with structurally integrated shelves that can’t be moved, is not changing.

This situation has led to the development a boxing protocol which takes into account the object needs, storage location, use, and marking. While neither the protocol nor the boxes produced are groundbreaking, considering these factors before beginning a project has resulted in safe, easy to manage, and versatile housings for the collection.

1Irregular - Copy

Petri dishes sent from Nam June Paik to John Cage. Correspondence files, John Cage Collection, Northwestern University Music Library.

The first step is to determine the needs of the object. Special consideration is given to irregularly shaped or multi-part objects. For example, the above “letter” written on a petri dish from Nam June Paik to John Cage needed to be interfiled with other correspondence in a legal size document box. This glorified folder made of corrugated board and Volara® foam with a Velcro® closure is stored vertically, like a file folder in sequence with the rest of the correspondence.

Fragile or reactive materials also get special consideration for housing. When chemically reactive materials are present, such as the tarnishing silver foil used for stamping this book, a chemical absorbent can be included in the housing. The cards that line this traditional drop-spine box can be easily detached and replaced when exhausted.

After determining the object’s needs, the storage location is identified. The department created a document that records all measurements for the various shelving and filing furniture around the building; it is critical for planning. Shelf and object dimensions are used to determine standard sizes for each housing project.


Flat file drawer dimensions that inform folder sizes.


The use of the objects is also important. The library’s Commedia dell’Arte masks made by Antonio Fava are the only materials in Special Collections to circulate. The handles are laced through box tops to keep parts of the housing together and make them easy to carry.

Students may check out these Commedia dell'Arte masks for performances.

Students may check out these Commedia dell’Arte masks for performances from the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections.

Objects and boxes are marked in several ways. Items themselves often get ownership marks, call numbers, or donor information. Boxes are marked with ownership, item identification, and other information. Photographs on labels allow browsing in the stacks without opening boxes.

While handling is usually intuitive, sometimes more complex housings require instructions. This box was produced for a very heavy glass and wood award. It was given a “sewing machine” style of box to manage the base weight, so labeling on both the interior and exterior was needed.

The condition, context, and use of an item is balanced with storage limitations when creating housings. Northwestern’s continual acquisition of all shapes and sizes of objects will bring more opportunities to hone the department’s skills at building creative housings.


May 012015


This spring, the Northwestern University Library Preservation Department curated the exhibit “Beyond the Book: The Changing Nature of Library Collections,” which highlights some of the Library’s rare and interesting objects that have received conservation attention in the past few years. In celebration of Preservation Week (April 26 – May 2, 2015), the blog will feature daily posts highlighting exhibit objects that posed some of the more complex research questions and interesting treatment decisions.

Charles Deering (1852-1927), for whom Deering Library was named, was an avid art collector and artist in his own right. In addition to collecting Spanish and Catalan art, Deering formed lasting friendships with many of the leading artists of his day and amassed a rich collection of portraits by close friends such as John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and Ramon Casas. Many of the paintings from Charles Deering’s personal collection were chosen to decorate Deering Library when it opened in 1933 and remain important works in the University Library’s collection.

The library’s painting of Erik Satie by Ramon Casas (El Bohemio, 1891) is one of our most requested paintings for loan and exhibition and recently underwent an extensive conservation treatment. Northwestern contracted with a local fine art conservator to perform the treatment.

El Bohemio, 1891. Portrait of Erik Satie by Ramon Casas. After treatment, unframed.

El Bohemio, 1891. Portrait of Erik Satie by Ramon Casas. After treatment, unframed.

In addition to repairs to the canvas, a varnish layer applied in the 1970s was removed. Polyvinyl acetate (PVA) was commonly used to varnish paintings in the 1970s. Over time, the PVA becomes gray and opaque and, as a result, the painting had taken on a hazy appearance. After conservators removed the PVA varnish, they noticed that there were still areas of the painting with a dull gray appearance. Sample testing and examination using a range of analytical tools, including scanning electron microscopy and Raman spectroscopy, indicated that these gray areas were likely a result of lead sulfate migrating up through the paint from the ground layer. The lead sulfate, which is insoluble in alcohol and other common conservation solvents, could not be removed. In order to minimize the visual disturbance of the lead sulfate, the decision was made to apply a thin wash of translucent pigment on top of the new Paraloid B-72 varnish layer in the gray areas. This is a reversible treatment that reflects the artist’s intent and allows the true colors of the painting to show through.


