Summer in Preservation

I had a wonderful summer. What’s more, I had a productive summer. You may not realize how heretical those two statements were for me to make until you consider how many times in the past I’ve loudly opined that it’s impossible to combine the two (work and joy).

In any case, I did have a wonderfully productive (productively wonderful?) summer. In June, I got an internship at the library preservation department.* It rocked. I had a great boss. I got to work on some cool projects, all of which involved doing things that I have never done before. I hope a description of these projects make them sound as fun as they were to do. Here goes

  • Condition review of serials: the university is a partner in the  Western Regional Storage Trust. WEST (not WRST) is a collaborative effort among a number of universities to create a depository for print serials. The idea is that all participating universities will have access to the print journals kept at WEST and hence can cut down on their duplicate acquisition and storage efforts. The journals WEST holds, in turn, will come from the best-kept and most complete copies from among its members. This involves comparing all copies that current members currently own to identify the “best”. Enter yours truly!

I designed a survey tool and used it to examine individual journals eligible for WEST inclusion. Because the conditions I note of each journal are to be compared to those of copies held at other institutions, it was crucial that I looked for specific, agreed-upon features in each volume and use standard terminology to describe them. After I had assessed the titles (roughly 250 bound volumes in all), I recorded their conditions in the OCLC database using a format known as MARC standards.

Getting a glimpse of what catalogers do

The exercise with MARC reminds me of the programming I had done in the past since the MARC format is fairly rigid and heavily rules-based (don’t forget the delimiter or else your program won’t compile!). There is definitely a right and (many) a wrong way to create and modify MARC Holdings records, part of a complex process known as cataloging. I was lucky to receive help from an experienced cataloger, and I’m happy to report that the OCLC database survived without any crashes from my meddling with it. This experience, plus the reading of Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography, gave me glimpse into the world of cataloging. It’s amazing, and really complicated, what these people do.

  • Photography of papyri: my other project was based out of the conservation lab, where Beth, the paper conservator, has been working on a number of papyri fragments for the last three years. These papyri are 2000 years old, give or take a couple of centuries. They were excavated off mummies in Giza, Egypt, and then, after exchanging hands at least twice, landed at our august institution as a gift from a Chinese (!) scholar. For 2000-years-old papyri, they were in amazingly robust shape (I’m certainly not going to keep as well in 2 millennia), but they still required a lot of conservation work, which Beth has been lavishing on them for the past years.

My job was to come in and document her work by taking photos of the fragments. The goal is to make these photos available to researchers interested in their texts, by either a) keeping a physical copy, or the CD of them at special collections, b) mounting them on the library website so anybody can access them electronically, c) submitting them to APIS, a website hosting papyri from many different institutions and which “contains physical descriptions and bibliographic information about the papyri and other written materials, as well as digital images and English translations of many of these texts”, or d) some combination of above.

One of the things I enjoyed the most in doing this project was the variety of materials that I handled. Although most of the fragments are papyri, i.e. made from a reed that grew along the Nile, many of them are paper and at least one is  a parchment.  This presence of the paper fragments raise an interesting question: since paper was not introduced to Egypt (from China, along the Silk Road) until several centuries later than when these papyri were created, what are they doing in the collection? Could it be that they are paper on which an ancient librarian took notes and are an account of the papyri inventory in his collection? How intriguing!

The papyri also come in a number of languages: Greek, Coptic (which resembles Greek to a great extent), Demotic, and Arabic. Alas, I can read none of them, but isn’t it eerie and wonderful to be in the contact with evidence that people actually spoke and wrote in Demotic, a language we only know from the Rosetta Stone? 2000 years is a long time in human history, and these papyri fragments are a visceral reminder of how much things had changed in the interval that separates us and their creators.

However, by far the best thing about this project is that I got to work by the side of the conservators. Both Beth and David (the book conservator) took time to share with me the different projects on which they were working (even when the projects had nothing to do with my work). I was shown stitching and repairs, bindings and sewings, and pages of books happily bathing in filtered water. Yes, books and water! Did you know that bathing loose pages of books not only wash out dirt & other impurities, strengthen the hydrogen bonds in the fiber, thus making the paper stronger and more flexible,  but also — and this is crazy — wash out water stains. Water can wash out water stains!  Who would’ve thunk it? The conservators so graciously let me pick their brains (Quick! What’s the difference between parchment and vellum? A: In practice, nothing. However, vellum has the same root as “veal”, and so denotationally refers to calf skin, while parchment subsumes other animals’ hides, e.g. goat, sheep, as well.), and I so dearly wish that I had more time to spend in their enjoyable & edifying company.

2000-year-old papyri from a mummy

Verso (back) of the same fragment. Doesn’t this look like it came off a foot?

  • Selection of materials for mass-deacidification: I’ve written previously about the danger of acidic paper. The Library of Congress, on the other hand, actually did something about it. It collaborated with a company called Preservation Technologies and developed a process by the name of Bookkeeper. During this process, books are immersed in a magnesium oxide solution, thus allowing the magnesium oxide molecules to bind to the acid and effectively neutralize it. Presto! Books with “a life expectancy of a minimum of three to five times longer than that which has not been treated”.

    Books taking a magnesium oxide bath.

So far, so good, except that yours truly still hasn’t done anything. That changed when my boss decided to pilot the use of Bookkeeper at our institution. I got involved in the process early on and was able to accompany Kate when she went to talk with the Slavic curators on whose collections we were to do the pilot. Things went well, and I found myself immersed in the Polish St. Hyacinth collection. I worked on selecting 1000 books out of a collection 10 times that size to send to Preservation Technologies for treatment. Before starting, I had read the literature on mass deacidification, paying close attention to the characteristics that make a book a good candidate for the process, and figured out a workflow for tackling the project. When it came time for action, I admit the process, which involved looking at each volume individually, was a lot of work. A lot of grabbing, testing, moving, boxing, lifting, and . . . repeat. I never would’ve learned about the process at the level of detail I did otherwise. In the end, I hope that my brain got some nuggets of valuable information while my muscles got stronger. All without the gym!

So that’s my summer in preservation. Really great, cool, eye-opening, and new-experiences-and-learning-opportunities -galore. I’m now applying for an internship at the preservation lab of my new school. My fingers are crossed for being able to report on “autumn in preservation”. Stay tuned!

(Magnesium bath photo is from the Library of Congress.)


* In case you wonder what  a library preservation unit is, it is a department whose job can be summarized as “making sure things in the library collections are, well, preserved”. In practice, such a department is usually split into 3 arms: conservation, commercial binding, and (preventive) preservation.

Conservation consists of intensive, invasive treatments of single items. In the art world, this process may be referred to as “restoration”. Conservators often work on old, rare materials, whether they are books, manuscripts, archives, objects, or 2000-year old papyri. They repair bindings, mend papers, construct appropriate housing for objects, and do a million other things that I’ve never dreamed of. They’re the artist of the trade.

Commercial binding may sound less glamorous, but it is, in fact, where the biggest chunk of a preservation department budget goes (not counting salaries). Commercial binding ensures that serials are kept together and books last the long haul.

Preservation is the management arm of the group. In addition to overseeing conservation and binding, tasks that fall under the preservation umbrella includes: ensuring a safe environment for collection storage, developing emergency preparedness plans, working with curators and other library staff to implement sound preservation principles, and, last even if least, hiring awesome preservation interns.

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One Response to Summer in Preservation

  1. Esa says:

    Oops!! I thought I had commented on this post and it went to the one before that. I’m not sure if you can perform some jiggery-pokery to put it where I intended.

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