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.