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 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.