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.

Jan 132016

A current paintings conservation project, made possible by a generous grant from the Alumnae of Northwestern, has opened the door to learning more about John Singer Sargent, his lifelong friendship with Charles Deering, and the story behind the creation of one of Sargent’s last large scale society portraits.

Charles Deering (1852-1927) was a renowned art collector, friend and patron of many leading artists of the late 19th and early 20th century. He collected significant works by lifelong friends such as John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and Lucien Simon. The library holds twelve paintings donated by the Deering family to be displayed in the Charles Deering Memorial Library when it opened in 1933. Of these paintings, John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Augustus Allhusen, a portrait of Dorothy Stanley Allhusen painted at Sargent’s London studio in the autumn of 1907, is one of the best known and most appreciated.

When the painting was surveyed in 2013 as part of a larger collection survey, it was noted that the existing natural resin varnish had yellowed, dulling the tonal qualities of the painting. It was decided that removing or thinning the varnish layer and applying a fresh synthetic resin varnish layer, a common practice in paintings conservation, would allow viewers to once again see the painting as Sargent intended it to look when he created it over 100 years ago. In addition, repairing areas of minor distortion to the canvas will stabilize the painting and allow it to be displayed once again in Deering Library or loaned for exhibitions at institutions worldwide when requested.

We have noted often on this blog that the changing nature of library collections calls for a more collaborative approach to collections conservation. Northwestern’s location allows us to work with a diverse and talented group of allied professionals in the Chicago area. In the case of the Sargent painting, we are pleased to be working once again with Kuniej Berry Associates, LLC. Cynthia Kuniej Berry and her staff have consulted on other projects at Northwestern and carried out the initial survey of the paintings collection in 2013. Associate Paintings Conservator Emily Prehoda is cleaning the Sargent and has provided treatment information and photographs included in this post.

During the early stages of treatment, the painting was removed from its frame and photographed under ultraviolet illumination.

Photography under ultraviolet light can be particularly useful, as it allows the conservator to distinguish areas of past treatment or, in this case, the extent of varnish application. In the photo above, note the hazy green fluorescence, indicating a brush-applied natural resin type varnish. Small areas of old retouching are visible as dark marks that block fluorescence of the varnish.

One of the first stages of the conservation treatment involved removing surface grime prior to thinning the yellowed varnish.

During surface cleaning, a cotton swab was used to remove dust and grime from the painting’s surface. Surface cleaning alone can have a dramatic effect on the tonal qualities of a painting. The cotton swab was photographed against a white background in order to illustrate the amount of surface grime being removed.

Discussing the next step in the process, Emily Prehoda explains, “I’ll use the term “varnish thinning” versus “varnish removal” to indicate that the thick varnish layer is gradually being reduced overall, rather than removed completely all at once. This allows me to better consider the painting’s nuances, and the balance of shadows and highlights during the cleaning process. The varnish is thicker and heavier in the dark areas. This may be due to the artist selectively applying more varnish in dark areas to increase saturation, or a previous conservator selectively cleaning and re-varnishing the light and dark areas to different levels. Varnish thinning helps to ensure that an even, consistent varnish layer is being removed, and no areas of the artist’s possible re-working of the painting are sensitive to solvents or being adversely affected in any way.”

To illustrate her initial progress, Emily prepared the following images to highlight the effects of  varnish thinning.

During varnish thinning, the area left/below the green line has been thinned, and the right/upper side has not yet been cleaned. Note the improved saturation of colors and clarity of details in the cleaned area.

As Emily proceeds with the conservation treatment, ongoing research at Northwestern has focused on learning more about the painting and how it came into Charles Deering’s collection. We know that the painting was exhibited at the National Portrait Society in London in 1919 and believe that it was acquired by Charles Deering shortly thereafter. Additional research has focused on Dorothy Allhusen and her lifelong friendship with the English novelist Thomas Hardy. Mrs. Allhusen’s correspondence with both Sargent and Hardy documents the process of sitting for the portrait as well as Mrs. Allhusen’s initial impressions of the painting itself.

Once the treatment is completed, the Northwestern University Libraries will host a reception to unveil the newly conserved Mrs. Augustus Allhusen and to recognize the support of the Alumnae of Northwestern in preserving this important painting.


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.

