Conservation Intern Works with Civil War Materials

From the archives…

The University of Virginia Library offered a six-week conservation exhibition internship this summer to help with preparation for the Special Collections exhibit about the Civil War due to go up this October.

Jeanne Goodman was selected for the internship and working under the supervision of our library book conservator, Eliza Gilligan, performed conservation treatments and exhibit prep on items selected for the show.

Jeanne says: This summer I had the opportunity to work within the University of Virginia’s Special Collection Library to help prepare an upcoming exhibit on the Civil War. Over a hundred items were selected by five different curators and librarians to create a view of the Civil War from the perspective of Virginia.

Where to begin?

I drove here straight from Boston on a two-day road trip and started first thing Monday morning back in the beginning of July. I met with Eliza early for coffee at Rare Book School and she showed me around Alderman Library as well as the preservation department on the second floor. I said hello to all the preservation staff and then off we went to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections, where I would be spending about fifty percent of my time. The other half of my time would be spent in the conservation lab, located behind Bavaro Hall in Dell 2. In the exhibits office, located in the basement of the Special Collections building, all the items selected for the exhibit were collected on five shelves according to curator. First things first, Eliza and I looked at every item so I could become familiar with their condition and discuss probable treatments.

Will the item be mounted on a wall or lying flat in a case? Does it have to sit in a book cradle? Is the item going to be digitally scanned? What kind of neighbor will it have in the exhibit case? These are all questions that go through your mind as you assess each item.

Divide and conquer

After assessment, we grouped the items according to types of treatments. Treatments such as dry cleaning and small tear repair that required minimal equipment could be done in the exhibit office. More involved treatments such as washing and pressure sensitive tape removal would be done at the conservation lab. All items treated in the conservation lab were photographed before and after treatment by the University’s Digital Services department.

Dry cleaning

Dry cleaning means just that: cleaning the surface of the paper with dry methods. We used soot sponges, white vinyl erasers, and/or eraser crumbs (finely grated vinyl erasers). Depending on the condition of the paper and the media (writing or printing), we could use one or all three or none at all (which happened in the case of one letter where the ink wasn’t stable).

Tear repair

Small tears around the edges of a document are not uncommon and if the paper is fragile (such as a 150-year old-newspaper) a little wear and tear is expected. We were not trying to make the items look new, but rather to stabilize them to make them safer to handle. A small tear near a corner of a newspaper can turn into a several-inches-long tear or result in the complete loss of the corner. In the case of this letter in the picture, it sustained damage at some point when it was folded, an impact that resulted in multiple tears around a puncture that repeats across the letter. I was able to mend the tears using thin Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste as well as flatten areas around the tear so the writing was more legible.

Letter with puncture pattern


When deciding whether to wash an item we look at the potential benefits for the longevity of the paper balanced with factors such as strength of the paper and stability of the media. Washing is not a cosmetic treatment. Although sometimes a side-benefit of washing is the paper improving visually, the aim of the treatment is to improve the longevity of the piece itself. Just like us, paper is an organic material that can degrade due to environmental factors like light and pollution. Putting paper in a bath of deionized water can help loosen acids that have built up within the paper fibers and release the acid into the water. This was the case with several items selected for the exhibit.


See more info about this type of treatment. 


Since its advent in 1845, people have recognized pressure sensitive tape’s convenience to hang, mount and repair just about anything and so tape can be found in most archival and library collections.  While tape is usually applied with the best of intentions, it does have a detrimental effect on the stability of paper. The adhesive (synthetic or natural rubber) can discolor, harden, ooze oil, or penetrate into the paper. The backing (also known as the carrier) can be made of a variety of materials, like fabric, paper, or plastic that present their own problems. As the carrier degrades over time, it can shrink or warp and cause damage to the paper beyond the original tear. These components can also affect media (printing, pen ink) causing them to bleed or peel off the surface of the paper.

As a general rule, it is beneficial to remove pressure sensitive tape whenever possible.

More about tape and its removal.

Prep for display

Each of our curators contributed to a spreadsheet where we listed all the items, relevant information from their records, and what part of each item was to be the focus of display in the exhibit. After surveying each item carefully and referencing what else would be shown with that item, recommendations were made on lighting and length of display for each by conservator Eliza Gilligan. Things to consider: What is the composition of the media and paper? Are there elements that are light sensitive that will fade or change with extended periods of time under intense light? What kind of condition is the item already in and should we take special considerations such as a custom-built book cradle to better support the entire item?

Items that would be displayed flat, such as letters, broadsides, and newspapers, were “Backed and Wrapped”. Matboard was cut-to-size for each item and wrapped with a piece ofclear polyester film, which is attached to the back of the mat board. Polyester film is used because it is transparent, chemically stable, reflective, and helps act as a gas and odor barrier. By backing and wrapping each individual item, we provide support and ease of handling but also an environmental buffer.

Thanks UVa Library!

Working on this exhibit provided me with an opportunity not only to see what’s in the collection, but also to spend a concentrated amount of time with a group of objects from the same period and geographical area. The sampling of materials showcased what was readily available to people during wartime economy such as stationery and ink for writing, paper and printing technology for broadsides and newspapers. When treating the items, I learned more about how the materials age and degrade. This will help my future decision-making regarding treatment and conservation work. Paid internships like this one in conservation are actually relatively rare, so I’m very grateful to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library for providing it and thank you to all the staff that took the time to help me complete this project.


BIO: Jeanne received her MLIS from Simmons College, trained for two years in bookbinding at the North Bennett Street School, and has held other conservation internships at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Boston Athenaeum. After her internship here, she plans to take a road trip up and down the east and southern regions to visit conservation labs, discover hidden collections, and eat as much local cuisine as possible.

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