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.