Jul 102015


Northwestern University Library is home to one of the largest collections of original source materials relating to the Siege and Commune of Paris (ca. 1870-1871). The collection includes newspapers, books, posters, pamphlets, caricatures, and photographs. During 2013-14, a large-scale project was undertaken to digitize over 1200 of the photographs, now viewable here. Many of these photographs are housed in albums which needed to be stabilized before they could be safely handled and imaged. In order to capture information on the backs of the photos, such as photographers’ stamps and handwritten notations, the decision was made to temporarily remove the photos from the albums wherever possible and scan them individually. As Project Conservator for the Siege Digitization project, my role was to treat the damaged albums and act as the conservation liaison. I worked closely with Special Collections and Digital Collections staff to develop a streamlined workflow for tracking the albums and consulted on safe handling techniques.

The first phase of the project was to treat a dozen damaged photo albums prior to re-cataloging and digitization. As professional conservation ethics dictate, all treatment needed to be minimally invasive and retain as much of the original structure as possible. Additionally, the repairs needed to be sturdy, since the albums would be handled by multiple people during the cataloging and digitization processes. Efficiency was also important, as the goal was to have all albums treated within three months in order to stay on track with the project schedule.

No two albums in the collection are alike, making this project a nice overview of 19th century album structures. Approximately half of the albums have thick, laminate pages with pre-cut windows into which mounted photographs, like cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards, may be inserted. The remaining albums contain photos adhered directly to the pages. The albums exhibited the kind of damage one would expect to find in a collection of commercially-produced albums that have been handled extensively over the past 140 years, including worn covering material, damaged spines and endcaps, splitting joints, and detached boards.

Many of the pre-cut windows were torn at the edges, evidence that the photographs had been previously removed and replaced. In some instances the photos were misaligned or slipping out of their windows. The photographs themselves, the majority of which are albumen prints, are in fair condition; most exhibit some discoloration and fading but only a very few are bent or torn.

Treatment of the albums included surface cleaning, spine and joint repairs with toned linen and long-fiber paper, consolidation of the leather and board corners, and hinge repairs to reinforce board attachment. Some repairs, like mending the torn edges of the pre-cut windows, were postponed until after completion of the digitization phase of the project.

About six months after the treatment phase of the project was complete, we moved on to phase two, removing photos from the window albums for individual scanning. The goal was to set up a workflow that would minimize handling of the fragile photographs and allow for streamlined movement and tracking of the albums between Special Collections, Preservation, and Digital Collections.

The initial plan was to place each photograph in a thin Mylar® sling, allowing for easy removal and replacement by digitization staff. However, we determined that the bulk and weight of adding so much Mylar® to the albums would strain the already weak bindings. Also, having the Mylar® slings there might encourage more handling of the photos in the future, which we are hoping to discourage by providing high-quality digital surrogates. Our solution was to have each album pass through the conservation lab on its  way to and from the imaging studio. I removed each photograph by slipping a thin bone folder underneath to help ease them out of the windows. Each photo was placed in a numbered paper folder and sent to Digital Collections for scanning.

This image below illustrates the workflow for this phase of the project. (Click to enlarge. Note: SPEC = Special Collections, DC = Digital Collections.)

Project Workflow

Project Workflow (click to enlarge)

At first glance, this seems like a lot of back and forth and possibly not the most streamlined approach, but it turned out to be advantageous in a number of ways. Most importantly, it meant that I was the only person doing the actual removal and replacement of the photos, minimizing the risk of further damage to the album pages. Another advantage of this particular workflow was that the albums were returned to the conservation lab after being scanned, which allowed me to complete treatments—like mending torn pages—once the photos had been replaced. It was also a chance to check up on treatments completed six months earlier. The albums had been handled extensively by multiple people since I’d last seen them and I was happy to observe that most of the repairs remained intact. In the few instances where my previous repairs turned out to be not quite sturdy enough, I had the opportunity to perform touch-up treatment before sending the albums back to Special Collections.

Another success of this project was improved communication between the three departments. Digital Collections shared their Google Docs project calendar with me so that I would know when to expect the next albums being routed to the conservation lab, which helped me plan my work and keep the project running on schedule. As a result of the Siege project and other similar efforts, both Special Collections and Digital Collections staff are increasingly likely to ask Preservation staff for advice on safe handling and consultation on a range of material- and condition-related issues.

Jun 302015

The renovation of our conservation lab has provided us with an opportunity to transform our working environment into a flexible workspace that can be adjusted to the various projects entering the lab.  This post will discuss why the conservation lab is being renovated and provide an update on the current state of the project.  A future post will include before and after photos, feature some of our ideas on how to maximize space, and discuss a few of the customized features we’ve incorporated.

