To Preserve and Protect

Northwestern conservation experts rely on eclectic knowledge to safeguard, repair items in the Libraries’ collection

By Matt GolosinskiApril 12, 2019

It’s not gremlins that are destroying the paper on Kimberly Kwan’s workbench in the lower level of University Library on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. It’s acids from the wood pulp itself that are turning the pages brittle, devouring it from the inside.

“Chemical reactions,” says Kwan, a current conservation fellow in the Preservation Department, which is responsible for protecting  the Libraries’ collections in all formats — from books and artworks to audiovisual, archival materials, and more unusual objects, such as hand-painted cobwebs or a set of suitcase-sized “perceptual control machines” in the William Powers archive.

Still, it’s difficult not to imagine something sinister at work when Northwestern’s conservation experts start talking about “inherent vice.” The term conjures Biblical notions of original sin, but actually refers to intrinsic material flaws that doom an item to degrade more quickly than it otherwise might. In some cases, modern industrial advances have caused more problems than centuries-old techniques: switching from linen and cotton rag papers to wood papers in the late 19th century, for example, meant adding acid to break down the pulp, says Kwan. Compared to “really lovely 15th-century papers,” she says these recent products can be difficult to maintain.

There are other nemeses.

“Iron gall ink will burn through paper and turn it into a doily,” says Susan Russick, chief conservator. “Verdigris with all its copper content makes it unstable.” Her matter-of-fact tone is that of a detective who has ferreted out malfeasance in multiple forms. And with more than two decades of experience in the field — including stints at the Newberry Library, the Library of Congress, and the National Museum of American History and Nishio Conservation — the former art major has seen plenty: water, fire, bugs, long-term chemical damage, and simply rough handling all exact a toll on a research library’s myriad containers for knowledge.

Russick is one of 11 staff members whose job it is to do battle with these elements, slowing inexorable processes and remedying damage to keep items available for scholarly use at Northwestern Libraries. Preparing items for the shelf is an important and cost-effective part of maintaining the collection. Some treatments can be simple, like board reattachments and spine repairs for circulating books; or more complex, such as humidification and flattening, as in the case of rare materials or non-circulating items. Staff also digitize materials or produce models to extend accessibility of holdings while safeguarding fragile aspects of the collection. They also create custom housings for books, paper, ephemera, and 3D objects. In partnership with a commercial vender, the Preservation Department binds some 15,000 volumes each year.

Along with inherent vice, the Preservation team contends with challenges from insects and mold-inducing humidity to more mundane wear-and-tear. Repairs may require a delicate artist’s brushstroke to apply a tiny piece of Japanese tissue paper, but sometimes more serious physical force is required.

Along one wall in the brightly lit Conservation Lab sit variously sized metal and wood presses, looking like something from a medieval forge. Between their jaws are bound manuscripts, compressed for their own good, undergoing repair and submitting to the pressure that can last days or even weeks, depending on the problem being corrected. Atop most of the presses are whimsical matchbook-sized signs that staff have placed to remind each other not to disturb the “sleeping” item.

“The signs are a bit of fun,” explains Tonia Grafakos, the Marie A. Quinlan director of preservation.

Protecting a ‘massive investment’

Just as in medicine, prevention is better than the cure in the world of archival preservation, says Grafakos. That’s why Libraries closely monitors the climate within its buildings and tracks any potential for pests to impact the collection. Many items, including the more expensive of the Libraries’ approximately 80 paintings, are maintained off-site with a vendor that specializes in art storage. (Much of the art collection, though, is on display.) Books are stored in a purpose-built controlled environment in Oak Grove, Illinois.

“Controlling the environment is by far the best way to protect the collection and our massive investment in it,” says Russick. “Otherwise, we could just work and work and work and it would only make a tiny dent.”

When treatment is required, the Preservation team must consider how to go about it — or whether to repair at all. Some damage may be “part of the history of an object,” says Grafakos. Items that were deliberately altered or otherwise intentionally damaged, such as Glenn Branca’s guitars or Charlotte Moorman’s violins, may argue for more minimal treatments.  “Preservation consults with curators to understand the item,” says Grafakos. “What at first glance is viewed as damage or alterations are actually part of an artist’s process and therefore should be preserved.”

Any work that is done is painstakingly documented in writing and with photographs so that future conservators understand exactly what techniques or materials were used, says Grafakos. That’s valuable, especially if treatments have to be reversed later, perhaps in light of a new, superior method.

In fact, the conservators are continually conducting research to advance their field, even as they go about their daily work. They bring a variety of disciplinary knowledge to those tasks, including art history, chemistry, and materials science. “Whenever you are repairing something, you need to know a lot about the materials you’re working with,” says Kwan, a University of Toronto graduate who discovered a passion for the book as physical object during her undergraduate studies there, before pursuing her master’s degree in conservation at Camberwell College of Arts. “A physical object can tell you about where it’s traveled, who made the thing, and much more.”

These lines of investigation can lead to fascinating interdisciplinary junctions: for example, some current conservation studies focus on historic parchment. By examining the materials, Kwan explains, researchers gain insight into medieval animal husbandry and even can tell what insects were around in the 15th century based on bite marks on parchment skin. (Learn more in this blog post from Russick.)

New treatments and experimental methods

Kwan’s current research examines adhesives and the removal of animal glue from book spines. Such glue was widely used up until the 20th century, she says, and historically there have been many different “recipes,” some of which make removal and reversal more challenging.

“We’re always looking for new solutions and ways of approaching treatments,” she says. “Right now, I’m experimenting with poultice materials and adding different additives to the water so that I can remove animal glue a little more easily.” She’s been exploring potential uses for urea — which was often used in woodworking to keep animal glue more pliable for longer — to help in preservation efforts. “Resoaking the animal glue in urea produces really interesting properties,” she says.

For Grafakos and Russick, one of their goals is to help promote their field, letting more people know that it is a viable career path, albeit a competitive one that can require a person to move around the world in search of training, education, and hands-on experience. Northwestern’s two-year postgraduate fellowship is unusual in allowing both a rich array of research and learning opportunities as well as sufficient time to pursue those inquiries. While there is no one route that people take to become conservators — “it’s often circuitous,” Grafakos says — training in art or art history, or chemistry and anthropology provides some of the core skills and understanding for success.

“I didn’t have any of that,” laughs Grafakos, whose undergraduate background is in English and history. “I didn’t take the fine arts classes, but I was an artsy kid and I’ve always loved the written word.” She says she had to start from scratch when she decided to go to graduate school and move from publishing into conservation.

Russick parlayed her interest in art and anthropology into her current career. She began by volunteering as an objects conservator in Washington, DC, before deciding to specialize in book and paper preservation, in part because of some occupational hazards associated with objects: animal materials were often poisoned with arsenic or DDT, and plants with mercury, she says. Other objects had been stored in poor environmental conditions and exposed to lead and asbestos. After cleaning some objects, the vacuum bags used had to be disposed of as toxic waste. Russick decided that paper was safer, though still fascinating and challenging.

“Paper is extremely complex,” she says, adding that conservation attracts those who love continual discovery. “In this field, there’s a huge professional development commitment to being a lifelong learner. We can’t just stop when we graduate from the programs. We have to keep going, push ourselves, or else we’re instantly behind.”