The painting was featured last year in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. The exhibit, Esprit Montmartre: Bohemian Life in Paris around 1900, looked at Montmartre as a center of artistic life with a particular focus on individuals like Satie and Casas.

The Esprit Montmartre exhibition provided an opportunity to share El Bohemio with a large audience at an international venue after its recent conservation treatment. The exhibition also promoted Northwestern’s unique library collections in a global environment.

The Preservation Department is currently working on a comprehensive survey of other paintings in the collection in order to develop a plan for preserving Charles Deering’s legacy as an art collector.

Apr 282015


This spring, the Northwestern University Library Preservation Department curated the exhibit “Beyond the Book: The Changing Nature of Library Collections,” which highlights some of the Library’s rare and interesting objects that have received conservation attention in the past few years. In celebration of Preservation Week (April 26 – May 2, 2015), the blog will feature daily posts highlighting exhibit objects that posed some of the more complex research questions and interesting treatment decisions.

Cuneiform script is one of the earliest known systems of writing, first developed in Mesopotamia c. 3400 BCE. A blunt reed was used as a stylus to press wedge-shaped marks into clay tablets. The Library’s collection of 17 cuneiform tablets, available in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections is frequently shown to students as examples of early writing technology, but until recently little was known about these particular tablets.

Cuneiform tablets must be viewed in raking light to read the text.

Cuneiform tablets must be viewed in raking light to read the text.

There is little provenance available related to these tablets and at least two different incomplete and overlapping numbering systems were previously used. In order to establish authority over the collection, a new numbering system was developed. The new numbering system needed to be distinct from the old numbers, but without obscuring either the old numbers or any of the cuneiform writing. It needed to be small, legible, easy to apply to a bumpy surface, and not damaging to the tablets.

Two tablets marked “5” in the previous numbering systems.

Two tablets marked “5” in the previous numbering systems.

NUL Special Collections Conservator Susan Russick, while specializing in book and paper conservation, has some experience with archeological materials. As a summer intern, she worked with ceramic materials of a similar age at the Gordion Archeological site in Turkey. After some consideration, each tablet was given a tiny paper label. Labels were laser printed on archival paper and adhered using Acryloid-B72, a method described by Thomas Braun, who was also at Gordion that summer.

Tablets in box

A box with foam sockets and removable trays was constructed, allowing the tablets to be viewed and passed around the classroom without being directly handled.

Tablet in box with label

The individually labeled sockets aid in security of the tablets.

Digital images of the tablets were submitted to the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, an international group of Assyriologists, curators, historians, and librarians working to make available online over 500,00 cuneiform tablets. Northwestern’s participation in this effort will allow our collection of tablets to be viewed, studied, and translated by scholars around the world. As an initial result of this collaboration, we have learned that the majority of our tablets are accounts from the 21st century BCE and a few are neo-Babylonian texts.


Apr 152015


In recent years, Northwestern University Library conservators have seen an increasing number of unique and unusual objects – from neckties to paintings to lollipops –  in need of preservation. Integrated with traditional books and papers, these artifacts exemplify the breadth and depth of the library’s collections and act as primary source materials that support both undergraduate education and advanced scholarly research.

The Preservation Department is often where research on these objects begins. Though the fundamental principles remain the same, the specifics of how to best care for such a wide variety of artifacts require investigation into both the physical structure and cultural value of each item. In order to determine the most appropriate course of action for preserving and providing access to these objects, conservators must understand the production materials and techniques, patterns of deterioration, historical and cultural contexts, evidence of past use, and predictions of future use within the context of Northwestern’s distinctive research collections.

In order to highlight some of the rare and interesting objects that have received conservation attention in the past few years, the Preservation Department curated the exhibit, Beyond the Book: The Changing Nature of Library Collections, which is on view in the Deering Library lobby through May 8, 2015.

This blog, an outgrowth of the exhibit, is an effort to document and share continuing treatment and research projects that reflect the changing nature of library preservation and the potential for what conservation research can offer in terms of broader collaboration across the academic community.

During Preservation Week (April 26 – May 2, 2015), the blog will feature daily posts highlighting exhibit objects that posed some of the more complex research questions and interesting treatment decisions.