Much has changed since the Preservation Department was established in 1984 with 3 full-time employees. We have significantly expanded the scope of our preservation and conservation activities, and as a result the department has grown to 14 staff members, most of whom work either full or part-time in the conservation lab. The work currently being done in the lab is a mix of single item treatment, general collections care, conservation research, exhibits preparation, large rehousing projects, and treatment of oversize items.  With only 6 built-in workbenches and 1 large communal table, staff had to share workspace on a regular basis, with little possibility of reconfiguring the space for special projects. Due to high demand and the lack of communal space, the large table needed to be reserved.  This led to multiple large scale projects that needed to be carefully coordinated and sometimes resulted in project delays.  The lab no longer functioned for the work we were doing.

Susan Russick and I conducted an assessment of the lab space in the spring of 2012.  In that report, several items were noted that needed to be addressed: modifying the workbenches, creating a permanent space for scientific equipment, increasing storage, and improving the space for chemical and wet treatment.

We began working with an architect and University Facilities on the scope and design of the lab space in late 2013.  Construction began in January 2015.  We were fortunate to gain 260 square feet from an adjoining office; it was a modest but very welcome addition to the lab.  Our biggest challenge was to find a way to maximize the flexibility and storage capacity of the additional space we had been allotted.  To that end, we created an open concept lab.  By removing 2 walls, we opened the space considerably.  The old photo documentation room will become a space for large equipment and the old dirty room will be incorporated into the new wet area.  The redesigned wet area will allow staff to fully utilize the space by having adjacency to the large communal table and to the fume hood.  An additional vent hood over the washing sink will allow us to safely use solvents in that area.

In order to move oversize supplies and objects into the lab, we have increased the width of the door.  It was important to us that the entrance doors included large glass panels.  We wanted to showcase the work being done in the lab and make the space more inviting and less hidden from public view.

To use conservation terminology, we are currently in the ‘during’ phase of renovation.  In the coming weeks, new workbenches will be installed, the additional office space will be finished, and storage areas will be reconfigured.  Our goal is to have the renovation complete in July 2015.

Jun 172015

I have spent the past year preparing for a course that Tonia Grafakos and I will teach on an Italian Stiff Board Vellum Binding with Slotted Spine for the Montefiascone Conservation Project Summer School. I am excited and honored to be a part of the program this year, which will celebrate 25 years of teaching preservation, conservation, and bookbinding history at the Seminario Barbarigo.

I attended my first course at Montefiascone in 1998. Having recently completed an internship at the Library of Congress, which included working on a pigment consolidation project for a collection of illuminated manuscripts, I was eager to learn more about the techniques used to create these manuscripts, and Cheryl Porter’s course on “Re-creating the Medieval Palette” presented an ideal combination of lecture and hands-on practice. The process of grinding minerals and boiling organic matter to create a range of color opened my eyes to the incredible value of recreating historical processes: understanding how an object was created through practicing historical techniques can lead to unique insights into how to go about conserving that object. In this sense, learning how to recreate historical processes and techniques becomes a fundamental aspect of training and professional development for a conservator.


Over the past 25 years, the Montefiascone Conservation Project has developed into a well-established international training ground for conservators, bookbinders and scholars: a unique place to explore bookbinding technique, book history and conservation issues in a collaborative and creative environment. The book program in particular has developed into one of the best ways to study historical structures, often in the context of a specific bookbinding selected from some of the premier rare book collections in the world.

This summer, we will be teaching the slotted parchment structure using the Northwestern Hesiod, a copy of Hesiodou tou Askraiou Erga kai hemerai (the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days), printed by Bartolomeo Zanetti in Venice in 1537. The printed text is derived from a 15th century Greek manuscript currently held by the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. In preparing the course, I have been thinking about the larger issues surrounding why we study historical book structures and why the construction of historical models is so critical to the study of book conservation.

1. Developing and refining conservation skills.

Constructing historical models allows the conservator to develop bookbinding and conservation skills in a way that treatment alone does not. While most book conservators have studied traditional bookbinding techniques, such as covering with leather or constructing brass clasps, these skills are infrequently required in modern book conservation and are all too often lost. Maintaining these skills allows us to use them when needed and appropriate. More importantly, however, the continued refinement of these traditional skills allows us to spot variations in technique on the historic bindings we handle. Being able to distinguish variations can assist in dating or identifying the region of creation and lead to further insights in to the spread of bookbinding technique.

On a more personal level for the conservator, constructing a book from the beginning allows for a free expression of intent not always possible in conservation treatment. Conservation has always been an exercise in compromise and balance: artifactual value, curatorial needs, and the changing political and cultural norms that guide our work are all factors which influence the final product. At a time when so much of our work is driven by external factors beyond collections care – digitization initiatives and exhibition schedules chief among them – having the time to get lost in the details of a specific book, if only for week, can be both invigorating and rejuvenating.

