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.

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