2. Gaining insight into historical techniques.

There are two common approaches to recreating historical book structures: 1)constructing a facsimile binding which combines aspects of the most typical examples of the structure being studied; and 2)recreating a specific book. Both methods allow for the development of the hand skills discussed above. However, the latter approach allows us to look more closely into the physical aspects of a specific object, often requiring a higher degree of attention to detail in order to make the facsimile function in the same way.

The process of reproducing a specific binding challenges our assumptions about how the object was created in the first place and invites us to investigate specific components in detail. In the case of the Northwestern Hesiod, trying to achieve specific results has led us to a greater understanding of how the book was produced, including how the pasteboards were constructed and how the covering vellum was processed.

We look at an object and think we know how it was created, but until we try to replicate the technique, we don’t really know. With the Northwestern Hesiod, we conducted numerous experiments in order to create a modern pasteboard that mimicked the weight, feel and function of the original. The process of making these sample boards led to greater insights into the role of the pasteboard in controlling the movement of the covering vellum. As a result, one component of our course will focus on the best way to create pasteboard using modern materials.

The covering vellum also posed a challenge. After experiments with various thicknesses of vellum and various methods of application, we have developed a technique for covering with unlined vellum which greatly simplifies the process. Careful study of the covering vellum, which we believe to be a recycled 15th century manuscript heavy scraped or sanded on one side to remove the original text, led to collaboration with Jesse Meyer at Pergamena to custom produce remarkably thin vellum for our project.


3. Engaging in scholarly research.

In preparing the course on the Northwestern Hesiod, we had the opportunity to engage in traditional scholarly research at a level beyond what is typical of our day-to-day work. Our research with the Hesiod began as an effort to understand more about the slotted parchment structure and to quantify holdings in North American research libraries. Our goal was to build on research by Silvia Pugliese and, specifically, to determine the prevalence of slotted parchment bindings in collections outside Italy. In the process of studying slotted parchment bindings, however, our interest developed into learning more about Bartolomeo Zanetti and other books he printed during his time in Venice. We wanted to understand how these volumes fit into the larger economic and social context of the period, especially the rise of Protestantism and the effect of the Catholic Counter-Reformation on the Venetian book trade.

During a research trip to Venice, we had the opportunity to study the 15th century manuscript by Demetrio Damilas, Marc. Gr. IX 6 (coll.1006), which Zanetti used to create the 1537 Hesiod. In fact, the 1537 Hesiod is notable for the extensive scholia, or notes, which were copied from the Marciana manuscript. Zanetti’s efforts to edit and reproduce the scholia are remarkable. The way in which the printed book reflects the original manuscript is a fascinating case study of the intersection between manuscript and print culture and represents another aspect of research which will be discussed in our course.

Marc. gr. IX, 6 (coll. 1006)

Detail of the 15th century manuscript Zanetti consulted to produce the printed book.

Having the opportunity to engage in this level of scholarly research is important for the conservator. Understanding how individual objects are used by researchers, putting ourselves in the role of those researchers, helps inform the decisions we make about preserving artifactual value and makes us more aware of ways in which our collections are being used by scholars.

4. Collaborating with colleagues in other fields.

Our interest in the Northwestern Hesiod has allowed us to make connections with experts in the fields of both Renaissance Studies and Classical Studies. Learning more about Hesiod and Greek scholarship in the Renaissance has led us to a better understanding of why so many books were being printed in Greek in the early 16th century and the role of Greek language in the development of Italian Humanism. Learning more about the efforts of 14th century scholars such as Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarca to revive the study of Greek and the importance of work by early teachers of Greek such as Manuel Chrysoloras has given us a better understanding of how and why the Venetian book trade developed as it did in the early 16th century and why the study of Greek texts was so important at this time.

In addition, our interest in the covering vellum and what the recycled manuscript might reveal has led to consultation with NU-ACCESS and the possibility of research using multispectral imaging and X-ray fluorescence to uncover the text on the manuscript.

We are particularly interested in the manuscript text as it may shed new light on the kinds of manuscripts which were being dismantled during the early 16th century. It is possible that the extensive marginal notes on the manuscript may reveal unique commentary, even if the principal text is not itself unique.


The making of historical book models represents one of the best ways to explore firsthand the complex nature of book structure and to develop insights into conservation technique. Moreover, the study and construction of historical models represents a unique opportunity for anyone, from amateur bookbinder to experienced conservator, to engage with history in a way that few people can.  If you have never experienced the Montefiascone Conservation Project Summer School, I invite you to join us for this year’s extraordinary anniversary program.

Jun 092015

Throughout the year, the Preservation Department selects materials from the circulating and special collections for deacidification. We discuss priorities with curators and pinpoint book and paper collections that may be acidic and would benefit from the process to add an alkaline buffer that neutralizes the acids. While single-item treatment is performed in-house, our deacidification vendor, Preservation Technologies, LP, processes the larger collections.


Art Collection staff came to us with a mass deacidification project to address collection materials that have acidic binders. These board binders were sewn or stapled onto small paperback books, most likely done in the 1940s-60’s. They identified 1,400 items with these binders. There are several challenges of dealing with such a large amount of books: time, space, and access.

The project was initiated as the conservation lab was closing for renovation, and this seemed like a great project to start during that time since we can process mass deacidification shipments in other spaces. But even with lab access, there is not room to store 1,400 items – especially as the project would take around a year to complete, roughly estimating. Adding to this, all of the items are circulating and should not be off the shelf and unavailable for that long.

In order to efficiently handle all of these factors we decided to start with a small sample shipment of 150 items to get an idea of how this project would proceed. After evaluating the group, we realized only 30% of the items could be deacidified. The remaining books had clay coated pages (which cannot be treated) or were already brittle. While the original aim was to deacidify the entire collection, it became clear that the majority of the project would instead focus on binding, shelf preparation, and enclosures. The workflow would require a high level of item evaluation to decide how to process each individual book.

The resulting treatment of the each book varies. Some books are deacidified then commercially bound; some books can only be removed from their acidic covers and pamphlet sewn or boxed; other items may just need deacidification. Making such individual decisions for each item requires good organization and detailed tracking. Clear and frequent communication with coworkers within Preservation and Art and our vendors is also necessary.

Working through a collection of this size is always a challenging task and attention to detail is necessary with the multiple phases of this project. Though the majority of the books cannot be deacidified, the collection will benefit from the numerous rehousings and enclosures to address the preservation needs of hundreds of old and ephemeral titles.



May 292015


Earlier this month, 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. Last week’s blog post summarized the first presentation, outlining the department’s protocol for housing objects in the library’s distinctive collections. Today’s post summarizes the second presentation, about using a smartphone app to document condition issues during a collection survey.

As highlighted on this blog during Preservation Week, a comprehensive survey of Northwestern’s painting collection is underway. Phase One of the survey assessed approximately a dozen of the most significant paintings – those collected by Charles Deering. These paintings have high exhibition value and are considered “Special Collections” paintings. Since conservators on staff are trained in book and paper conservation, the library contracts with local paintings conservators and art handlers to survey, treat, and store these paintings.

Phase Two of the painting survey, currently underway, is focused on the roughly 75 “General Collections” paintings stored throughout the library. These are primarily portraits of former professors, deans, and university trustees painted by local artists. The university has no plans to display them and they are likely to remain in permanent storage. If that situation ever changes, paintings specialists will be brought in; in the meantime, these paintings are cared for in-house. The Preservation Department is documenting their condition and improving storage.


As last week’s post explained, everything in the library’s collections has to fit on standard size shelves. This means that, until long-term specialty storage plans come to fruition, large framed oil paintings are stored on pallets in many different areas and buildings. Staff traipsed to the storage areas instead of bringing the painting to the lab. Because of this, a streamlined way to annotate images of the paintings was necessary in order to indicate the most significant condition issues. These images would be included in a FilemakerPro database alongside the completed survey form, as well as printed out and attached to the wrapped paintings where they would serve as cautionary labels for anyone handling the works in the future.

Articheck, an app specifically designed for documentation of museum collections, was initially considered. The app’s advantages included allowing notes to be made directly on the digital image and indicating the severity of damage. However, many of the features were either redundant or too specific for this particular project.

Notability, a note-taking app that is frequently used in educational settings, offered more flexibility. It is easy to use and is very customizable.

For the survey of “General Collections” paintings, preservation staff members take a photo of the painting with a smartphone or tablet, open the Notability app, create a new note, and import the photo.


Next, the custom-designed “stoplight” key is imported into the same note. Creating this key took some time to develop, but the advantage of creating a key that reflects the level detail needed for this specific project is that a new key could easily be developed for a different survey or disaster response situation.


The red, yellow, and green colors indicate priority or severity of the condition issue. The highlighter tool is used for media issues, a dotted pencil line is used for support issues, and a solid pencil line is used for stretcher or frame issues. Once the image has been annotated, the note can be exported as a PDF. A digital copy of the file is saved in the FilemakerPro database record for that painting, and a hard copy is attached to the wrapped painting alongside the identification label.


The painting survey is ongoing, and the department continues to experiment with various features of the app. Using Notability has streamlined the survey process considerably and it has a lot of potential for efficient note-taking and labeling, especially in disaster, triage, and large collection survey situations.